What I Learned From Three Gruelling Months as a Stand-Up Comedian

I guess entering Triple J Raw Comedy to avenge my ex was never going to bring happiness.

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15 March 2016, 12:00am

Illustrations by Michael Dockery.

When I tell people I went through a "comedy phase," their reaction is usually a mixture of curiosity and something approaching respect. Sometimes, I get asked to tell a joke, which is like meeting a stripper and yelling "dance bitch!" So instead of telling them a joke I'm more inclined to tell them the truth, which is that comedy is really fucking hard.

Here's why.

Revenge Is a Bad Motive

Comedy tends to attract the broken-hearted, and I was no exception. My favourite type of person in life is someone I can learn from, and especially if they're good at something that I'm not. This is how I ended up dating a guy who was funnier, more confident, and better at making friends than me. Eventually, I realised he was obnoxious but I was still distraught when he broke up with me. How could I make myself a female version of him if we weren't together all the time?

The answer was revenge. The plan: become more successful at stand-up comedy than him, just because comedy was "his thing."

We both entered Australia's biggest open mic competition, Triple J Raw Comedy. At first it seemed too perfect. I made it past the first round, but he did not. The best part? He heard about my success through the grapevine. I was now officially kind of a big deal.

You'll Think You've Made it Because You're Not Shit

One of my first big comedy shows was in the band room at Melbourne's Espy Hotel. I strategically invited all my friends to lend some moral support and provide enough pity laughs to survive a three-minute set.

As I'd grown up doing dance concerts and piano recitals, performing on stage felt more exciting than intimidating. Then, after my first tentative joke got a laugh, the next one became easier. I realised people weren't just pity-laughing, but actually laughing at my jokes.

After the show, an Australian comedian named Felicity Ward approached me. She's a regular on shows such as Spicks and Specks and Thank God You're Here, and her encouragement made her my instant hero and confirmed that comedy was my life's calling. In one second my mind was transported to next year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival: me thanking guests after my sold out shows and sharing the dance-floor every night with Stephen K Amos at VIP after-parties. But I hadn't anticipated something—step two requires commitment.

Comedy Is Commitment

With my first experience setting expectations unsustainably high, I signed up with a bunch of comedy nights around town. But real comedy, as I quickly discovered, was in dimly lit basements for an audience swilling beers and jeering at performers. Either that or it lived in sterile function rooms, with the odds of getting a laugh crippled by sober audiences of 10 people. After each routine I waited for another comedian to take me under their wing, but the best I could get was a weary smile.

You Will Offend and Steal

Only one joke ever got guaranteed laughs. That was a story where I impersonated my Filipino mother implying I was fat. It was my safety net, but it wasn't even my story.

Clutching for ideas, I stole funny stories from friends and told them like they were my own. It was a necessary evil, but it felt dirty, and especially if the audience believed it was true. I also wasn't entirely comfortable turning my own mum into laughing stock.

People Will Be Funnier Than You

Before Claudia O'Doherty got a job on the Netflix series Love, she spent years in Australia honing her skills at countless comedy and fringe festivals. Likewise you might not have heard of Celia Pacquola before she showed up on Utopia, but to get there she pulled beers and obsessively noted every comedic idea that came to her head. In short, success in comedy is directly proportional to obsession.

For me, patience didn't feel like an option. I felt overwhelmed by the dedication required, and afraid of all the mistakes I'd have to make and all the ego-splintering stage deaths that would be an inevitable part of shaping a career. I'd entered this thing on a whim, but it was turning out to be a lot more serious than I wanted it to become.

People Will Think You're Not Funny

It was in front of a small pub audience in the inner suburb of Prahran that I experienced my first real bomb. I was making some gag about displaced hipsters that was really dragging, and the audience was plodding along in silence. As I went on I could feel my toes curl in my shoes and something die in my heart. I had read the audience wrong, but I tried to brush off the failure with a smile. All the same, it fucking hurt.

Successful comedians deal with jokes that bomb regularly—some even revel in it. But my ego wasn't that solid. I knew I couldn't face another bomb.

There's Always Another Bomb

As a teenager, I romanticised the idea of playing in a band so that I could casually invite acquaintances to watch how awesome I was. Now I, a seasoned comedian, could partially achieve that dream, so I invited some guy to a university open mic competition. A fellow student, he seemed more worldly than me, and I was desperate to impress.

The competition was dominated by society cliques and jocks, which felt pretty intimidating as a girl living with my parents in the suburbs. Then, as a competitor on stage shared photos of penises from around the world to the approval of the audience, I realised I was out of my depth. I didn't understand my audience and I would bomb and there was nothing I could do about it.

Later an audience member called my show "cute," which wasn't the feedback I wanted. Neither was there any declaration of love or admiration from my potential fanboy. Instead, he gave me an obligatory "good on you," and we never spoke about the show again.

I decided it was time to break up with comedy.

Strangely, Comedy Is Rewarding

In a different capacity, comedy is still part of my life. I like making people laugh. I still think I have good ideas and the ability to convey them, but maybe not the motivation and self-assurance to pursue a long-term career.

If you're thinking you're funny, I say try it. You haven't got much to lose, and if you fail miserably you can chalk it up to experience. Just don't expect to rise to the top. As with any life ambition, you'll have to practice obsessively, relentlessly, and without any expectation of gratification any time soon.

Follow Chelsea on Twitter.

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