My first stint as a stand-up comic came near the end of my senior year of high school. Mine was the only act in the talent show that wasn't musical. That made me feel like the guy they brought in between the befeathered burlesque babes, the one who gets heckled off the stage when the audience gets boisterous for more breasts.
I worked up about seven or eight minutes of material, keeping a couple
of minutes in reserve in case I worked the crowd into such a frenzied
state of belly-busting laughter that they called out for more. "They" had to look over my act ahead of time to make sure there wasn't anything too off-color or out-of-bounds. My friend Kevin's pedophilia-themed parody of Tom Petty's "Free Falling" (hey, I was 18, gimme a break) didn't make the cut, but my joke about my Irish-German heritage did.
I spent most of the show behind the stage. I'd never been a theater kid, so the environment was an alien one to me: dressers and drawers of costumes full-to-bursting lined the walls, some of which were real and some of which were set backdrops painted in over-the-top theatrical gaud. Props were piled everywhere. Only the merest of a walkway meandered from the stage door that opened onto the main hall to the backstage area. It was hard to see in the gloom, but you could hear everything that went on on stage.
The guy on before me was a kid a couple years younger than me, a talented guitarist doing an acoustic act that ended with a cover of Queensrÿche's "Silent Lucidity." He was good, his picking flawless, his soft croon turning to a heartfelt wail at just the right note. The crowd cheered. The emcee got on to announce my act. At that instance I couldn't remember a single joke.
Somehow I stumbled to the center of the stage and stared out into...I assume there was a crowd there. I wasn't used to stage lighting and didn't realize I'd have such a hard time making out faces. It helped not to be able to see anyone distinctly.
"Hey folks," I said. Something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
"Hey," a few people said back.
"Just wanna let you all know," I started into my act confidently, "that if you feel like heckling, let me have it. I've got the perfect comeback."
"Your mike's off!" someone shouted. The words barely registered.
"Yeah? So's your mom!" I shouted back. There was nervous laughter. The crowd realized what for another few minutes I would not: my mike was indeed off and would remain off for the duration of my act. Someone had accidentally kicked a wire free backstage, and it didn't get sorted out until I had finished my routine.
Unfazed, I went on, birthing what would later turn into my booming "teacher" voice.
"So I'm half Irish and half German," I said, "which means I'm never sure whether to get drunk and start a barroom brawl or get drunk and invade a small defenseless European nation." There was more laughter. They could hear me. I was winning.
I dove into my heritage a bit more, and then I turned to the topics familiar to most of my audience: school, the mall, the drudgery of teenage life. I got steady laughs. I don't think it was ever a tumult, but it was always more than a teehee. It was the first time I'd ever been recognized at the school for something other than academic achievements. It felt good. It felt damned good.
I don't remember most of my jokes now, but I do recall ending on a bit about crank-calling the public phone at the Minimart on Last Chance Gulch.
"Thank you so much!" I said, putting the useless mike back in its stand and stumbling off the stage to my right. "Thank you so much!"