Overcoming a Fear - Stand Up Comedy.
It’s a Sunday night and I’m watching Netflix. Dave Chapelle has just dropped two stand up comedy specials.
During a recent trip in New York, I visited the Comedy Cellar and heard stories about how Chapelle would rock up and test his material for 6-8 hours at a time, joint in hand. A true master of his craft.
While watching the special, I couldn’t stop admiring the talent of these comedians, how confident they were, how scary the craft is and how difficult it must be to make people laugh consistently.
I turned to my wife Chantelle and asked “should I give stand-up a crack”. She laughed and replied “why would you, I've literally never heard you tell a joke!”
We both agreed that pursuing stand up was a stupid idea and just for good measure Chantelle reminded me that she was the funny one in our relationship (which she most definitely is) 😂.
This was someone else's adventure, I would give it a miss.
A few weeks passed and I watched a few more Netflix specials, awestruck by the talent of these masters. But something was different. Every time I watched a special I felt a little dirty, because I was now admiring something that I was too scared to try myself.
So, I started thinking - how does one get into stand-up comedy? Is it purely based on natural ability, on being a ‘funny person’, or is it something that can be learnt?
A quick Google search later I found a crew in Melbourne called The School of Hard Knock Knocks who taught stand-up via an intensive four day workshop. They take students from beginner to writing a 5-minute set, which was then performed in front of a live audience.
Reading the course description give me sweaty palms. It seemed crazy that after four days students would be performing a 5-minute set in front of a hundred people. Talk about jumping into the deep end.
This workshop was one of the scariest things I could think of, it was so far outside my comfort zone. However, if I really wanted to get a taste of what it was like to be a comedian, this seemed like the most direct route.
"I’ll think about it...", I thought to myself.
A few weeks passed. I kept following the site, trying to build up the courage to sign up. Finally I sent the team an email asking for a discount which I secretly hoped they would decline, which they did.
Another few weeks went by and I received an email saying there was still early bird registration left for the upcoming workshop, if I wanted it.
I didn’t want it 😂. But if I said no to this offer, this chapter was likely over and deep down I would know that I didn’t have the courage to overcome my fear.
The date of the workshop approached, I considered calling in sick or postponing but I had recently made a promise to myself that I would commit to doing what I said I would do.
The class commenced. Fear clearly claimed a couple in the class who bailed or were no shows.
We were from all walks of life, scared shitless, inexperienced and unsure what was about to hit us.
We were all about to enter a world where the stakes were high.
The goal of comedy is to make the audience laugh - it’s binary. There is no ‘one size fits all’ method to do this and success is black and white. Success is based on one metric, the audience laughs (success) or they don't (fail).
When the audience doesn't laugh, it hurts. The punishment of the silence is brutal and once one of your jokes misses, it gets increasingly harder to get a laugh. Not to mention, at the same time you’re battling with your self confidence, nerves, memory, timing, structure, landing the punchline, the bright light beaming into your face and the audience. As a rookie who's not familiar or confident in their material or delivery, it felt like an extreme sport!
Putting together a quality 5 minute set in four days seemed impossible. During the workshop most of us built our confidence by visiting the bar. I remember by the end of the workshop feeling uncertainty like I’ve never felt before, I had about 10 jokes and most were average. I also had a large group of friends and family who would be in the audience. Witnesses.
The night before, Chantelle helped me confirm that what I had was average and she helped me write some additional jokes (the funny one strikes again).
I'm generally a pretty relaxed person, but on the day of the show my heart rate was up for most of the day. This was the most nervous I'd been in a while.
The show kicked off! The MC did his set for 10 minutes and got the crowd warmed up, it was hard to enjoy his set, because you’re so focussed on your own performance. I would be fourth in the lineup.
As each of my classmates went on stage, I remember feeling so proud of them regardless of the result. I'd seen what every person had gone through to get to that point. Each performer was equally as scared and naked (strictly metaphorically). Some bombed, and as the silence built, the desperation for a laugh increased. You could feel their pain and it only increased your own fear.
I remember trying to breathe and close my eyes to calm my nerves before it was my turn to step on stage.
Who was I kidding? None of it was working. My heart rate was maxing out and the level of adrenaline was about as high as I’ve ever experienced.
Next minute I'm on stage... telling a sequence of average jokes. Phew! Got some laughs.
I remember thinking "thank fuck it's over" and then embracing the euphoric feeling of overcoming a massive fear...it was amazing!
I knew I was shit, but I still appreciated the positive feedback from my friends and family.
And by far the biggest compliment was in regards to the "balls" I showed to give it a go. This was never about becoming a professional stand-up comedian, it was about overcoming a fear and that goal was now ticked.
To my surprise, Morry (The founder) invited me perform at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival as part of a ‘best of’ series, an amazing opportunity for alumni of the course.
I had no intention of ever doing another show, and now I had the opportunity to perform my second ever show as part of one of the world's premier comedy festivals. This was becoming an unexpected adventure and one that was only possible due to the environment and opportunities Morry and his team had created.
The moral here is, don't worry if you're 'shit at something and have no right pursuing it' - give it a crack, embrace the fear and failure moments and see where the adventure leads. The feeling of stepping outside your comfort zone is exciting and rewarding, it's where growth happens.
I’ve now done a handful of shows via The School of Hard Knock Knocks. Including a show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and supporting the legendary Jeff Green. I don’t refer to myself as a ‘comedian’, but I do love and respect the art.
Whether it’s comedy, skydiving or starting a business. Be aware of what scares you and then ask yourself, is this a fear I need to overcome to grow?
I’m excited about performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival again this year as part of The School of Hard Knock Knocks ‘best of’ series.
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