If you’ve ever been on-stage, you know that Eminem’s eloquent description of the anxiety leading up to that fateful walk out to the crowd is fairly accurate: your palms are sweaty, your knees feel weak, your arms get heavy. If you haven’t vomited on your sweater already, you’ve at least got a mean case of the butterflies. The first time in the spotlight is a thousand times worse, especially if it’s in front of two hundred and fifty of your fellow students at the University of San Diego for a talent show hilariously named Almost Famous.
The decision to get on that particular stage was made a few weeks earlier; not by me, but by a friend that badgered me into giving it a try. She was hosting the event and had heard me mention my eventual plans to try stand-up comedy once I turned 21 (I was only 20). She insisted that this would be a great, risk-free environment to get on stage for the first time and “get my feet wet.” While signing up would hinder my ability to play video games and eat cheese balls for a few hours, I agreed to do the show.
The next three weeks were filled with writing and panic; mostly panic. I had watched and listened to stand-up comedy since I was in fourth grade, which made finding my own voice virtually impossible. Every joke sounded like Steve Martin or Patton Oswalt or Lewis Black or anyone but a scrawny 20-year-old that had more video game controllers in his house than pieces of fruit.
After a few lucky spurts of inspiration that included a doctor’s appointment, an awkward holiday situation and a Ralphie May routine that I took personal offense with, I was able to write out seven minutes of material. The talent show information email said we were allotted ten minutes but that was because all of the other acts were music or dance performances. For some reason, this didn’t alarm me then as much as it does now. At the time, I felt my seven minutes was more that respectable in light of my unique “talent.”
The day came and I was jubilantly terrified. Not for some idealistic reason like I didn’t want my dreams to be shattered or my message to go misinterpreted. I just didn’t want a bunch of 18-22 year olds to see me suck at something, which is still a pretty good reason.
The entire morning and afternoon was spent memorizing and memorizing and memorizing and memorizing. I had learned from dozens of public speaking lectures that this was a terrible way to go about preparing for anything but I did it anyway. I figured in the worst case scenario, I could stare at the microphone and recite my jokes like I’m in a bathroom on the north side of campus.
I arrived at the university club an hour early, wearing a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy t-shirt, a tan hooded sweatshirt with ripped sleeves and my lucky/only jeans. I spend 49 minutes walking back and forth in the back of the room telling my jokes to myself out loud. I had time to do my seven minute set seven times. Did I do it seven times because seven is my lucky number? No, but it definitely didn’t hurt.
I sit in my seat and wait patiently as the show starts. I’m seventh in the lineup, a good sign. Each act goes up and performs admirably. No obvious screw-ups to take focus away from how badly I might perform – music act, music act, tap dancers, music act, hula dancers, funny musical duo. Then it’s my turn. I move near the stage and wait to hear my name called. I’m not trying to be dramatic when I say this, but this moment lasts forever. The lull between the funny musical duo getting off stage and hearing my name had to have been at least a few hours.
The music starts playing and I hear the host say “the comedic styling of…. Conor Cawley!” I start walking towards the stage, not thinking about the jokes I’ve been memorizing for 24 days. Instead, I can’t get my mind to focus on anything other than how “comedic stylings” is such a weird phrase.
Before I know it, I’m standing at the microphone. The music had barely turned off and the audience was still rustling when I blurted out my first joke. Maybe a third of the audience heard it and maybe a third of them laughed. “No worries,” I thought, “That was just the warm up joke. They don’t even have to hear that one.” For those of you that have never seen stand-up comedy live or on TV, that is not how it works.
Once the music had properly died down and I truly had everyone’s attention, I began my first non-warm up joke. This joke falls out of my mouth as I stumbled over my words and robbed the punchline of its perfect timing. The room fills with laughs far too awkward to be considered genuine or even complementary.
Luckily, I have friends that are willing to look stupid to save my ass. Three loud cackles erupted from different places in the audience, close friends of mine who had promised they would “laugh super hard even if you suck.” They cackled loud enough so that I had to respond. Fortunately enough, my candid response of “Oh you” paired with an adorable hand motion got me a laugh I wasn’t expecting. A big enough laugh to remind me that I tell stories all the time and I love making people laugh. The only difference now is that I’ve planned the story out ahead of time and I’m doing it for two hundred and fifty people. Then I actually thought to myself, “This is gonna be easy.”
It was. I felt comfortable,energetic and even a little high. Hell, I felt really high! A couple of applause breaks and a big laugh here and there made me feel like I was, stereotypically speaking, on top of the world. I got off stage and the feeling didn’t go away. Friends came up and congratulated me, strangers shook my hand, and the host that badgered me into doing it gave me an excited “I told you so.”
I didn’t win the talent show. I didn’t even place in the top three. I later found out that I almost had the mic pulled on me because my last joke was about doctors and how they examine your testicles. Apparently, management was on the conservative side.
I didn’t need to win though. I’d found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And no hula dancing troupe or funny musical duo can take that away from me.
If you would like to watch me do stand-up comedy for the first time, here’s the video link on Youtube! (Yes, that is a puka shell necklace. Please don’t judge me.)