I am in front of a microphone, and my heart is pounding so hard that it could leap out of my mouth. My armpits are sweating profusely, I feel like I am having an out of body experience, and my mind is racing at warp speed. In a few seconds, I am about to do my very first stand up comedy show.
To put this in perspective, I am terrified of public speaking, and even turned down a chance to be valedictorian as I was too afraid to speak in front of everyone. I also was born with a hearing impairment, and the doctors told my parents that I would never be able to speak.
The doctors were obviously wrong, and I can speak although I have a speech impediment, and a stand up comedy show is the ultimate challenge because lots of factors come into play. I need to be able to enunciate the words clearly, as a lot of jokes hinge on key words, and if a word is missed, the joke falls flat. The timing, rhythm, and pacing is critical, both for speech comprehension and for the flow of the comedy show. If I am off, I can “step on the laughter” meaning that if I rush to my next joke, the audience doesn’t have time to laugh. Or give the audience time to process my set up of my joke.
I also need to be able to read my audience, and understand where they are laughing the most, or where they are not laughing, and adjust my material accordingly. But then the next challenge comes to play – is the audience not laughing because I am not funny or because they don’t understand my speech, or is it a combination of both?
By far my biggest fear is the dreaded fake smile and the embarrassed sympathy laugh from the audience. The one where people look at me, and feel sorry for the “deaf guy who is trying hard”.
So why on earth would I even want to do a stand up comedy show?
Because I love challenges and I wanted to conquer my fear of public speaking. I feel so alive when I am challenged and it broadens my horizons. That sounds great on paper, but when I go to actually do the challenge, I go through a period of bitterly cursing putting myself into the situation.
Going back to my first stand up comedy show, I step forward onto the stage, and pick up the microphone with my sweaty palms. The chatter in my brain miraculously clears, and I do my first joke. Then I hear something that sounds like laughter but due to my hearing impairment, it sounds blurry as if it is an underwater rumbling. I look more closely at the audience and see that they actually laugh.
Yes. I made them laugh, and I feel less pressure. I crack another joke, and then I hear the underwater rumbling sound again. Laughter! And at that moment, I was hooked and seduced by the stand up comedy mistress who can be cruel at times.
I have now gone on to do numerous comedy shows, and have performed in front of thousands of people, but my first show was one of my most stressful experiences. Some of my earlier material makes me cringe when I review it. As it turns out, the story of me doing stand up comedy became a documentary which aired across the United States and Canada on PBS and CBC.
How was I able to conquer my fear and do the stand up comedy show?
Some of the lessons I learned along the way may help you.
FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN DO, NOT WHAT YOU CAN’T DO
I focused on what I can do, not what I can’t do. I may not be the easiest person to understand but there’s other things I can do to compensate. I worked hard on having expressive facial and body movements. And I could focus on my stand up material regarding my life as a deaf person, as I knew I could have an endless source of humorous material, given the numerous idiosyncrasies I have encountered in life as a hearing impaired person. In addition my material is unique and is not time sensitive.
DEVELOP A STRONG SUPPORT NETWORK
I knew I could not do this alone, and relied on my strong support network, which I have developed for years which has helped me in so many areas of life.
Taking this back to stand up comedy, as I didn’t know the first thing about stand up comedy, I took a course, so I had help with ideas regarding how to do comedy material. I also practiced with my friends, and had speech therapy.
All of the preparation and analysis can only take you so far. Sometimes, you just got to do it! Take the plunge into the abyss. The more you do it, the less intimidating your fears will be.