My daughter Hannah was recently part of a stand-up comedy show and I went to see it. I think that stand-up comedy is probably the most scary thing in the world to do. Acting is scary but at least you have a character and script written by someone else behind which to hide. With stand-up there is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. Part of this show was done as various characters such as the three Nana’s shown above (Hannah first on left) but for the rest, each person involved had to do their own routine, as themselves, performing their own material!
I can’t imagine anything scarier. I admire all stand-up comedians as probably the bravest people in the world. Why it is so terrifying to stand up in front of an audience and try to make them laugh? I’m not sure. The worst that can happen is that nobody laughs. You’re not going to die (unless it’s from fright), you’re not going to get your head chopped off (unless the audience really really hate you), you’re not going to get chained to a car and dragged across nettles (some people pay good money for that). So why is the prospect so mind-numbingly, butt-achingly terrifying?
I suppose it’s to do with our powerful need for approval. The relationship between a stand-up comic and the audience is completely raw, naked and immediate. You say something; they laugh (or not). You expose yourself (not literally unless you really have to); they give their approval (or not). If you don’t get a laugh, you’re not getting approval. And if you’re not approved of, your whole identity could be at stake. You may be forced to face the fact that you’re rubbish at this, you failed, you’re not the person you thought you were.
Ironically, the thing which is most likely to make you fail, not only in stand-up comedy but in many areas of life, is your fear of failure. The only way you can be a good comedian is if you get laughs and the audience must be relaxed before it can laugh. If those people watching you sense that you’re not confident then they won’t relax and they won’t laugh, no matter how good your material. So really, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you can genuinely convince yourself that you will succeed then there’s every chance that you will. Generally I don’t tend to believe in things unless I have evidence (no, not big on religion as you can imagine). So I could never make the leap of faith required to get up on stage and do stand-up for the first time. The only evidence I have to go on would be the fact that I was rubbish enough reading out in class at school so I’m probably going to be super-rubbish as a performer. If I could take it on faith that I’d be able to cope, whatever happens; that my whole identity wouldn’t be threatened if it didn’t go well, then I might stand a chance.
Luckily it wasn’t me up on stage for this show, it was Hannah. But when you have kids, you feel their pain as though it is your pain. I was in agony before the show started, writhing in the shadows in sympathy with my daughter. When she came on stage my agony reached a horrific crescendo of empathetic fear mixed with pride. It was about ten minutes before I breathed again.
Hannah did well. She did a good routine and got laughs. It was going to be OK. Then, of course, I realised that it was always going to be OK. She was always going to do well because she’s good but even if she hadn’t done well, that would have been OK too. She would have come off and laughed about it and either said how she’d never try that again or maybe said how she would try it a bit differently next time and gradually build up her skill. Her identity was never at stake. My problem is I’m so terrified of pain, however fleeting. I can’t accept that pain is good, pain is there for a reason; to keep us safe, to teach us how to be in the future. I spend most of my life avoiding pain and so I never learn.
The show went really well and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Even me, once I’d been treated for hyperventilating by two paramedics named Janice and Darren. Maybe next time I’ll realise that, whatever happens, it’ll be OK. Or maybe I’ll just remain an enormous wuss. See you soon Janice and Darren.