The First Time Ever I Took The Stage

The First Time Ever I Took The Stage


The first time I went on stage as a stand up comic was in November of 1982 at Washington D.C.’s  Garvins Laugh Inn.

I had been working as a bartender at another nightclub when I met Brenda, who convinced me to give stand up a try.  Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was the song of the day and at 25 years old, I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  That all changed when Brenda found Garvin’s, who had an open mike with a simple sign up for 5 minutes on stage. We chose the Sunday before Thanksgiving and prepared by hanging out at IHOP, writing jokes on the placemat.  Five minutes didn’t seem like a lot of time and I was pretty sure I could fill it.  Brenda laughed at everything that came out of my mouth, calling me the second coming of Richard Pryor.  I knew I had funny bones, but I also knew I was a long way from King Richard.  As the official class clown of Detroit’s Northwestern High in 1975, I had some experience with the funny.  I also performed in several school dramatic productions including Langston Hughes’ Simply Heavenly.

Brenda, now my girlfriend, drove me to Garvin’s on that first Sunday night.  I signed up at number 13, not the luckiest number in the world.   A shot of Hennessey calmed my nerves as I waited for my turn.  The sparse crowd was laughing at the acts before me and as it came closer to my time, I began to feel the butterflies.  What the hell was I about to do?  Damn, those lights seem to be overly bright! What if they don’t laugh?  Did I leave the iron on?

When my name was called, I knew it was too late to turn back so I might as well get up there and see whats what.  I remember it being nothing like I expected, I was that deer in the headlights. My mouth was not responding correctly to signals from my brain, like I was getting only 2 bars of power.  I could barely see Brenda’s silhouette in the middle of the room and that was about it.  I don’t remember what my opening line was but all it did was confirm to the audience I had never done this before.  When it was over, I got one good laugh in my 5 minutes. The rest of my set was received kindly enough, and I was very happy they didn’t boo. I felt they could see where I was going but didn’t have the skill to take them all the way there.  I sort of dropped them off at the bus stop.  Luckily I saved the bit they laughed at for last, it’s always a good thing to close strong.

“I used to work at a record store in Detroit.  One night Leon Spinks came in and said “ I wanna buy some reefa”.  I said we don’t sell marijuana and he said “no, Reefa Franklin”.

William Stephenson

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