Brooke Van Poppelen is a fantastic standup and Bentzen Ball alum. If you’d like to see her before the next Bentzen Ball, watch her on Hack My Life on truTV, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Season 2 premieres tonight, August 18. -ed.
As much as I truly love to put the blame on others for many of the nightmare stand up gigs I have suffered through, the worst kind by far is the one that is your fault — The situation you said yes to when you knew you were not a good candidate for said show. But, money. Enough money to make you believe you can whip something together and fake it til you make it and you’ll just sneak out the back and laugh all the way to the bank.
The problem though was I had agreed to try and “fake it” (be likable and relatable) for kids at a summer camp. Not sure if you know this, but kids hate bullshit and have a very discerning palate for it. Also — it’s very hard to “sneak out the back and laugh all the way to the bank” when you are staying in a cabin in the woods in Maine. With them.
Let me backtrack for a minute and cover my bases so you don’t think I am a complete lunatic. Back in 2007 I was asked to do some comedy shows in Maine at summer camps for rich kids. Like, Eddie Murphy and Steven Spielberg offspring level rich kid camp. I was going to do this little tour with three other comics I adored — Jordan Carlos, Nick Maritato and Sean O’Connor. It paid really, really well for someone who was blowing her barista tips on buckets of alcohol.
“Forget the kids, focus on the money” was my mantra. In truth, I was terrified and a little uncomfortable as to what in Gods name I was going to say or do to entertain children. Just when I started to think of ways to back out, This American Life caught wind of our upcoming adventure and decided to produce a story around us. Like, are you KIDDING me. I was over the moon.
Just like This American Life, I had relocated from the windy city to NYC on roughly the same timeline as them. The radio show was my companion throughout my tenure in Chicago — I listened faithfully and would see live productions every chance I could and it reminded me of calmer times. In Chicago I was stable, married, and get this, HAD A CAR, very unlike my current routine in NYC which consisted of sobbing in Central Park and sleeping in condemned buildings. So, yes — I absolutely was in all the way now. No backing out because I was going to be on TAL and somehow this was going to fix everything!
Flash forward to arriving in Maine. The road trip may have been fun but it was hard to remember because for some reason I decided now — yes now, was a great time to start The Master Cleanse where you consume nothing but spicy lemon water for several days. We stopped at roadside diners and country kitchens as we snaked up the east coast and I remember watching everyone eat pancakes and grits as I dizzily maintained this starvation diet and rage-journaled about my divorce and what a loser I was. WAIT TIL THESE KIDS GET A LOAD OF ME. I was quickly approaching a mental breakdown.
The campgrounds were overwhelming — there was organized chanting and so much youthful energy and GOD I was hungry. The fear of performing for them really set in when I stopped to realize my tour mates’ advantage over me. Nick and Sean were young — like REALLY young — late teens/ early twenties. Jordan and I were around the same age in our late twenties but Jordan was the star of ME TV on Nickelodeon. It started as a low din, then crescendoed into chaotic, excited screaming — every kid at that camp recognized Jordan and mobbed him while they cried out his name and tried to touch the face of their God. I was so fucked.
The day of the show is kind of blurry. Between the missing calories and palpable fear, I am not completely sure what happened but I definitely bombed. I bombed harder than I could have even imagined. I was standing in the middle of a gymnasium during the day with children seated all around me. Time stood still. The salty, sweaty odor that gymnasium floors produce washed over me. I could hear my heart beating slowly. I saw the lovely producer from This American Life standing off to the side recording me. I told the three jokes I had that didn’t involve my sad sexual escapades or alcoholic tendencies and from there it gets choppy. My inner monologue got really loud. “Why would these camp people not vet me or check out my material in advance?? This is their fault I am up here bombing right now!!!! How could they not know I am a miserable, lost, selfish fart of a human with a darkness in me that could erase the hopes and dreams of all of these children??”
And then I remembered I had a joke about MySpace. “Yes! A relatable joke for the youth!! Thank you God, thank you. It will be my closer and I will save face.” I lay my joke about MySpace on these kids with a triumphant flair. I pause, bracing for the desperately needed laughter. Nothing. It’s more silent than before. I break — “What’s the problem, you guys don’t have MySpace?” A young boy matter of factly blurts out “No one uses MySpace. We’re all on Facebook.” That gets a huge laugh.
After my set I remember sitting off to the side on a dusty gym mat with my cheeks burning and stomach grumbling. Jordan, Nick and Sean take the stage and do exceedingly well. The easy laughs they are getting cause me to walk down to the lake so I can be alone. I remember staring at the reflection of the canoes in the still water. I break out an emergency avocado I had hiding in my bag and slice it open and with each bite I spoon into my mouth I get angrier : “IT’S THEIR FAULT FOR BOOKING ME” (spoon, chew, swallow) “THIS IS SO UNFAIR AND NOW I HAVE TO SLEEP ON A COT IN THE CAMP TRIAGE” (spoon, chew, swallow) “THERE IS NO ALCOHOL FOR MILES AND I JUST HAVE TO SIT WITH THIS AND FACE MYSELF ALONE IN THE WOODS” (spoon, chew, swallow) “I WILL NEVER KNOW LOVE AGAIN”– and so on and so forth.
Needless to say, I didn’t make it into the episode of This American Life. I was told they couldn’t untangle mine and Jordan’s audio to make clean storylines for us. I mean, I believe them, buuuuut I also believe they were reviewing the audio files and were like “Dear God, who said it was okay for this exceedingly bitter, train wreck of a woman to be around children?? “
I was SO bummed about not making it into the episode but in retrospect, I dodged a bullet. That was honestly one of my worst shows I have ever done while I was also in one of the darkest places of my life. The episode is called “How To Talk To Kids” and while I’ve heard it’s a great episode and you should listen to it, I still cannot. I survived it and that’s good enough for me.