Abby Stassen is a Chicago based stand-up. You can see her in Omaha May 22 and 23 as part of the Crom Comedy Festival. She produces the weekly Friday showcase Proxy Morons and the every other week Sunday showcase Tuxedo Cat Comedy, both in Chicago. If you see her she’ll remember her jokes. -ed.
My nightmare gig wasn’t in an awful biker bar in Berwyn, Illinois or between bands at a heavy metal show. It was an amazing show that I’d asked to be on, then proceeded to ruin by making it a nightmare in my head.
I was sixteen months into stand-up and I was on a bit of a high horse. I’d recently crushed at my first out of town gig and was on my way to my first festival. I’d been writing a lot and hitting 10-14 open mics a week. I felt like I was finally getting the hang of things – so it was time to really embarrass myself.
There was a show I desperately wanted to be on in Chicago. It’s an awesome bi-monthly showcase in a comic book shop – the producers are great and they always pack the place out, standing room only. It’s a show every comedian loves doing. I hadn’t been asked to perform there yet, so for the first time ever I asked the producers myself if I could be on the show. The awesome producers said “sure.” I was stoked.
First a little background: when I started stand-up, I was coming off a decade–long public speaking phobia. I hadn’t stood up and talked in front of people since debate class my freshman year of high school, when I went into our final arguments completely unprepared, froze up, and forgot every single word I was going to say. After that I did everything I could to avoid public speaking – in college I’d drop any class that required presentations (leading a downright schizophrenic college transcript). But when I moved back to Chicago after graduation I started watching live stand-up, fell in love, and knew I had to try it.
The show started and it was a blast. The audience loved all the comics, and the guy who went up before me had a great set. I asked to be brought up to the arrogant rap song “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled (feat. Rick Ross, T-Pain, Ludacris, and Snoop Dogg). The song played and I went bounding up to the stage thinking, “I am going to NAIL this.”
I did my first joke, which got a tepid response.
And then I forgot EVERYTHING that came after that.
I looked into the audience and saw about forty or fifty faces looking back expectantly, including several bigger comics who had never seen me perform before and one ex-boyfriend. This was not the time to forget. It was NOT the time to bomb and allow the silence to envelop the room. So I did the thing you should never do – I just started rambling and narrated my insecurities to the audience.
“OhmyGodIforgoteverything, I can’t remember what I was gonna say, this is awkward huh? Heh heh heh Jesus Christ this is bad, what’s going on you guys, Jesus I still can’t remember –“
And so on and so forth.
I was trying to desperately fill the silence instead of taking a moment to sit in it and remember my actual jokes, and in the process I made the audience feel sorry for me. You NEVER want the audience to pity you. The only thing that felt worse than forgetting my entire set was hearing “aww” and “oh NO” from some girls in the front row once I’d finally remembered and started telling jokes again. It was a darker set that needed a confident attitude to land properly and get laughs, but once I’d wasted two minutes narrating how awful things were in my head I’d lost my swagger. My material about starting a food blog to get over the last guy who’d dumped me just sounded sad instead of silly.
I raced through the rest of my set, abruptly said “okay bye!” at the end, and raced off the stage (once again to “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled, feat. Rick Ross, T-Pain, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg). Then I ran out of the room and hid in a staircase like a lame, modern-day Phantom of the Opera.
Every comic has a voice inside their head that pops up occasionally saying, “you suck, you suck, you suck” over and over again. Unfortunately tonight was the night that that voice manifested outside of my head, in the form of five people I’d walked from the show who were commenting on my set. I heard them leaving from the stairwell.
“Man, that last girl really sucked.”
“Yeah, what was she talking about with that food blog thing?”
“I wish she’d forgotten the rest of her jokes too!” (THAT got a laugh.)
“NOOOOOOO!” I wanted to scream. “THIS ISN’T ME! PLEASE COME BACK AND LET ME PROVE MYSELF! ALSO THAT FOOD BLOG JOKE IS PRETTY GOOD IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT!”
But I didn’t scream those things. I did try to eat part of my sweatshirt as a coping mechanism, but I stayed quiet. Poly-cotton blends don’t go down as easy as you’d think.
It took two other comedians and a couple of PBRs to talk me down, but I finally left the staircase. I’d frozen up on a packed show I’d asked to be on in front of people I really respected. My ego had taken a hit, but I was still alive, and I still wanted to do stand-up. My worst nightmare had happened, but I’d proven that nightmares are still things that happen in your head.
Unless you ever go perform at a certain biker bar in Berwyn, Illinois. That place is very, very real.
Photo by Harryson T Photography