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The thrill of the performance

Peter Wicks | Thursday, September 4, 2003

The first time I did it I was 18. I was nervous, of course, and my palms were sweaty. The room was almost completely dark. I’m sure my technique was terrible, but, despite the fact that it was a life changing experience, I really don’t remember much about my performance. I just remember the laughter.If, when I first decided to try stand-up comedy, I had any idea how many times I would be asked in future years what prompted me to do it, I would have kept a detailed record of my mental state. In fact, as my first performance approached, the image of the stage expanded to fill my mental horizon; I could think of nothing after the show. For several weeks afterwards I could think about nothing before it. I simply have no recollection at all of what was going through my mind when I signed up to perform at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Theatre. But I have no problem remembering why I got on stage the next time, and every time after that.Like nicotine, the laughter of strangers is addictive from the first taste. Except that you don’t so much taste the crowd’s laughter as feel it, just as the bass shakes your whole body when you stand near the speakers at a rock concert.Richard Lewis once called stand-up a legal drug, but that is only half right. There is no real skill involved in getting high from drugs. You just inhale, inject, swallow or snort and then wait for the effects to take you. All it takes is money and a certain degree of indifference towards your future health. Stand-up isn’t like that. You have to make the audience laugh, and that requires talent, and even for the most talented comedian there are no guarantees.Professional comedians will report that sometimes a joke that has reliably induced mass hysteria in audiences around the country for months will one day simply, inexplicably, fail to get a response. Suddenly, the comedian is on stage, feeling alone, abject, alone, humiliated and so very, very alone. We’ve all had the dream in which we arrive at high school only to discover that we are naked. This experience is worse and comedians have a name for it. We call it “death.”So, why take the risk? It’s hard to explain the feeling you get when your routine goes well. In trying to explain, one faces the danger of saying things that are disturbingly close to clichés normally associated with extreme sports. But I’ll take the risk: it’s the possibility of failure, the possibility that things could go wrong at any moment, that makes it so exhilarating when they go right. Besides, in extreme sports you can only die once.But for me, and I suspect for most comedians, what really makes the stage irresistable is the wonderful feeling of connection that comes from discovering, again and again, that the things you find funny other people find funny too. That’s why the account of what motivates comedians that I like best of all is the one given by Bill Hicks in an interview shortly before his death: “I thought the whole point of it was to make you feel unalone.” I don’t know whether when Hicks said “you” he was talking about the comedian or the audience. I like that it could have been either one.Sometimes strangers approach me after a show to tell me that they enjoyed the performance. I’ve always been thrilled by this, except after one gig in New Jersey when someone said to me “Hey man, that was great, your accent makes you really funny.” I had worked hard on my routine, not my accent, and I couldn’t help thinking that his compliment was somewhat diluted by the fact that there are approximately 60 million other people to whom it could equally apply.When people find out that I do stand-up, they often have questions about it. By far the most common is “Are you any good,” an inquiry which puts me in the awkward position of having to choose whether I would rather sound arrogant or masochistic. I usually get out of the dilemma by feigning a seizure.I am telling you all this as an invitation. This semester I will be hosting, along with Michael Bradt, a series of stand-up shows at the new Legends club. We have some experienced performers lined up for the shows, but I will also be running workshops for anyone who would like to perform but has never done it before. If that’s you, let me know.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.