I’m sitting in Flappers, the unfortunately named comedy club, fidgeting with my notebook. It’s a weeknight, dinnertime, and I nervously shift my weight on the leather bench that runs the length of the club’s dark main room. I pull a pen from my bag and turn the palm of my hand into a sweaty cheat-sheet. Slurping a Coke, I wait for the host — a bubbly blonde whose bit revolves around not being pretty, even though she essentially embodies the Western beauty standard — to call my name.
Beside me, a friend calmly munches some buffalo wings that will soon give her food poisoning. The host calls her name — Ali Liebegott! — and she shuffles to the stage, grabs the mic, and settles down on a leather couch, relaxed as if she’s home watching a Mets game. Ali has done this before, and I take notes. She seems totally at ease in her skin, isn’t shooting desperate “like me” energy at the crowd. I can do that — act like I don’t give a shit when really my stomach is full of lurch and gurgle. Other resources in my aspiring-comedian tool kit include a strange immunity to shame and a willingness to expose my thoughts and behavior to utter strangers. I feel confident. But can I tell a joke? Ali can.
She’s the one who’d suggested I try stand-up in the first place a few days before as we commiserated over the state of our creative souls. Having been working in Hollywood for years now, Ali juggles the strange challenge of enabling other people’s visions while trying to remain true to her own artistic impulses. “That’s why I like stand-up,” Ali said, and elaborated: The pressure is off. While you don’t want to bomb, there isn’t a producer standing in the wings, toying with your future health insurance. You can be deeply, weirdly yourself. “And,” she said, “it’s just exciting to do something new.”
The thought of standing before a room full of strangers, daring to think I might make them laugh, gave me the tiniest burst of adrenaline. Imagine how terrifying/exciting it would be to actually do it. I was in.
Now the chirpy host is bringing me up onstage, where the lights are reassuringly bright, blinding me to all the eyes upon me. I briefly worry that I won’t be able to see the smaller light set that will flash at me when I’ve hit my time. I worry that I’m going to go blank, trip over the mic cord, develop a new and embarrassing nervous tic. Then I fire up my mental Zamboni and smooth the chatter till my mind is slick as ice. I launch into my set, a three-minute thing that begins awkwardly with the absurd grossness of anti-abortion billboards.
“You knit me together in my mother’s womb? Barf.” I hear a chuckle or two. “What about ‘Thanks for not aborting me?’ Is that what my mother is waiting for?” I query the audience. “Is that what this vibe is between us? Is she waiting for me to thank her for not aborting me?” The audience likes this, and I feel jazzed from their laughter. It pushes me deeper into my set. I recount for them my birth story, told in my mother’s charming, outside-of-Boston accent, like the Kennedys but trashy. I liken the “big, Irish nurse” to Brienne of Tarth, eliciting loud laughs from those who get the joke. I express sympathy for those who don’t get the joke and maintain my boundary around translating pop culture to them. More laughs.