The bitter taste of a warm IPA lingers as I absentmindedly tap my foot under a small table in the darkened club. Tonight’s open-mic host steps to the stage, thanks the previous comic, and calls the final performer of the night: “Matt W.”
I take a deep breath, step onto the carpeted stage, and turn to the audience, ready to make my stand-up comedy debut. But whatever nerves I wrestled with in the previous two hours have been pushed aside for a startling realization: I can’t see the crowd.
Stepping onto the stage overwhelms my senses, not unlike leaving a darkened basement for an open meadow on a sunny day. With banks of bright lights looming above, I squint to gather my bearings and peer into what’s left of the crowd. Even the tabletop candles aren’t flickering anymore. I might as well be performing into a cave.
I first considered taking the stage in November 2011 as part of an effort to lead a fuller, more exciting life. A friend and I even showed up to a Portland comedy club one night, only to find out the evening’s open mic session had been canceled. Outwardly, I expressed dismay. Inwardly, though, a weight had been lifted. I retained my dignity without subjecting myself to the vulnerability of a stand-up comedy debut.
Over the next few weeks, I invented reasons why I couldn’t make various open-mic nights until the last of my friends stopped asking. Eight months later, I moved to Seattle and forgot about my flirtation with stand-up comedy. But after another seven months, spurred by a resurgent desire to try something new, the itch returned.
I spent a weekend crafting – and the next month memorizing – a three-minute bit about my smartphone addiction. I joked about pulling my phone out at stop lights, expressed my love for Siri, and compared a broken phone to a cheating girlfriend. I dropped some jokes into casual conversation, measuring the reactions and growing more comfortable with the material. Finally, I locked down a date and found a friend to cheer me on.
That’s how I arrived at Comedy Underground on this drizzly April evening, waiting to sign up and wrestling with warring emotions. On one hand I thought, I’m taking a risk and getting a good story from the experience. Then again, I’m half-wishing to get bumped to another night, allowing me to start the excuse-making all over again. The hardest thing about going through with this, I realize, is actually going through with it.
By the time I scan the list and see that I’ll perform last, I’m three beers in and more relaxed. With two hours until my three-minute set, my friend Lauren and I settle in and size up my competition for laughs.
Roughly three dozen comedians take the stage in rapid succession. Most stick with racist, misogynistic, or homophobic tropes that elicit more horrified gasps than earnest laughter. One white comedian jokes about how black people can’t hold jobs; another talks about dancing without looking “gay;” and others lament that “kids ruin everything, man.”
As I observe the mirthless wreckage before me, I grow emboldened and think, “I’m way funnier than most of these clowns.” But another inner voice chimes in, wondering if I really know something they don’t about the difficult world of stand-up comedy — a world which, until now, I’d only ever experienced as a spectator.
Before I can make sense of my inner dialogue, the host calls me to the stage.
I am confident about the material but, unable to see the audience from the ankle-high stage, feel pinned to the brick wall behind me. I turn from side to side, looking for a friendly face, but am stonewalled by the darkness.
I stutter and stammer through my bit, eliciting a handful of chuckles here and there. Some jokes, like the one where I compare my previous phone to Old Yeller, are met with stony silence. I never deliver the punchline to one joke and try improvising another, earning what might be a guffaw, but is more likely someone shifting uncomfortably in their chair.
After two minutes, the red warning light appears like a beacon in the back of the room, signaling that my time is nearly up. I wrap up, thank the 30 or 40 audience members who stayed for the whole set, and return to my seat amid a smattering of applause. Back in the darkness, I avoid eye contact with the other would-be comedians while trying to process the previous few minutes.
Outside, I allow myself a deep breath of cool Seattle air as relief takes hold. On our way to the bus stop, Lauren asks about my time on stage and recounts the reactions I couldn’t see or hear. I don’t give a second thought to the deafening silence that greeted some jokes or the chuckles that followed others. Only now do I realize that this three-minute set was never really for them; the risk, the writing, the performance, it was all for me. More than anything, I’m just glad I went through with an unforgettable new experience. I couldn’t see their bored grimaces or half-cocked smirks, but none of that matters. What matters is that I stepped out of the darkness and onto the stage. What matters is that I wasn’t scared away by the bright lights.