Standup to Fear: 6 Tips for Performing Comedy

Recently I did something I always longed to do: perform standup comedy.

For years people have told me I was funny and I should go for it, but the timing was always off -- work obligations, family commitments, household responsibilities...

Okay, that's B.S. The truth is, I was petrified of the idea of performing standup and that's why I never tried. Sure, I tell jokes to friends, have a Groucho-like sarcasm everyone except my wife finds amusing, and I'm confident about my comedy writing. I had also presented numerous times in business situations and had amused colleagues for years. On all of those occasions, however, I had a script -- real paper in hand with typewritten words -- to help me in case I fumbled. This time, I would do it for real -- without the paper crutch.

My commitment to doing a standup performance began as most off-kilter things do: alcohol and a crazy friend. We were both sloshed at a Bat Mitzvah party. I must have been hilarious because this crazy friend, Mark Freed, made an offer I suddenly couldn't refuse: "Gary, you're a really funny guy, you should perform at Comedy Night at Beth El."

All right, Beth El isn't exactly Carnegie Hall (or Deli, for that matter). Beth El is my local synagogue in Connecticut, and every year Comedy Night is a fairly big event with around 100 people in attendance and involving food, alcohol, an auction of must-have items (such as a guaranteed parking spot for the high holidays) and, of course, three professional standup comedians. Mark Freed has been brilliant for a decade as the mainstay emcee of this event.
If Mark said I was funny, I must be funny. How could I refuse? I agreed.

Months passed and I formed comic bits in my head. I wrote them down as notes on whatever electronic device I had in hand. I shaped and edited them, taking out the ridiculously bad stuff like wearing a bag over my head and calling myself the Unknown Jewish Comic.

Suddenly, a sense of dread crept in. What if I were to go blank on stage? What if I were to botch my punch lines? What if no one thought I was funny? What if my fly were open? I shivered with fear over these thoughts and others (including being pelted by latkes, even though it wasn't Hanukah) and lost several nights' sleep.

As the weeks went by I wondered if Mark had remembered my agreement to perform. Secretly I was hoping it had gotten lost as the alcohol squeegeed out of his brain. Then I saw Mark's wife at Trader Joe's. She asked if I had changed my phone number, as Mark had been unsuccessfully trying to reach me. Yes, of course: I'd recently bought an iPhone and did have a new number.

The dread became all-out terror. My fight-or-flight response had kicked in and I was driving my family nuts. I didn't have the nerve to perform comedy. I had to call Mark and decline. It was the right thing to do before things got too far along.

"So. Gary," he said in that gravelly showman's voice I knew so well. "Comedy Night is just a week away and I wanted to make sure you were good to go."

"Well, you know, I've been thinking about it and..."

"You're nervous, I know, don't sweat it. You'll be among friends, they want you to succeed, you'll do great."

"Yeah, but..."

"Come on, Gary, you're a really funny guy."

"Okay, I'll do it!"

Interesting. It was the flattery that had gotten me into it in the first place, not the alcohol. Who knew?

"Great! If you like, send over your material. I'd be happy to take a look at it or hear you perform it -- whatever you want."

"You got it! Thanks, Mark!"

Bursting with renewed confidence, I hung up the phone and emailed my routine to him. Within a day, he texted back one word: "Funny!"

That was all I needed. I was raring to go, right? Not exactly...

The entire week building up to the event was more stressful than the days leading up to my Bar Mitzvah. I practiced like a madman, using every solitary moment in the shower or the car to rehearse. When I missed a joke or messed up I started at the top - -which was every time. The more I screwed up, the more frantic I became. I felt like I was going to jump out of an airplane.

I didn't sleep at all the night before the event. At my wit's end, I called my lifeline the next morning: Mark Freed. He'd done this dozens of times, I was sure he would have some sage advice for me. "Gary," he snapped, "Don't worry about it. You're just the preamble to the professional comics. You're nothing. You're insignificant."

"Thanks, Mark, I feel so much better!"

Well, the night came. The pressure built as the evening wore on (would those auctions ever end, for Chrissakes?), but finally I went onstage and performed. It felt good doing it and I knew there were moments I was spot-on. I semi-flubbed one joke and forgot three one-liners -- but I don't think anyone noticed. The laughter throughout and then swirling at the final punch line made it worth the years taken off my life. Someday I'll even have the courage to watch my wife's recording of the event.

As for tips to help others? Well, I don't pretend for a second that my five minutes performing at a local Connecticut synagogue make me an expert at standup. (Call Mark, please!) But I can tell you some things that, as they say, couldn't hurt:

1. Write down the routine and hone it. Just the process of writing and reading it over several times helps ensure you're on the right track. If you laugh after the hundredth time you know it's good.

2. Practice, practice, practice! But don't do it in front of anyone who might inadvertently say something that could make you even more insecure and second-guess.

3. Find one genuine expert you trust for moral support. Mark Freed. Enough said.

4. No caffeine, alcohol, sugar, or other stimulants before performing. They make you jittery and loopy. Eat light, non-spicy food (a challenge for me, I love the stuff!) and drink lots of water (but do leave time for a bathroom break).

5. Plant supportive people in the audience: I admit it. I circled the room in advance and begged friends (and even the rabbi) to laugh. To my surprise, the common reaction was, "You are really brave..."

6. Be yourself, be spontaneous, look like you're having fun, and offer a little window into your personality. Mark Freed's words of encouragement the day of the event became an "Aha!" moment. Why not tell the audience I was nervous and use it to my advantage a la the master, Woody Allen? My opening words: "I was really nervous and panicky building up to today, so I called Mark Freed for some sage advice. He said, 'Gary, don't worry about it. You're just the preamble. You're nothing. You're insignificant." It got a nice opening laugh -- the crowd knows Mark well -- and I launched into the routine feeling the audience's support.

So, guess what? I already have a routine all set in my head for next year -- if they'll have me and if my family will put up with me.

"Okay, Gary," I said to myself. "Take a break. Give your family and friends a break. You've been self-absorbed and neurotic. Time to sit back down and focus on your day