Whats It Like

What It’s Like


The is a certain amount of anxiety a comedian feels when he approaches the stage.

Will they laugh with me or at me?

Will I remember all the jokes I planned for this set?

How’s my hair?

Anything stuck in my teeth?

It’s like in the Wizard Of Oz, when Dorothy is dizzied from the tornado and the house crashes down on the wicked witch. She opens the door and it changes from black and white to color.  Rich, deep living color.  You go from apprehension to euphoria when that first laugh comes.

Ask a comedian what it’s like to tell jokes for a living and you’ll get a myriad of responses.  Most will try to explain the unbelievable positive energy you get from a room full of strangers.  It’s all about the immediate feedback a comic gets from a live audience that is seated a foot from your face. The sound of laughter is pleasing from afar, and crazy good right on top of you.

The relationship between the comedian and audience is unique in that the audience is an explosive device and the comic is the fuse.  Lighting up a room with laughter is almost joy overload. Any good comic can tell you about the night he had them eating out of their hands.

A comedy club audience is usually filled with seats that are close together.  Laughter being contagious, it works best when folks are shoulder to shoulder.

Garvins Laugh Inn in Washington D.C. had this type of seating and is where I did my first open mike. It was there I also sat near the front row and watched my first weekend show.  The headliner was Joe Bolster and he made me laugh real hard.  I cried tears of joy and remember having to borrow my neighbors napkin to sop up all my tears. (My napkin had liquefied) Great waves of laughter rolled around the room throughout his set. When one wave ended, it was followed by another. How great is this, I thought. Strangers from all over the world had gathered in this one room and created an unmatched energy you won’t find anywhere else.

Of course it’s not that great every night.  Bombing, or stinking up the joint, happens to all comedians at some point.  The worst bomb I dropped was about 12 years ago.  I was at the Peppermint Lounge in New Jersey.  Right away I’m not in my comfort zone.  First, the audition was held in a nightclub that was not ideally set up for comedy.  Second, it was an audition and I tend to freeze up whenever I’m asked to audition for anything.  On top of that the audition was for Def Comedy Jam’s second season.  I had seen the show and knew that I wasn’t the typical Def Jam comic- usually very vulgar and raunchy.  One thing you cannot do in front of an all black audience is show fear.  I had a dump truck full and I showed it. It was as if I came on stage bleeding, and the crowd finished me off.  It started with a muted mumbling from a table a few rows back, and quickly grew to a guttural avalanche of boos.  You’ve seen this happen at the Apollo when the comedian doesn’t get the microphone out of the stand before he is booed off.  Once the momentum had started there was no turning it around.  If I rated the boos I heard that night like a hurricane, it would’ve been a category 5. People needed to be evacuated.  These boos came from a place way down deep in the soul. They acted like I was decapitating their mother while raping their sister right in front of them.

Fortunately, I was able to survive this ordeal with a poem called Your Hair Weave Is Causing Me Problems.  This was the reason I got the audition in the first place.  They let me leave with my life after that and to make a long story turn out well, I appeared on an episode of Def Comedy Jam.

William Stephenson

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