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on combatting nerves on stage

filed 8 December 2004 | Chicago
by Dan Kaufman

Dan Kaufman is a comedian whose advocacy for independent theater and performance is well-known in Chicago and elsewhere. As a regular contributor to the Neo-Futurist Group on Yahoo, Kaufman's notes and observations are welcomed by all who enjoy short-format spoken word. Whether he's writing about standup comedy or performance poetry, Kaufman's comments relate to anyone who has had to stand and deliver. Poets may see something they recognize in their own acquaintances as they read his piece below.

- Kurt Heintz, e-poets network

A young guy posted this on a comedy newsgroup:

> even the THOUGHT of getting on stage
> IN FRONT OF PEOPLE makes me nervous.
> Is everyone here really out-going? Or
> have people felt this way too??

Here's my reply to him. It focuses on stand-up, but I think the issues are related for all performers, so just replace "comedian" with "performer" and "funny" with "good" etc. and reverse genders as needed...

A lot of stand-ups are shy introverts offstage (or were before comedy). Outgoing people tend to be happier and don't have the desperate need for attention and affirmation that marks most good stand-up comics.

Growing up, my brother was the funny one at the dinner table. I just sat there. He got tons of attention and now he's a computer programmer. I got none and so now lead an exciting glamorous life. Which is better? Who knows?

Anyway, it sounds like you're motivated and neurotic enough to make a fine standup. You will suck in the beginning because the fear will be paralyzing and you'll be stiff and your fear will show and it will be painful and embarrassing. You will want to quit. You will feel worthless and talentless and unfunny and like you'll never be funny.

But if you keep going up you'll get less scared. As you relax and your confidence grows, you'll do better. You'll start to see stage time as something to enjoy, not just survive. You'll have fun. Your writing will improve.

You'll get club gigs. You'll be scared at first and then learn to relax again. You'll get better. You'll move up to the middle spot. Women will start flirting with you after shows. Women who wouldn't have given you the time of day if they hadn't just seen you control a room for half an hour and light it up now will approach you. They'll be nervous to talk to you, and they'll let you buy them a drink and maybe if you don't blow it, they'll come back to your hotel room with you and give you the physical pleasure. This will help your confidence even more.

Anyway, it sounds like you're motivated and neurotic enough to make a fine standup. You will suck in the beginning because the fear will be paralyzing...
You'll work the road, traveling farther and farther from home. You'll do festivals, industry showcases. Again, nerves may overtake you each first time, but you'll learn to do well when the stakes are high. Soon someone will offer you a development deal. You'll do Conan, Letterman... You'll be terrified, but by now you'll have the experience to make it work anyway.

You'll get your own sitcom. It'll rise to a top ten show and run eight seasons.

You'll be rich. You'll marry a beautiful woman 15 years younger than you.

You'll do some shitty movies that bomb. You'll go back on the road. Hot women will throw themselves at you and you'll slip up now and then and cheat on your wonderful wife and feel like a heel. You'll get tired of the road.

You'll do some commercials. You'll age. You'll play a grown man's father on another sitcom and have a small resurgence. That show will get cancelled. You'll get old. You'll do a commercial for arthritis medicine.

You'll get a cameo in a movie starring some hot young comic, where you get to do something funny for an old person, like fight or break-dance or hit on a supermodel.

Friends and loved ones will die around you. You'll get sad.

You'll have a stroke. Your spoiled kids will put you in a home. You'll learn to play cribbage. You'll lose your mind. You'll die. You'll be cremated and scattered off a bridge somewhere and in a few generations no one will remember you were ever here. And in a few million years the sun will go supernova and the whole planet itself will be cremated and that will be that.

See? Nothing to be afraid of!

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