Kevin Brody is a stand up and producer of the popular podcast/live show Arguments and Grievances. He should remember his performances. He usually does. -ed.
I consider myself fortunate to have avoided the types of truly horrendous nightmare gigs suffered by some of my friends. With the exception of my short tenure in a Christian rock band when I was fifteen (I legitimately thought the lyrics were about getting high on drugs, not Jesus) and some youth group-prayer-laced shows in the back of churches, I’ve never had a catastrophic gig. Sure, I’ve done some miserable shows. Those shows sucked for the same reasons lots of shows suck:
- The show is a “hostage” show: in which the “audience” (usually people at a bar) had no idea a comedy show was scheduled in the same room.
- The show is set up to fail by producers: TVs (sometimes with sound!) are on, sound is bad, lighting is bad, hosting is bad.
- Despite everyone’s best efforts there is no audience.
I’ve been on shows where people don’t show up, or where producers are bad, or where the bartender refuses to turn off TBS because they’re showing Roadhouse. I’ve been fortunate enough to come out with something salvageable in those situations. My real nightmare gig was having an anxiety attack onstage.
I don’t suffer from stage fright or social anxiety. I’ll definitely get a little nervous before a bigger set, but nothing close to panic. I’ve had just a few anxiety “attacks” in my life. They manifest as severe stomach pain, shortness of breath, and increased heart rate. Lots of people described them as feeling like they’re having a heart attack. I’ve never passed out or needed emergency medical attention because of one, but the feeling of having a heart attack seems apt. I’ll usually feel physically sick to my stomach, then unable to breathe, then like I’m going to pass out (but never do). Typically I’ll go sit or lay down and then sort of space out for a period of time. Physically I’m awake and alert but my mind is disconnected.
I hadn’t been feeling mentally well the entire day preceding the show, but that’s not altogether uncommon. I have a therapist and a psychiatrist and take drugs for anxiety and depression. I’m normally pretty adept at keeping my mental health in check for shows. I love doing stand-up, so in most cases even if I’m mentally feeling off prior to a set, performing helps. I assumed, as it usually does, the symptoms would subside as I got closer to my set and that when I got onstage I would be good.
I have no idea what triggered the attack for this particular show. I was sober and everything was going well in the room. As the host was introducing me I started to feel the familiar, intense stomach pain. It felt like I was going to vomit knifes. Walking to the stage I thought I was going to pass out. I couldn’t catch my breath and I could feel my heart hammering in my neck. I blacked out (Or maybe I browned out? I’m not sure). I remember walking to the stage and shaking the host’s hand and then nothing. My vision went to black. The next thing I remembered was being upstairs after my set, trying not to throw up. I was watching some football game and wasn’t sure where I was. A friend of mine was talking to me about the how good the bar wings were. Eventually after 2 to 20 minutes (I had no idea) I went outside and chain smoked three bummed cigarettes (I don’t smoke) and felt better.
My comic friends said my set was fine. Nothing amazing, but nothing terrible. That was maybe the scariest part. I somehow auto-piloted through an emotional freak-out and managed to neither faint nor self-destruct onstage all while doing a somewhat-passable job. I hate the idea of being able to phone in something I’m passionate about. Some part of me would prefer to actually faint or throw up rather than be so disconnected onstage. I’ve never experienced a bout of anxiety before or since in which I lose a significant period of time. It was a nightmare because even though I didn’t feel present for the attack, there was a total absence of conscious control while performing…and even though I don’t remember the specifics, that felt terrible. It’s also scary because I have no idea what was different from that day and that show than any of the others I’ve had before or since. Somehow my brain shut down. The fear is that it might happen again. Maybe I’ll say some horrendous shit next time or start receiving messages from the devil (fingers crossed). I truly hope there’s no next time.