Hey Amit, are you still doing Stand-up Comedy?
My wife gifted me six weeks of stand-up comedy classes for my 35th birthday.
While I loved watching stand-up, actually doing stand up comedy had never occurred to me. My wife tells me that she gifted me the classes because she saw something in me. Something which made her realize that I should try stand-up comedy as a hobby. I’m not convinced. I think it was her way of getting me off her back with my endless “have you ever noticed”, “I don’t like…”, and “what’s the deal with” observations. She would at least get six weeks of respite from those.
The First Show
After six weeks of writing, performing, and preparing I was ready for my graduation show at NYC’s Gotham comedy club. I frequented this club as a member of the audience. But this time was different. I would be on stage.
I invited a few of my closest friends. I was super nervous when the host called out my name. "Please welcome - Amit Jotwani!”. My adrenaline was rushing. Before I knew it I was on stage, holding the mic, with fifty people looking at me.
I launched into my set with a cringeworthy one liner - “Keep drinking. The more you drink, the funnier I get”. I got a few giggles which was all I needed to release my nervous energy.
I finished my five minute set. It went well. I got some laughs. I didn’t bomb completely. I wasn’t a deer caught in the headlights. I liked it. I liked the laughs. I liked the claps and the adulation. Afterwards, a couple strangers even congratulated me on the performance.
Operating in Safe Mode
Encouraged by the relative success of my first outing I signed up for a few more slots at Gotham comedy club and Metropolitan Comedy Club. I also did a few open mics.
I loved getting on stage and adored the compliments. I knew my set well. I knew my lines. I knew my pauses. I knew what jokes were working and I stuck with those. I knew what to expect.
Writing new material and trying it out at open mics felt like a risky proposition. What if I failed? What if no one found it funny? What if I forgot my lines? What if I got heckled?
Worst of all, what if they found out that I was an imposter? That I was just a beginner, that the first set I wrote was a fluke? That I didn’t belong there on stage?
That seemed too risky. I knew what was working. I decided to operate in “Safe Mode”.
Two sides of the tape
Stand-up comedy is a two act process. There's the act of performing on stage and there’s the act of writing.
The first part is done in public. That's what people come to see. It’s the glamorous part. It’s what people cheer you on for. It’s what people remember you for. It’s also the relatively easy part.
The second part is behind the scenes - the act of writing. It’s the lonely part. It's not glamorous at all. No one sees this. No one’s cheering you on as you approach the writing desk every day. There’s no applause when you wrap up a writing session. There’s no immediate gratification.
It’s painful. It’s an arduous journey to create something from nothing. You have a funny premise but then you need to craft it so other people see what you see. Every word matters. You write and you rewrite. Rinse and repeat. It is brutal. It is painful.
But it's what you must do.
“The most difficult thing in the world is to write. People tell you to write like you're supposed to be able to do it. Nobody can do it. It's impossible. The greatest people in the world can't do it. So if you're gonna do that, you should first be told what you are attempting to do is incredibly difficult.” ~ Jerry Seinfeld
Don’t skip Side-B of the tape
Like an old audio tape, the act of doing stand-up comedy is a combination of side-A and side-B. You don’t get the glamorous part of performing on stage (side-A) without also embracing the painful unglamorous part of writing (side-B).
We see Usain Bolt on the track winning the 100 meter race. We see the dramatic finish. We see the hero. We see him celebrate. We celebrate with him. That's the glamorous part. That’s side-A.
We see him getting the endorsements, the admiration, the fan following. All the perks of being famous and successful. Still side-A.
But what we don't see is the behind the scenes - side-B of the tape. The iceberg under the water. The brutal, arduous, unglamorous part of just showing up everyday to work on the craft. That’s what powers the glamorous side-A of the tape.
This series of A/B switches of getting in the arena, learning from the performance, and getting back to work on the craft is hard. It’s also something you must do to grow. You don’t get side-A, without side-B.
In fact, the 80:20 rule dictates that to succeed you would end up spending more time on side-B than side-A.
With stand-up comedy, this looks something like -
Side-B: You write something you think is funny
Side-A: Get on the stage to try it out
Side-B: Get back to the writing table.
Am I still doing stand-up comedy?
So when people ask me, “Are you still doing stand-up comedy?” what they're really asking is “Are you still performing on stage?” (Side A)
The answer to that is “No”.
The question that’s more important to me, however is “Am I working on Side B?” Am I toiling on the craft? Am I putting in the reps? Am I showing up everyday to write?
Sadly, the answer to that is also a “No”.
While COVID can take some of the blame for me not being on stage, the other reason I haven’t been on stage as much is that I have been wanting to write new material. I don’t want to repeat the same stuff. This has been a double-edged sword because I am not writing any new material either. Why? Two reasons -
Imposter Syndrome - “What if people find out that I’m a fluke? What if people criticize me? Why would people want to come and see me? Am I even funny?”
Perfection Fugazi, and the fear of failure - “It’s not good enough. The ending sucks. The beginning sucks. It's not perfect yet.”
Perfection is the enemy of good. It's an illusion. It doesn't exist. To paraphrase Mark Hanna from “The Wolf of Wall Street” -
“(Perfection) is a Fugayzi. It’s a fake. It's a whazy. It's a woozie. It's fairy dust. It doesn't exist. It's never landed. It is no matter. It's not on the elemental chart. It's not fucking real.”
Note to Self: Focus on the reps - journey before destination
Don't look for perfection. Focus on just showing up. Put in the reps. Instead of focusing on getting better, focus on "sucking less." That is liberating. If I suck a little less than last week that's progress. I’ll be putting my journey before the destination.
Hold yourself accountable. Build in public. Share the ugly stuff.
So in 2021 I've decided to liberate myself of the pressure of focusing on the destination of getting on stage and not failing. Instead I will focus my energy on just showing up and writing every day for an hour and publishing a new joke every week.
If you're reading this, please hold me accountable. Please remind me that it doesn’t matter if it's funny or not. Please remind me that it doesn’t matter if it sucks. Please remind me that I don't need to be this serious in life. I only need to be sincere at what I do. I only need to put in the reps.
And most important of all, that I have fun doing it.
Hopefully you will see me at an open mic in NYC soon (vaccines couldn’t come sooner)!