The first and last time I tried stand up comedy

Originally published: 1/30/2003; 11:51:29 PM

Be funny. Try it. Right now, right this second, stand up and say something that cracks up a majority of the people who are sitting near you. Now, try it in front of people you’ve never met. Don’t write anything down. Don’t tell a corny joke or a dirty joke or recite some movie quote, limmerick or any bit lifted from another comedian. How’s it going so far?

People who know me will say I have a quick wit. Most of the time it is dry and sarcastic and it usually comes out of my mouth before I’ve actually tried it out in my head. Some people appreciate this quality. Some people probably find it tiring or even offensive. It has gotten me into trouble more than once.

There are people, though, who simply think of this as “being funny.” These people do not have an appreciation for the multiple dimensions of humour–that guy makes me laugh, therefore, he can make others laugh, therefore, he should be a comedian.

When I was in college, the guys on my dorm floor were big fans of my never-ending wisecracks. That fall the “U.S. College Comedy Competition” came to campus. The judge was a then relatively unknown Jerry Seinfeld. His picture was on the poster and everything. Jerry, as it turns out, would only view the tapes from the regional finalists. The local competitions would be judged by the audience.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued. I had done plays in school and community theater. And folks would say things like, “You should be a comedian,” or “You are sooo funny,” or “How do you come up with that stuff?”. When the dorm guys heard about the competition, they begged me to sign up. So I did.

For the next week, I agonized over my “bit.” I’d get three minutes to win over the audience. No swearing or off-color humor allowed. (Those who know me will acknowledge this to be a severe handicap and should have been a major warning sign of what was to come).

I stared at a blank piece of paper for a day or two. Absolutely nothing funny came to mind. I was trying to force it. It wasn’t happening. I had some of the dumbest, corniest ideas ever imagined. I had a bizarre notion that maybe I could read headlines from tabloids and make fun of them. I went to the grocery store and bought all I could find. The checker probably thought I was a shut-in of some sort or just really starved for hard-hitting news coverage of Bat Boy and his latest escapades. I cruised through the Weekly World News and ultimately realized that you can’t poke fun at these stories because they are already so incredibly ridiculous. Scratch that idea.

I cycled through several other lame ideas but nothing was clicking. The competition was one day away and I had jack squat. I had absolutely no idea what I would say. But I couldn’t quit. I concluded that I would not write a script. I would simply wing it. After all, when I’m in a small group, that’s what I’m doing–being spontaneous, right? Why would this be any different?

I showed up at the auditorium and got the rundown from the guy putting it on. He asked the six or so of us competing what order we wanted to go in. I was ready to get it over with so I volunteered to go first. Huge mistake. It turned out that they had a professional comedian as a warm up. I’d follow him. Jeff Potts, a first-timer with no bit would follow a professional comedian in front of an auditorium full of college students who by God wanted to hear something funny.

The comedian came on stage and began his bit. My mind raced. Think of something funny. Think of something funny. Come on, dammit, “funny” not “stupid.” The comedian finished up. Over already? At this point I’m waiting just off stage. The emcee thanks the comedian and starts my intro. I’m not ready. The mic thunders, “…give it up for Jeff Potts!” followed by clapping and whooping echoing throughout the auditorium. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” I thought. I hoped my heart wouldn’t explode as I stumbled to the front of the stage. If I vomit maybe that’d get a few laughs.

I don’t remember much of my routine. It was mostly comprised of obscure, slightly neurotic observations that you assume everyone else can relate to when, in actuality, no one has the faintest clue what you are talking about. I got a few tolken laughs, particularly from the back of the audience–most of my dorm floor had attended. I think most of the laughter was of the nervous or sadistic sort.

The guy that won was funny. He basically told a three-minute joke he had obviously been telling since high school. The audience didn’t mind his old material. The next morning the school paper ran a front-page headline, “New King of Comedy Crowned.” Whatever. At least he was below the fold.

That would be the first and last time I tried stand-up. I would be redeemed a year later, though. I tried out for and got a spot with a sketch comedy group. One of the guys I tried out for was the same guy who put on the comedy competition. He told me he loved my bit. I realized he thought I was putting on an act. He thought my bit was to have no bit. Oh yeah–comedic genius.

Writing sketch comedy as a collaborative exercise turned out to be much more fun. I did that in the Fall and Spring and was offered the director spot for the next season but I chose to write a script for my fraternity’s entry in the semi-annual greek show instead. I was glad to help out the house but later regreted the decision. It just wasn’t the same.

Since then I’ve maintained a healthy respect for people who can actually plan to be funny. And I’ll never forget the visceral experience of standing on a stage with 200 pairs of eyes staring at me, waiting to be entertained.