I’ve been there myself, and not everyone has the intestinal fortitude to get up there and actually make it happen. Actions do speak much louder than words. I can remember my first time on stage as a comedian like it was yesterday. It was at a jazz club in Milwaukee that has long been torn down called ‘Sardino’s’, which is where Al Jarreau started his singing career. It was a Monday night comedy showcase, and I had no intention to perform. The host that night was a wonderful soul named C. Cardell Willis who would eventually be my comedy mentor and close friend. Cardell asked at the end of the show if anyone wanted to get up and try comedy, and my hand shot up before my sense of reason could stop it. I had no preset act whatsoever, but I had seen the other acts that night and quite frankly wasn’t impressed by them. I remember walking on stage to a smattering of applause, and turning around and seeing a light in my face that looked like I was about to be abducted by a flying saucer. My mind was erased of any and all ability to remember anything, and time itself screeched to a jolting halt. It was scary.
I wish I could say it went skyward from there and the rest was entertainment history. Not so by a long shot. It was more like entertainment heresy, as I kept making a mockery of what I thought comedy was supposed to be. I don’t recall many details from my next several attempts other than I didn’t come close to equaling that dramatic pop I got on my first night. It all melted into a blur. I don’t remember a whole lot of what any of my material was back then other than two or three painfully weak premises, but I know I had no clue as to how to present any of it in an interesting or entertaining manor to the ‘audience’ at Sardino’s – which was mostly made up of comedians. The degree of difficulty was extremely high, but I knew I wanted to continue and work past the beginner level. For all the stupid things I did – and there were many – I did have the right idea of knowing I needed to keep doing it to get better. I kept going back every week and throwing in all the wacked out ideas that would strike me. I was clueless, but I knew it so I just kept showing up.
I watched the other comedians closely, looking to learn as much as I could from both the good and the not so good. I learned that was very possible, and I didn’t judge anyone. I was there for a chance to improve, and I absolutely did over time. But those first dozen or so times were brutal. I tried anything and everything from wearing ‘funny pants’ to acting ‘extra wacky’ on purpose, whatever that means. I was trying to figure out the magic secret that might help me get laughs in any way possible, and I thought it would just come to me if I got up there and looked for it. How naive that was, but I’ve seen countless others do it after me and I still see it today. It’s a mistake.
For the official record, there has never been and never will be any magic secret, formula, pill or bean that will replace the only real ingredient that will make anyone better – HARD WORK and lots of it. This is one of the few rules that has no exceptions, and the sooner one realizes that and accepts it the faster real progress can be made. ‘Shortcuts’ actually take much longer in the end. The only way to get better is to keep getting on stage over and over and over again, and then it has to happen some more. Stage time to a comedian is like oxygen, but there should be a purpose and a plan in place to benefit the most from it. It’s like working out at a gym. There needs to be a well structured workout plan in place, not just random roaming between barbells and machines.
Those first dozen times on stage are probably going to be pretty rough for everybody at least at some point. You’ll blank out and forget all your material or have to follow a hot act that lights up the stage right before you go on. Any number of things could rattle your cage, so just roll with it. My friend Bill Gorgo wisely suggests not asking how you did those first few times, but instead asking how you felt. That’s much more important, and I completely agree. You won’t be brilliant your first dozen times. Plow through anyway, and know “The Dirty Dozen” has a useful purpose.
Dobie is a nationally touring, award-winning comedian with 30 years under his belt. He has numerous TV credits and has worked with notable performers like Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, and many others. You can catch Dobie headlining this week at Zanies