Ezy Reading: How To Get An Ulcer In Five Quick Minutes

Evan Kanarakis

'You should really give it another try, mate. Seriously. You've done it once, you can do it again. Piece of cake.'

This insanity came from the mouth of a stand'up comedian I ran into this past week who was essentially encouraging me to have another crack at obliterating what little of my insides were left functional after the last attempt I'd made at being a comedian. A few years ago, mainly on a whim, I made three very non-headline appearances as a stand'up comedian. The first was in a university competition, and after somehow placing second, I decided to follow things up with two appearances at a comedy club 'open mike' night that again, inexplicably, didn't seem to fare too badly. I was even told 'come again, you've got some good material.' But I never went back. No, my stand-up comedy career lasted all of about four months.

It's an excruciating experience, comedy. I'm sure you get more at ease with practice, but by the end of each of my three efforts I was a train-wreck. In the first instance, there's writing the material. This is the fun part, especially if you're writing with someone else, and for the university competition I wrote much of my material with another guy that was entering, my buddy Hamish. Despite the fact we both have a taste for rather offbeat humour, I'm sure we were more at ease testing out our material for the first time on each other rather than a mirror or a cold crowd. It of course didn't mean everything we wrote met with audience approval just because we'd laughed at it (the bit about Hitler going to a uni bar kinda' tanked) but we had fun with the process of it all. Where the agony really set in was once we'd leave our writing sessions and, as the competition approached, began to inwardly panic about whether or not we'd just written drivel (see: Hitler going to a uni bar routine) or comedy gold (ermm...).

As for the actual evening when you're due to get up on stage, I'm pretty much a mess. It's very true 'as many comedians have discussed in the past' that stand-up is possibly the one profession where no matter how famous or successful you are, you're still completely fragile with every appearance. Reputations can go out the window in seconds. Why do you think Eddie Murphy never followed up the success of his concert videos Raw and Delirious? It wasn't because he'd decided to rest on the laurels of Holy Man and Pluto Nash, that's for sure... One great night in front of an audience roaring with laughter so hard they need rubber sheets is quickly forgotten in the face of a silent, grim-faced crowd completely unwilling to give up even so much as a snigger. When the only sounds in the middle of a joke routine are of crickets chirping and a tumbleweed rolling past, watch for the comedian to tearfully slip the noose around his neck just so the pain can end. It's even uncomfortable for the audience when a comic is tanking. You start to tense up in the hope that his next line will, finally, hopefully, reward him with a few laughs. Instead all you get is a gag about Hitler packing up and going on holiday in his MeinKampfervan (ahem....).

With all this in mind, there was a good reason why I only lasted three appearances as a comedian. In the five minutes before getting on stage I was capable of smoking my way through eight cartons of cigarettes, downing three bottles of scotch, and pacing back and forth a distance of thirty kilometres. Anyone kind enough to stroll over and offer their best wishes for a good routine were probably convinced I'd consumed enough illicit substances to finance half of the annual GDP of Colombia. I was a gibbering mess.

When I was actually on stage, microphone in hand and under the spotlight, call in the chicks from Touched By An Angel because it was a complete out-of-body experience. Wrenched to the limit by nerves, your mouth just runs on autopilot, reciting your routine practically by rote, while your mind, on the other hand, is panicking completely, thinking a million things at once.

Oh my God are they laughing or just being polite? How much sweat is pouring off me? I must look a hydroelectric plant... Was that the right punchline or did I just screw it up??...They're looking at my tie, aren't they? Damn it, they're not even listening to me, they're looking at that horrible TIE I decided to wear!! I should have gone with the blue stripes. THE BLUE STRIPES!!! Am I having a heart attack? I think I'm having a heart attack...

You get the picture.

To make things worse, I certainly don't possess that one skill that I think all the truly great comics must possess, and that's spontaneity. In a reactive environment like a comedy club, surely half the fun of watching comedians at work is their rapport with the crowd. Their ability to ad'lib, create on the move and expand from the prepared material. With my mind already working on overdrive, these kinds of interruptions never seemed to serve me well. My friends that were present to that first university effort still tease me about it.

During the routine, I couldn't help but notice there was a guy seated directly in front of me who kept talking. And talking. Eventually, when it got to the point that even I could hear what he was nattering about, I offered 'Excuse me, can I help you?' The poor kid was stunned and, redfaced went mute. Panicking about what I should do now, I went even further, 'Is there something you'd like to share with the rest of us?'

Now I'd really screwed up.

What was an off-the-cuff 'let's get this guy to shut'up but deal with it lightly' attempt had turned into a classroom disciplinary exercise. The entire room went silent while it appeared I was about to snap at this poor chap who had no doubt been unaware, right or wrong, that his chatter was a touch annoying. Mindful of defusing the situation as quickly as possible, my mind searched frantically for something to use as a throwaway line... Something to move us on and back into my routine'proper. Something, more importantly, that would hopefully also be funny. My answer?

'Hey. School's in, motherfucker.'

I still, to this day, have no idea where the hell that line came from, but needless to say, the only person in the room that laughed was my friend Hamish, who was only roaring because he couldn't believe that was the best I had to offer. He still insists on using the line as a segue between conversations. Needless to say I apologised to the chap after I finished my routine, but not before I noticed him visibly flinch, no doubt worrying I was about to throw him a haymaker.

Once the stand-up routine is finally over, naturally, relief completely washes over you. If you were lucky to get a couple of laughs, then the real reward is the particularly addictive hit of satisfaction. Hey, it's fun to be the funny guy. That said, even if, on just three appearances I was lucky enough to secure a couple laughs, it was only a couple laughs, and the stress is enough as it is without deciding to play the odds and eventually find myself in that room with chirping crickets and abusive crowds.

No, for me, as I told the stand'up comedian this past week, it was more than enough for me after three attempts to retire from comedy. I'd much rather have had those few efforts that left me relatively unscathed, let that adrenalin rush of the performance finally subside, and collapse in the corner, marvelling at the absolute guts and talent that the real professionals must surely possess.

Oh, and apparently Hitler likes to repel mosquitos with Meinkampfer oil.

Tune in every Monday for another edition of Ezy Reading.