Assessing The Agony & Ecstasy of My Stand-Up Comedy Debut

How I overcame fear and self-doubt to survive a five-minutes gig as an onstage joke teller

SITTING IN THE BACKSTAGE "green room" at Hillcrest's Finest City Improv theater, I feel blank, scared and slightly nauseous.

In about 15 minutes, I'm going to take the stage for my first stand-up comedy set.

Background: I've been taking the online JenX Comedy class. During the 8-week program, I've done two Zoom sets and one brief open-mic in front of a live crowd. That's the extent of my Seinfeld-wannabe experience.

My class instructor is also an independent show producer, so she books me and another classmate into her August 26 Sofa King Funny Show at the intimate FCI theater.

This is the minor leagues of stand-up–but still the real dang thing. There's a promotional flyer out there on social media with my mug on it. People are paying to see the show. Family and friends will be in the audience.

Hence my state of queasy discomfort.

The show's headliner breezes into the green room. Louie Centanni has been doing stand-up in San Diego and on the road for years. He's smart, funny and amiable.

We've met before. He greets me and asks how I'm doing.

Not so good, I admit.

He looks me straight in the eye and offers a knowing smile.

"Look," he says, "If you're not nervous about it, you probably shouldn't be going up on a stage to tell jokes."

This simple statement connects. My fight-or-flight DEFCON level eases. Somewhat.

How Did I Get Here?

Sofa King Funny Show headliner Louie Centanni.

It's taken me 57 years to zero in on my white whale, pull up my big boy pants and get on the path of stand-up comedy.

The origin story: My mom has always been sit-com funny–but my self-centered, petulant, young self wasn't her target audience.

In kindergarten, I was so shy the only kids I ever spoke to were twins who lived down the block from our brick rowhouse.

During elementary school, I took a special speech class, which at the time I would have hissed as "thspeach clath."

Those classes (mostly) trained me to keep my big, lazy tongue behind my teeth when voicing "S" words.

In high school, I became a bit of a class clown, albeit a quiet one who quipped and whispered takedowns in the back row. Crowd-gathering productions in the cafeteria weren't my thing.

In college, a revelation: It was possible to get girls' attention with jokes and funny stories. An incentive to create an outgoing persona was born.

I became a writer. As a journalist, it was occasionally suggested that I try out for TV jobs.

No thanks. Writing and publishing my work in print–and eventually online–was far less stressful.

Now based in downtown San Diego, I found ways to insert humor into pieces published in local, regional and national outlets.

Decades passed. A fine life, packed with both ups and downs, was filling my rear-view mirror.

A few years ago, an ad for a free class at Finest City Improv caught my eye. "Why not?" I opined. This was akin to a Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman sort of bucket-list line item. (No, I'm not dying.)

Going onstage was a longstanding challenge unmet.

I took the free class. For two hours, I howled with laughter at the "yes-and…" prospect of making up comedic situations.

I signed up, graduated from FCI's six levels of coursework, met new friends and still participate in improv group shows.

Improv builds confidence–both on the stage and in life. It taught me to stop overthinking and pre-measuring my conversational interactions.

In long-form improv (which is unlike the quick-take version seen on TV in the brilliant Whose Line Is it, Anyway?) slip-ups and uneven dialogue often are rewarded by audiences with laughter or applause.

That's cool. I love improv. Still, I'm drawn to more exacting, or scripted and memorized comedic riffing. And that beast is known as stand-up.

It was time.

Stand-Up Comedy Class

JenX Comedy School founder Jen Mason.

I met Jen Mason, founder of the JenX Comedy School, while taking a musical improv class.

No, I'm not a singer by any means. Musical improv was a whole other discordant fear to engage. My heart was drum-rolling and nearly leapt out of my throat the first time I went onstage to sing made-up lines during an improv sketch.

Mason is an easy-going and natural performer. She's a mother of two and a Berkeley-educated acupuncturist who became a stand-up comic at 50.

Her online class is casual and loose. She teaches basic delivery and introduces the techniques of set-up and punchline, among other things.

Two of us in the class graduate to get billed on the Sofa King Funny Show.

Along with Centanni, Mason books herself and three other seasoned local comics for the show: DD Stepps, Cassidy Stains and Asher Mac.

In retrospect, my favorite takeaways from the night are moments standing behind the backstage curtain listening to these comics do their thing.

Mason is a witty and gracious host. Stepps' humor is fast-paced and frenetic. Stains gets big, broad laughs and Mac does impressive crowd work. Somebody mentions to me that watching Centanni is like observing a master class in comedy.

And, my fellow student debutante, Elide Pantoli, wins the crowd over with her Italian accent and sassy takes on contemporary relationships.

They all make it look easy.

The Moment of Truth

The Sofa King Funny Show lineup: DD Stepps, Louie Centanni, Cassidy Stains, Asher Mac, Jen Mason, Elide Pantoli and Ron Donoho.

It's not easy.

As a newbie and the opener for the show, I'm allotted five minutes. Mason has drilled us on staying within your time limit.

When there's a minute left in your set, each comic gets a lighting cue.

When the light is flashed at you for the second time, you better wrap up and get offstage–or risk the wrath of the show producer.

Standing behind the curtain as Mason is introducing me, the lighting cue is about all I can remember. My set list has vanished from my brain. I can't remember my first joke. Or any of my jokes.

All I want is for the light to be flashed at me so this will all be over.

What was I thinking? Doing stand-up means walking the plank alone. Improv has some fail-safes. An onstage group has your back.

Screw up a bit or a line in a stand-up routine and a pained silence from the audience might impale you with the impact of a Valyrian steel sword.

Sure enough, on my second bit I transpose the set-up and punchline.

Oh, no! Metaphorically, I grab my belly to see if I'm bleeding. Thankfully, the wound is superficial. And the FCI crowd is forgiving.

Perhaps emboldened by surviving near-disaster, I recover and the rest of my set goes off cleanly.

One joke leads into another. I get some laughs.

The hours of practice, rewriting jokes and repeating them into a tape recorder seems to have coalesced into a cohesive act.

For now, the public execution has been postponed.

And there it is: the final lighting cue to wrap things up! I'm done! I'm alive!

I'm so a-a-l-i-i-ve!

Live to Tell

Ron Donoho makes it to the onstage finish line. (Photo by Chandler Donoho)

I'm not quitting my day job. Nor am I deluded about waiting for a call to do a Netflix Comedy Special.

There may be opportunities on the horizon to do other local indie shows. If offered, I'm open and would be flattered.

Other places around San Diego don't engender as friendly an environment as FCI. I've been in the audience at open-mic nights where comics get boo-ed off stage and ridiculed by other comedians.

The nightmare scenario.

For now, I'm proud to have accomplished my one small step. I don't mean to sound braggy. The pride stems not from the caliber of my performance, but from the accomplishment itself.

(But let's be honest, I might not be writing a story about this experience if I'd completely bombed.)

I'll pat myself on the back for overcoming a long-standing fear.

My takeaway: Fear is an intangible reality that over time can puff up like a balloon. The bigger it grows, the harder it is to see around it.

And, I don't think self-doubt is something that ever goes away. You can, however, build a wall around it and shield it from the here and now.

It's a good idea to continually fortify your wall of confidence–because fear and self-doubt will rise up and try to influence events.

Louie Centanni is right. Expect anxiety to visit you at times of risk-taking.

In those moments, take a deep breath. Clear your mind. Consider how much work you put into the preparation.

More than likely, a light will shine through the darkness and signal the reward for your effort.

"Thanks! That's my time! You've been a great audience!" SDSun

Here's the video of Ron Donoho's debut stand-up performance.


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