By Janet Whitley
What do an audiologist, a real estate agent and an environmental scientist have in common? A sense of humour and a desire to try something new.
These were among my classmates in the stand-up comedy class offered through the Glebe Neighborhood Activities Group at the Glebe Community Centre this fall. My classmates enrolled for a variety of reasons – performing stand-up was on their bucket list; they wanted to improve their public speaking; or just because it looked like fun. I personally love writing and have long admired the comedic storytelling of Woody Allen, Ellen DeGeneres and Bob Newhart. I wanted to learn more about their craft but I needed a “forcing function” to trigger and guide my writing.
Hollywood may have you think differently but creating a comedy set is nothing like the Amazon Prime show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In this series, the main character effortlessly performs comedy, delivering material with no preparation. In reality, joke writing is fun but it is a lot of serious work. From the first day of class, our instructor Heather Hurst, a professional comedian, got down to business. We learned that writing a joke is different from telling a funny story to friends or cracking wise. Standup is an art form as much as poetry or acting; it does not just happen.
For six weeks, we were on constant lookout for material to build our stand-up sets. We struggled to distill our long-winded stories into relatable kernels of truth wrapped in creative license to elicit surprise and laughter. Heather taught us how to edit and have fun with the material until it evolved into a joke. The process involved a lot of writing, rewriting, changing up attitude and perspective, trying it out, then more editing.
We learned about ourselves and developed our stage personae. We became increasingly comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with creating and developing our material. We learned how to use a microphone, manage timing and establish and maintain a relationship with the audience.
The class culminated in a performance in a local comedy venue, Eddy’s Diner at 777 Bank Street, which hosts comedy every other Tuesday night. At our dress rehearsal, I still had not memorized my set and I was still tweaking my material. I was getting increasingly anxious about the performance. When I am nervous, I freeze and go blank. After having invested so much work in the class, I didn’t care whether I stood mute, blundered through it or hit a home run. Come what may, I was going up to that microphone on December 3.
The day of our show, I was so nervous I couldn’t eat. I rehearsed aloud until I was hoarse. I have done some crazy things in my life – lived aboard a sailboat, delivered a PhD dissertation and ridden a motorcycle up the Pacific coast. But performing, especially stand-up comedy, was as far outside my comfort zone as I could get. I have never been on stage. Ever. After all this, what if no one thought I was funny? To that, Heather’s philosophy was: “It probably won’t happen but it could, but so what if it does?”
Eddy’s was packed. The crowd was there both to support us and to have a great time. We did not disappoint. Heather opened the show and whipped up the crowd. I watched in awe as my classmates did their acts and each hit it out of the park. I couldn’t believe how far everyone had come in six short weeks. The venue and crowd breathed life into their sets. No one expected us to be professionals but I was amazed at how professionally my classmates performed. I was scared I would be the first to bomb.
Then it was finally my turn in the spotlight. Heather introduced me and whispered words of encouragement as I took the stage. Then, assuming my “power pose,” my nervousness slipped away and I was in the zone.
My first joke got a better laugh than I had hoped and I knew I was going to deliver a great set.
I did it. I had a fantastic time, and I was ecstatic! We all say we would love to do this again.
After the performance and the applause was done, we celebrated with family and friends. No doubt the best compliment was from those who said “I didn’t know you had it in you!” Neither did I.
The next class starts February 3. If this class sounds even remotely interesting to you, I strongly encourage you to give it a try.
Janet Whitley has lived in the Glebe with her husband and two sons since 2013. She previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry. She now lives life full time and enjoys swimming, cycling, travel, history…and now comedy.