My entire life, I’ve always loved stand-up comedy. Seinfeld, Carlin, Chris Rock, Mitch Hedberg, Louis CK…I love all these people. They’ve made me laugh and helped me stay sane. And I’ve always thought, “Hmm, maybe one day I’d like to try that.I think I could be good at it.”
So this past week I did. I got up on a stage during an open mic night held by Comedy Club China. And it did not go well.
Let’s back up for a second. This whole disaster began one night about a month ago when – surprise surprise – I’d been doing some drinking. In a moment of delusion, I started talking to my friend Katrina about my inevitable stardom as a stand-up comedian.
“I’m a funny guy,” I said. “You know how we went to those comedy shows in Beijing last year? Well, I think I could do that. I’m at least as funny as those comedians we saw.”
This moronic bragging over the abstract possibility that I might be funnier than some comics we saw a year ago slowly transformed into a plan. During our one-week holiday, Katrina and I would go to the open mic night and I would make my debut. I spent days writing a million stand-up comedy bits, and in the end I chose two that I thought were good. On a Sunday night, I met up with Katrina at the club…
…and basically had an anxiety attack.
“I can’t do it,” I told her. “I feel sick. I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Man up!” Katrina said. “You’re not backing out of this!”
But man up I could not, and I backed out. We decided to stay and watched as several men did four minute sets in front of a lot of empty seats. Most did not fare well, and this unfortunately gave me false hope. By the end of the night, I’d talked to the host and had gotten myself signed up to go on stage the upcoming Wednesday.
That would be the high point of the entire venture. Katrina accidentally left her iphone in the bar that night and it just sort of disappeared. She believed the bartender stole it. And in her anger at the bar, she decided she would not be going back there again…which meant I’d have to go back Wednesday by myself. This was not good. I took the train alone and got to the bar about an hour early. No one was there. I read over my jokes and drank two beers.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “None of this is funny. It’s not funny at all. In the clarity of this moment, I realize I’ve written total crap! I need to back out!”
I went up to the host and introduced myself. He was pleasant and I felt too bad to back out. Instead, I went and used the bathroom for the fifth time in a thirty minute timespan.
“This is going to be good for you,” I said to myself. “Just getting up there. You’re always so nervous…you’ll be facing your fears. And who knows? Maybe the jokes are funnier than you think.”
By the time 9:30 rolled around, I was in a state of panic. The place had really filled up and there were a lot of people in the audience. I was slated to go on second. The guy before me had just headlined the last comedy show and is one of Beijing’s top comics. Again, I saw disaster looming.
“What if I can’t get the mic off the stand?” I worried. “What if I can’t make words? What if I go up there and urinate myself?”
The crowd was in good spirits as the first comic finished. It was my time to go on. I wandered to the side of the stage with the same level of lethargic commitment that people in movies have when they’re put under a trance and sent to kill somebody.
“I don’t know much about this next comedian,” the host said, “but I know his name is Bill Panara and I like his chain of bread restaurants.”
With that, I was on. I looked out into the crowd and saw nothing – the lights were blinding. A sinking feeling set into my stomach as I started my set. I was obviously nervous. The first joke landed with a thud. The next punchline pronounced nothing but silence and one loud groan.
“I’m bombing,” I acknowledged internally.
Still, I went on. Each part of my routine stunk the place up worse than the last bit had. Eventually I began commenting on how terrible I was and the crowd seemed to enjoy that a little bit, although it did not cause them to forget the trainwreck they were witnessing.
“And Princess Elsa is a whore!” I proclaimed, the final line of my godawful set. “Thank you!”
I practically ran off stage. The host was really nice and sort of hugged me, said something quick about the first time being difficult. Other comics – real comics – gave me high fives in support (or pity).
“You have to be exaggerating,” Katrina said the next day. “You couldn’t have bombed that badly.”
“It was horrendous,” I said. “You could’ve gone up there and talked about your breakfast and it would’ve gotten more laughs.”
“Did anything go right?”
“Well, the microphone worked nicely. And the blinding lights made me less nervous.”
“So the things the bar controlled…those were good.”
“Exactly. And everything I controlled paled in comparison.”
Perhaps in time I shall grace the comedy stage again. Yes, my debut was tragic, but that’s okay because comedy and tragedy are often linked. As Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”