After shows, people tend to ask me a lot of questions. Things like, “How can you do this”, “How could you say something like that” and “Do you want to hear a joke”, which 99% of the time ends up being a terribly racist knock-knock joke. I often shrug and reply with, “Im not fit to do much else”, “It was easier than you think” or, “Please don’t tell me your racist joke”. Another question I get is, ”How was your First show?”. I always have trouble explaining it well, so I say something like, “Didn’t kill me”, and we laugh, and I try to leave before they get that Racist knock-knock joke in.
I’ve been doing Comedy for 13 years now and I’ve assembled enough stories for, well, my Website at the very least. So, to kick things off, here’s the story of my first comedy show. Now next time someone asks me, I can tell them “Go to my website, its all there – no, dammit, I don’t care who’s there”.
The First Show
I pull in to the Club 30 minutes before the show and see the parking lot packed to the brim, and instantly my stomach knots, twists, and drops. It’s jammed AND there’s nowhere to park! Rattled, I drive across the street, park the car, fumble the keys, struggle with my seatbelt and adjust the rear view mirror for no good reason. I take a deep breath and get out of the car. My heart’s pounding. I’m almost panting, and, as I begin to walk, I find I’ve lost the ability to do so normally. I’ve been nervous since the moment I woke up, its escalated all day, but now, as I walk into the Comedy Club, it’s the worst, because at this moment its real. Holy crap I’m going to do Stand Up Comedy. I’m anxious, I’m scared, I have little-to-no public speaking experience – so its perfect. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
Ironically, I’m also supremely confident. I believe I can do this. I believe I can be a Stand Up Comic. I can make a room full of people laugh their ass off, why not? I’ve heard the voice that we all hear when we see someone do something we’d like to do; “I can do that, too”.
I’m so confident, I think I can be a star. Hell yeah. I’m going to be the cats meow, the bees knees, the goats throat. I’m a natural. Licketty split. It’s not that hard to make a room full of people laugh, right? Comedy is Easy! Just gotta be funny, right?
And I also happen to know that this crowd, like any group of people, will love an Opening – and Closing – joke about people in wheelchairs. I know this. Why do I know this? Because I’m 19 and I know everything. I’ve seen one live Comedy show, love ‘Seinfeld’ and had a friend whose parents saw George Carlin 6 years before in Vegas. I know everything I need to know and I’m going to be fine. The crowds gonna love these jokes, right? Of course I’m right. I can’t deny there was plenty of fear and doubt, but harmonizing it all was a shield of ultimate and completely unjustified confidence.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned your first time on a Comedy stage doesn’t have to be in front of a packed crowd at the only, and best, Comedy Club in town. Some people do their first set at a Comedy night in some dive bar downtown. Others tell jokes at karaoke or open-mic night at the local pub. I wasn’t privy to this information. For me, the only option I knew of for my first time onstage was Yuk Yuks Calgary, with this crowd, 250 people at least. Also there was my biggest supporter, my Uncle, my Aunt, and my best buddy from work. Plus, my parents were out of town, so I could take their car to get to the Club and stay out as late as I wanted after. The stars had aligned; this was the place, this was the time.
Nervous as I am entering the Club, my mind wonders into fantasy. Or is it reality? I wonder what they’ll do after a set like mine – does management just walk over and tell you they called Letterman’s people, and that you’re on next Tuesday? When they offer me a life-long contract after my set, do I sign it right away, or do I consult with a lawyer? Good thing my Uncle is here to help with such matters.
It’s Pro/AM night at the Comedy Club on this evening. As I enter the Club and introduce myself as one of the Comics for the evening, I am directed to the Green Room, which in this case, is an old, worn couch deemed unworthy for use elsewhere in the hotel which the Club is situated; an assembly of uncomfortable chairs, and a wobbly, chipped, remarkably heavy coffee table, all crammed between 2 exit doors in the back. I learn in time this is one of the best green rooms in the country. I am introduced to the other Amateurs Comedians on the show. Although we try to joke, we sit in uncomfortable silence and probably hate each other for what feels like an eternity.
The nights entertainment features an MC, 4 amateurs doing 5 minutes of Comedy apiece, and a real, live Headliner to close the show. I am the only one of the amateurs doing Comedy for the first time on this evening, and as fate should have it, I am to be the opening act of the show – the dreaded ‘bullet’. The cliff-face becomes steeper.
I am the lowest of the low on the Comedy Totem Pole. My pull is equal to roughly a fifth that of the more junior bar servers. The odds of me returning to do comedy again, let alone make any kind of career out of this, are below recommended levels of encouraging somebody to do something – but nobody successfully lodged that thought in my brain. I’m ready to rumble.
The MC for the evening, often mistaken as random person who introduces the comics on the show, but is, in actuality a hilarious professional comic themselves, joins us in the ‘Green Room’. He’s a burst of positive energy; kind, supportive and encouraging. He’s the kind of guy you picture being a Comedian. He’s effervescent, charming, easy to laugh, quick witted, funny as hell, and he uses his powers for good. There was a glow to him. He was alive. There was a magic to him. It looked like fun to be him. And as I learned in time, with the way he drinks, it is fun to be him. But it was more than that. He seemed alive behind the eyes. I had a dreary job at the time at a place where the majority of people seemed so dead inside. In fact, every job was like that to me. School, too. It was nobody’s passion to serve jerks food. Everybody on the trip to work, be it bus, train or car, always looks defeated at Rush hour. One crammed long face after another – a world where it seemed most people where doing what they have to do, not what they wanted to do, and nobody looks happy. But this guy, the MC, he’s living on an entirely different level. He’s beaming. He can’t wait to start work. He seems to me a winner in life. He goes on about how great and packed the crowd looks and how much he loves playing this Club. He gets our names straight, reminds me I’m up first, tells me he’s going to do 15 minutes off the top, then wishes us luck and leaves us to sit in our uncomfortable silence.
Immediately after, as if on cue, the Manager/Talent Co-ordinator/Former Waitress grabs a broken chair and sits with us. She’s beautiful and warm and an oasis of serenity in the sea of anxiety. She gives us a rundown of how things will go. We are to do 5 minutes, no longer than 6, and there will be a light at 4 minutes letting us know to wrap up. Afterwards, she’ll go over the set with us individually. This tidbit of information re-assures my intuition of the life-long contract offer and soon to follow Letterman appearance.
She asks us if we’re ready. To a man, we all are. I then realize, we all think we’re the next big thing. Each and every one of us is sure, without a doubt, that we’re the next George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Woody Allen; and for Canadian readers, the next Mike McDonald, Jim Carrey and Norm MacDonald. We’re all the next big thing, and we know it. But, unfortunately for the other amateurs, tonight, I’m up first, and they’ll all have to deal with a crowd that just saw Comedy Jesus debut right in front of their very eyes. Unlike those other stupid amateurs, I know im gonna make it.
As we let her know that we’re all good to go, she gives us a look I don’t fully understand, like she knows a secret about us that she’s happy not to share, and gets up to start the show. The lights dim. The music pumps. The MC is introduced. It’s showtime.
As the MC takes the stage, and the show begins, I exit into another world. The reality that I have to not only speak, but be funny, in front of all these people sets in in its entirety, and its terrifying. What the hell am i doing? What if they don’t laugh? 5 Minutes!!! There’s like 250 people here! Oh my god, my Uncle is here! This is Insane!
My breathing rate hovered around lifelong-chain-smoker-ascending-steep-hill-while-chased-by-angry-hungry-bear levels. I couldn’t sit still, and I couldn’t stand still. My hands were shaking and when I thought about speaking it seemed difficult if not impossible. Oh my god my buddy is here too! Everyone at work is going to hear about this! A surge of terror pulsates through my body. I didn’t have guts inside me anymore – I was at that point comprised entirely of fear, anxiety and regret, rippling from head to toe, like the tide, surging into every thought, drowning me in sweat. But it’s way too late – there’s no backing out now.
Amidst the discomfort and the focusing on not puking, suddenly; clearly and definitively, the calm, clear confident voice within spoke ‘You have the wheelchair opener, and the wheelchair closer. You’re going to be just fine’. Deep confidence arises from only a few sources. Alcohol. Certain Drugs. Knowing What You’re Doing. But this confidence was something else. Something deeper. The Confidence I had came from a place of realizing my dreams and conquering my fears. I may have had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I believed that I could this, so that was all I needed. Don’t ever let the facts get in your way.
With a few minutes to go until I’m on, I walk ‘backstage’, which in this case, is the Video Lottery Terminals, covered in tablecloths, just beside the stage. I learn in time this was one of the better Back-stages in the country. The MC was killing up there. He was so damn funny. I looked into the crowd and saw people laughing their asses off – they were in the palm of his hands. His Comedy was effortless and natural, and it was something to witness a master so close to me. I could see my Uncle and Aunt and my Buddy all laughing their faces off, and for that moment, I forgot my predicament, and listened and laughed in unison with everybody.
And then it happened. “Ladies and Gentleman, are you ready for your first act of the Evening?”. The crowd roared, and I was split in two. Am I going to kill or be killed? He went on: “Well, it’s Pro/Am Comedy Night here at The Club. Every Comic you’ve ever seen has started as an Amateur Comic on a show just like this, myself included. Some of the guys you’re about to see are going to be hilarious and have great careers, and some are going to be just awful!” The crowd laughs a little too hard at this comment. I realize the Crowd wants to see someone fail as much as they want to see someone succeed. He continues. “So are you ready?!” The packed crowd roars in much the same manner I would have imagined they did at The Coliseum when they unleashed the Beasts on The Gladiators. “Alright! Well, we have a special treat for you here tonight – Ladies and Gentleman, your first act, this is his first time on a Comedy Stage! So please, show him some love, and welcome, Brent Marsden!”
That my name is Brett Martin meant no difference, the Crowd gives me a heartily generous and welcoming Applause as I leave the comfort and safety of the Covered Video Lottery Terminals and walk into the bright lights of the stage. Although I’d never been onstage before, I knew enough to give a big smile and handshake to the MC as he exits. Instinct kicks in again – as I walk up to the microphone, I take it out of the Stand, place it behind me, and face the Crowd. It’s on. I am a Comic.
“Hello, everybody. I’m Brett Martin, its a pleasure to be here.” is what I meant to say. What came out, however, was no statement. It was a blur of words spoken at roughly the speed of extreme duress. It sounded and felt like Word Soup spilling uncontrollably from my mouth. I felt the exact same way I felt in the Parking Lot before the show.
Luckily I wasn’t too nervous to remember what I was to do up there. The Crowd sensed my nerves, no doubt. Hell, my parents in Europe probably sensed my nerves. But I had to plow on – it was time to drop some Comedy Gold. “Hey, when you see a person with no legs in a Wheelchair, are they standing or sitting?”. I waited for the thunderous laugh. The first thing I heard was a cough. And then another cough. I waited a few seconds more, and instead of any kind of laugh, it just became weirder, and even the coughs stopped. Now, In fairness to me, not so long before that set, I had made that very observation, and asked that very question, much to my own amusement. Made me laugh for days, it did – what wit! What I did not anticipate was nobody else sharing my Humor of the situation. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard 250 people not laugh at something you think is awesome and hilarious, but it sounds a little something like this: . It was that moment I realized ‘Holy Crap, Comedy is Hard’.
I was mortified. If my Opener didn’t work, at all, how will everything else go? I plowed on, and as I did, a funny thing happened. No – not good jokes; something else. There’s a point in some life events where you realize that everything has gone about as badly as it could possibly go. And at that point, just when it’s at it’s worse, there’s a release. The fact that nobody has laughed at your first 3 jokes, let alone understand what the fuck you’ve been saying for the last Minute and a half no longer bothers you. I came to accept that I was there, doing what I dreamed and believed I could do, and that was good enough for me. And as that happened, my speech improved. I started to have fun. Those awkward cold stares and painfully loud coughs became something else. My first Laugh.
I don’t remember which joke got the laugh, but sure enough, I heard the sound of what had to be 40 people laughing, and in that very instant, my life changed. I’ve heard that Heroin is addictive, and as a smoker, I am aware how badly one can need nicotine, but there’s nothing as addictive in the world like the sound of people laughing at something YOU say. At that very moment, those 40 people made a Junkie out of me, and I’m out most every night looking to score. There’s been no looking back since.
My set meandered towards the finish line. The manager gave me the light, so it was time to wrap up. I did my People-With-No-Legs-In-Wheelchair call-back closer. Surprisingly, the reaction was equal parts laughter, coughs and silence – a drastic improvement. I said Goodnight, put the Mic back in the Stand, shook the MC’s hand as he came back, and left the stage a changed person.
I stood in the back of the room beaming. No, I wasn’t Comedy Jesus. No, I wouldn’t be on Letterman next Tuesday. But I heard roughly 20% of the people in that room laugh at what I had to say, and somehow, that was beyond good enough for me. My Uncle came up to me, a giant man, and with a roar of a smile, congratulated me for a job well done. My Buddy said he’d tell everybody at work that I didn’t bomb as bad as he thought I would, which was for some reason comforting. I watched the rest of the Amateurs, and they were ok, some great, some not so great – the MC’s prophecy came true. The Headliner was amazing, the show ended, the house-lights came on, and the evening was over. Almost.
The Manager, as promised, had her talk with me. I was no longer looking forward to this. I didn’t need a Comedy Club manager to tell me how fast I talked, how nervous I was and how much funnier the Pro Comics were than me – I already knew. She took me to an empty table and sat down. “So, how do you think it went?”. I paused. How do you answer that? It was awkward, exhilarating, embarrassing and triumphant, all at the same time. “I wish it went better, but I’m glad I did it” was the best way I could sum it up. “That’s good!”, she said. “You know, I think you have a future in Comedy. I was really impressed with how you knew the little things, like placing the Mic stand behind you, having a closing joke that called-back to your opener, and not freaking out when it wasn’t going well. It was very good and you should be proud. You definitely were nervous, and spoke wayyyyy too fast – I mean way, way too fast – but you should come back and do another set sometime soon.” She gave me her card, which to me in that moment was as good as a life-long contract, smiled her warm smile, and left me to my evening.
I left the Club, walked across the street, fixed the rear-view mirror and drove my parents car around all night, celebrating having successfully entered the World of Stand Up Comedy and having no curfew to adhere too. It was a good night, indeed.