January 7, 2013

Why I became a stand-up comic By: Jeanie Doogan

I think it’s safe to say that every comic has been asked, “What made you want to get into stand up?” Sometimes it can be a random person, or an old friend, or someone who was just staring at you while you were on stage, in which case the question makes me very uncomfortable, like they know something I don’t. Whoever it is asking, I personally always found it hard to express what, or why, I got into this in the first place. Stand-up comedy is a mind fuck, possibly the most intimidating of all the art forms, which is maybe why people feel compelled to want to know why anyone would want to do it.

I've been asked this question a dozen times in the four years I’ve been doing comedy, and my usual response is, “oh, it’s just something I always wanted to try.” I made getting into stand-up sound like the same reason why white women get into Pinterest; just something to fill my time until I found a man, or a really good use for my pine cone collection. However, someone, I think it was another comic, asked me this question recently, and before I could give my usual response, an image came to me, and with it came the exact moment and reason for wanting to perform stand-up.

I was 12 years old. It was summer time. I woke up in my bathtub with an inch-long gash above my right eyebrow, my Corona tank top crusted in vomit and blood (which later I thankfully, and unfortunately, found out was my own), and my shorts were missing. The night before, I had gone to a block party (for those of you from neighborhoods where block parties aren’t a thing, it’s when you and your hillbilly neighbors block off either end of your street with cars, and you all start drinking around 10 am while kids from the neighborhood play under the water from illegally opened fire hydrants, simultaneously guaranteeing fun–in-the-sun and ring worm).

At this particular block party, one of the cocktails being served by a delinquent seventeen year-old was grain alcohol mixed with crystal light crystals; that’s correct, no water, just a packet of crystal light powder and a fifth of 100 proof grain-alcohol stirred together until the crystals dissolved. It was about 98 degrees, humid, and I just finished a game of asphalt volleyball. I had to be home at nine o’clock. Now, I had done my fair share of drinking, and most times I was drinking hard alcohol because that was a lot easier to sneak from our parents’ liquor cabinets by replacing the jacked liquor with water, especially since our parents counted every can of Old Style in the garage fridge and would know if nary a one went missing. So it wasn’t like I wasn’t accustomed to drinking hard alcohol at the age of 12; I just wasn’t familiar with grain alcohol, especially not chugging it to beat the curfew clock. I drank about half the bottle and woke up the next day sans shorts in my parents’ bathtub. How does this answer the question, “what made you want to get into stand-up?” It doesn’t, but what happened next actually does:

I pulled myself out of the tub and into the front room (from those of you that are not from neighborhoods where a ‘front room’ is a thing, it’s a concise way of saying ‘a room at the front of your house’) where my mom was sitting. Her back was facing me, and she sat in her favorite crushed velvet baby-blue swivel chair; she was smoking and looking out the window. I limped up behind her, trying to figure out what a 12 year old could possibly say to get out of trouble in this situation. Keep in my mind the cut above my eye brow most definitely needed stitches, and I most likely had alcohol poisoning; I had hallucinations, dry heaved, and couldn’t get out of bed again for three days. To put it simply, if this had happened when I was a 19 year old college freshman, my friends would have had the good sense to have taken me directly to the emergency room, but my parents had reared a total of 7 other kids, I was their last, and they worked three to four jobs between the two of them. They didn’t have the time, the patience, or the money for emergency rooms. I could barely get the words out, probably because my mouth tasted like I had been chewing on the inside of a magic marker (oh, you say you don’t know what that tastes like? Whatever, weirdo.) “Ma?” was all I could manage. She finished her cigarette before she turned around to acknowledge me, and when she finally did swivel that chair around like the good Lord intended, she said, “Jeanie, you’re so funny. I don’t know why you would ever do this to yourself.” Then she swiveled back around, and didn’t say another word to me for four days, because Irish moms are the best at the silent treatment.

And that was it. That one line from my ma, who barely had time to put my hair in ponytail for the first six years of my life, read me a book, or come to my track meets, much less drive me to the emergency room, had finally acknowledged something good in me: “Jeanie, you’re so funny.” To find out that my mom, who was quick-witted as all hell, thought that I was funny? That was special. Funny was Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson, and Carol Burnett. Funny was what made my parents sit down and listen. It was what made them forget about their awful jobs and brat kids for a while. Funny was revered in my house.

Ironically, my parents never saw me do stand-up, both of them died before I ever set foot on stage, but that’s for the best, as my mom might’ve changed her opinion, and my dad, despite not being able to hear me on account of he was deaf, certainly would’ve heckled me just to be an asshole.
The bottom line is: it’s good to really know why we’re doing something, especially something that consumes so much of our thoughts, our lives, our being. I think it’s a question that most comics should really consider: “What made you want to get into stand-up?” I’m glad I figured it out without a lot of therapy and what-not. Now, if only I could figure out what to do with all these god damn pine cones.

Special Guest Contributor Jeanine Doogan
Doogan is one the top local comics working the Chicago scene. She works incredibly hard, pushes boundaries and likes to tweak a gender stereotype or two. You can catch her performing at all the top venues like: Laugh Factory, Zanies, The Comedy Bar, Up Comedy Club, you name it.