When leading tours for prospective students and their families, I’ll often bring up Austin’s Coffee Shop down the street on Fairbanks, citing their numerous open-mic nights. I always regret bringing this up because as soon as I mention that I occassionally do stand-up there, I’m immediately susceptible to requests for jokes or “something funny.” This is a tricky situation because most of my material is definitely not appropriate for official Rollins tours and because being “funny” is not the kind of thing one easily switches on a whim. I bring Austin’s up as an outlet for student creativity and exploration outside of campus life, not as a brag. After this past weekend, I have no right to be anything close to braggadocios.
Allow me to rewind. I had never tried stand-up before coming to Rollins. I’d always daydream of moonlighting as a stand-up comedian since middle school, but the impulse to actually go for it never occurred to me and opportunities to try open-mic were few and far between and generally in front of peers (clowning around in the back of the classroom is an entirely different beast than putting on your try-hard pants to entertain people while on stage). Not long after arriving at Rollins I found out about Austin’s Coffee Shop and my first experience was attending their stand-up comedy night. There are open-mic nights Sunday through Thursday, ranging from comedy, rap, poetry, and acoustics. After one night I was sold on the place – the atmosphere was warm and welcoming, the audience was far from intimidating and most were there to simply have a good time – many of the “regular” comics even had fan followings. After a few weeks of reconnaissance and thorough research and development, I said “what the hell” and went for it. My rationale was – I just moved from Seattle to Rollins – no one knows me and newcomers were welcome; I figured if this was a terrible, humiliating, misguided venture on my part and I bombed, I could simply fade into the crowd and never be seen again. I’d grow a wicked mustache and no one would recognize me a few weeks later. I went up for my first time, scribbled notes in hand, and to my surprise, I didn’t do that bad. Not to toot my own horn, but I heard laughter, enough to elicit mental fist-pumping and sufficient ego-boosting for a long time after.
I had always daydreamed of moonlighting as a stand-up comedian since middle school, but the impulse to actually go for it never occurred to me.
Thus started my love-hate relationship with stand-up comedy. I didn’t go every week, but I went as often as I could. By the end of freshman year I’d been on stage more than a dozen times and I felt good – I’d have a different set every time and I’d try new jokes as often as I could. Some nights were certainly better than others, others I barely scraped by with bare minimum laughs, but it was better than nothing (and there are those souls unfortunate enough to receive dead silence for their entire duration on stage). But I never felt I was worst-of-the-night. Most of it felt like beginner’s luck, but I couldn’t help but feel this was something not a lot of people get to try and experiment with, so I ran with it.
Everyone likes joking around with friends, but I cannot stress enough how alarmingly different (and harder) it is to aim for the same level of laughter you elicit with your close friends that you go for with a crowd of strangers. There are so many different rules, tactics and strategies that have to be considered and run like clockwork that it becomes a mind exercise that feels at times like an impossible test. Although I don’t rehearse any of my material, I try to keep my jokes in lieu of stories that I know well so that improvisation and “riffing” come naturally and painlessly. Most of the time, I won’t pick out what jokes or material I’m going to use until the night of and in the panic of praying to Zeus-almighty that I won’t choke and die up there, I tend to formulate some kind of shtick that works for the five-minutes I need it to.
The hardest and strangest part of stand-up is understanding that it is essentially all theatre. You are a performer on stage and your job is to entertain those in the audience and cheer them up, however in God’s name you manage to do that. Thus, your best bet on stage is to put on a show, and a damn good one at that. You can be the wittiest son-of-a-bitch the world has ever seen, but if you can’t deliver your self-proclaimed “this shit is gold” in an entertaining and gripping fashion, you might as well publicly feather-and-tar yourself; there is nothing worse than being in front of dozens of people expecting to be impressed only to be a croaking, desperate would-be comic struggling for even a smirk. I have to kind of psyche myself out when on stage; I’m not really “Daniel” on stage, I become this weird vehicle for “Stand-Up Daniel,” one who forgets he is shy in front of crowds and prefers to sit quietly in the back, one who has no idea how he is improvising a particular joke, but the words come out and laughter seems to ensue, so he keeps going. I become the character I’d want to see and run with it. When I step off stage, I wake up and wonder how the hell I pulled that off. Often times, I won’t even remember what I specifically said.
As of writing this, I’ve been on stage at Austin’s well over a dozen times. I’m by no means a “regular,” but many of the regulars acknowledge me and know me and often give words of encouragement or praise, and it feels like I’m part of a new community. In a lot of ways, that’s the most rewarding part. But lo, my beginners’ luck gave me a false sense of protection, and this past week I arrogantly went in thinking I would improvise a slew of new material without more than twenty minutes worth of preparation. It showed, and for the first time I totally bombed. It wasn’t as miserable as it could have been (there were those kind enough to lend some pity laughs), but when I say it was abysmal I mean I could have died on the spot and that soft thud itself would have been funnier than whatever shit was mumbling out of my mouth. I shut down and totally forgot every tip and rule I had given myself that had seen many nights of success.
To a degree, I’d been waiting for this night for months. It was bound to happen sooner or later and I wanted it out of the way as soon as possible. For whatever reason, it happened later rather than sooner. Once the initial weeklong-facepalm wears off, it’s going to be a huge relief knowing I can only redeem myself from here. Afterwards, the host sat down with me and we talked about strategies and tricks that we could use for next time; to my relief, I finally felt like I was one of the regulars. Everyone bombs, whether you’re a complete newbie or a seasoned veteran. It’s an ever-changing game of comedic Risk and Hangman. I hope my experience can inspire others here at Rollins to check out Austin’s and give stand-up a shot – it’s the ultimate adrenaline rush when it works out and the ultimate humbling experience when it doesn’t. It’s not something many get a chance to try, so don’t pass on the experience while you have the window of opportunity – otherwise, joke’s on you.