Chapter 5: Revenge of the Nerves

If you’ve made it this far, I want to thank you. I have a feeling a lot of people just like the pictures on Instagram, but don’t actually open this blog. I had no idea I’m seeking a niche audience… readers.

I already need to print a retraction. I should mention that here in New York, I only have diaries from 2001 and on, so these memories of the late 90’s are a little foggy. After last week’s post, re: my first time on stage, Lesley politely fixed things in the comments:

I remember this slightly different. You called me at work and begged me to allow you to pick me up. Which made no sense as it was out of your way and I would be quicker on the bus. But you insisted, when you got to my work you busted in the doors already saying your jokes and you were nervous which was very unlike you, as you never really got nervous. This totally threw me off. In the car you were asking me if the jokes were funny and I thought oh f&>% this is a lose lose situation for me. If I say i think they are funny but no one else laughs that is going to be a nightmare. I was so nervous I am not sure I even heard all the jokes but at every pause a loud laugh came outta me, as funny or not I was going to laugh. But you rocked it! I kept going to your shows, hoping the anxiety would go away, but nope. And it didn’t matter if it was in Huntington Beach, a bowling alley in Hollywood, or over zoom… I’m still anxious.

Isn’t it funny how comedians down play our nerves? 

Sure I threw in one tiny line saying I wanted to “shit my pants,” but that doesn’t really describe the anxiety and fear I literally still get today when I go on stage. And it’s not just the performance that makes me nervous. It’s everything:

-Looking for a parking spot close to the club

-Praying that spot is free

-Hoping the door girl doesn’t charge me cover even though I’m on the show

-Wanting the other comics on the show to like me- both on stage and off (Later in my career I’ll discover some people get away with being just one or the other.)

-Will I remember all my jokes? (I never took a set list on stage. This was the only club in town. Must. Look. Professional.)

-Will people laugh?

-Where is this red light again?

-Pray there will be no parking ticket when I return to my car

A full blown night of worries, for your entertainment.

It’s also interesting that what scares the shit out of you as a new comic, will be the fucking best as a seasoned one.

For instance, a sold out crowd.

Which brings me to my second night on stage. This was the one that would decide my future. The first night, I brought half the crowd. Who knows if I was actually good. I’m not your typical female comic. I have no daddy issues, my family and friends are supportive- if those people laugh it doesn’t count. I needed anonymity and the approval of strangers to decipher if I belong. (Little did I know in 1997, social media was on it’s way with a guillotine to torture me.)

When I walked into the club, I was stunned. I was at least a half hour early for the show and it was already packed. You wouldn’t think that Ottawa was comedy Mecca, but it really did have a good reputation. I assumed the club wasn’t as packed last time because it was “smoke-free Wednesday,” and only losers don’t smoke.

I was already struggling trying to figure out where I should chill before my set, but tonight was even more awkward. Even the nook where the comics usually hung out was full of patrons. Stacey, the nice door girl, informed me that since the green room was too small for all of us, the comics would be hanging in the back area where you take the elevator up to the hotel. 

I enter the area. It’s a combination of comedians either in the middle of hysterical conversations and/or looking at set lists. I recognize a few comics from last time, and they recognize me. Everybody is so nice. There was something very special about the comedy scene in Ottawa back then. Most of us had other jobs, or in my case, a student, so we didn’t rely on comedy as income. We relied on it to escape our regular lives. A place to be creative, silly and relaxed. It wasn’t LA, New York or even Toronto, but it was loaded with talent. 

While obsessing over my set list, another woman walks in the room. She immediately looks at me, shocked.

(Yes, up until this moment, I was the only girl in the room. I already told you it was 1997 so I didn’t think I had to point that out.)

I recognized the girl from the show I came to that I wasn’t on. She’s funny for sure, but we hadn’t technically met yet. She looks at me, and finally breaks the ice.

“Are you one of the comedian’s girlfriends?”

I awkwardly laughed.

“Oh, no, I’m a comedian. I mean, I’m going on tonight. It’s only my second time.”

It seemed a little premature to call myself a comedian quite yet. But I couldn’t help looking around the room to guess who this girl thinks I would be dating…

I had to remind myself it’s not about what happens in the green room that matters. It’s about connecting with the audience.

Just focus on your jokes.

I was on third. With the club being sold out, and full of total strangers, my nerves were insane. I was taking some of the deepest breaths of all time, and this was pre-yoga, at least from what I knew of the world. Thank god I was too young to be into blue cheese or IPA’s, otherwise my anxiety would have been coming out of my butt. I feel more in my gut than heart, no matter what the issue is.

I was still trying to figure out if comedians could do the same jokes a second time, so just in case, I wrote new jokes:

They just put WARNING LABELS on cigarettes… a little rude… My favourite is the one that says, “Smoking may cause impotence.” Ya, that’s why we smoke after sex...

Some guy came up to me in a club and tried selling me drugs. I was like, “dude, no thank you…” Cuz it’s cheaper when they just slip it in your drink… I’m on a budget… I need to stop going to RJ’s Boom Boom Saloon, eh?

I still do that joke once in a while, minus the local Ottawa reference. That bar has probably changed names nine times since I wrote it. 

I’m a smiler by nature, but I tried to control my smiles to the beginning and end of my set. I liked a dead pan style of joke telling. Was that my true persona? Probably not. I was a positive, perky blonde girl, who just happened to love writing, but my journalism program didn’t exactly offer a spot for all these random thoughts in my head. (Like one assignment, where we had to write about any club on campus, and I wrote about the club sandwiches.)

But taking all my pervy writing and blurting it out on the stage of a comedy club in a city I barely knew anyone in?

Invigorating.

When I got off stage on this particular night, I knew for sure.

I can do this. 

For me, getting on stage is like going to the gym. It feels daunting in the beginning, but afterwards you feel like a million bucks.

While I don’t want to skip ahead in this story of my comedy life, (I haven’t even got to the real drama yet) I do want to share a swift anecdote on this topic of nerves. 

In 2013, I played the Yuk Yuk’s New Year’s Eve show at Massey Hall. It’s a gig that us Canadian comics always want to “get.” (The word “get” is triggering after 23 years in comedy.) The theatre is gorgeous, historic, and not to brag, but I’ve also seen Conan O’Brien and Cindi Lauper there. (Separately.) I was very honoured to get the spot on the show. I showered, and wore a sparkly vest, cuz dresses on stage for me were still weird for me back then. But no matter how prepared I thought I was…

I was still shitting my pants.

I was so nervous.

How can this be what I want, but also come with so much fear?

All the other comics on the show seemed so confident and celebratory. I was worried my heart was gonna drop into my liver, which I would need later. I decided to find a stairwell to pace in. 

I was physically loitering between level four and five of Massey Hall when Jeremy Hotz, who was hosting the show, spotted me. He was using the stairwell as a smoke pit, which was actually quite rebellious in 2013. But he did tap into the fact I was privately freaking out.

“Buddy, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know… (heavy breathing) I’m just really fucking nervous.”

He looks at me dead in the eyes, and says, 

“If you’re good… that doesn’t go away.”

Chapter 4: I’ll Be The Best Three Minutes of Your Life

My only goal was to get on that stage. To get up against that brick wall in a basement on Albert Street, mere blocks from Capital Hill. I was in the right neighborhood to do political material, but I decided to stick to what I know- having small boobs and a recent loss of virginity. (Must have been one creepy set list to find in the greenroom.)

At the time, Yuk Yuk’s was the only place to do stand up in the city. There was no where else to run a set before my first time at the major club. I couldn’t binge watch the pros because the only thing I had access to were social psychology ITV tapes at school, and I was already 33 hours behind on those. (To be fair, they WERE loaded with “the difference between men and women” material, just in a much dryer form.)

There was no where to practice but the mirror. And in the car on the way to the gig, with my high school BFF Lesley. She moved to Ottawa from Vancouver after visiting and falling for one of my best guy friends. (My wingman skills are unparalleled.) I drove out to the west end to pick her up from her job at Rogers Video so she wouldn’t miss the show. In hindsight, I realize I could have asked her to comp me a rental of Raw or Delirious. Ooops. Typical me, having a good idea 23 years too late. Instead, I would just use my experience playing Pepper in my junior high school’s production of Annie as guidance for stage presence. 

Lesley was more nervous than I was. From the second she got in my car she was freaking out.

“OH MY GOD! Tell me all your jokes now! You gotta practice!”

I was hoping we’d rock out to “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States, like high school. But if she wanted the jokes, I’d tell her. Couldn’t hurt. 

“People said university would open so many doors for me… They just didn’t tell me they’d be bedroom doors.”

Lesley bursts out laughing.  

“I think soap opera characters are doing way too much acid… Nobody has that many flashbacks on their own.”

(A little something I wrote in honour of The Young & The Restless, re: last blog.) 

She laughs even harder, choking on her cigarette. (Don’t worry, she rolled down the window, like a classy 90’s smoker.) I was killing in the car, but this is my friend laughing. Of course she’s supportive. Who knows what will happen on stage. 

This was pre-social media, but the news I was doing stand up traveled rather virally anyway. I don’t think as many people showed up to my Zoom show last night, and they didn’t even have to leave the house. I had a ton of friends and frosh from Carleton that wrangled a cab in a foot of snow to be there. When I walked in the show room, I felt more like I was hosting a party than a performer. I recognized half the room. This was Ottawa in 1997. Getting into stand up comedy wasn’t exactly your average life choice.

Everyone was excited. 

I was shitting my pants.

(Don’t worry, I didn’t actually. This was before I liked blue cheese.)

I noticed the club was a little different than last time.

Oh yeah, that’s cuz the last Wednesday of every month is “smoke-free.”

I remembered.

I hope these losers who don’t smoke are at least good laughers.

I didn’t know where to sit. Of course my friends were like, 

“Sit with me!”

It seemed a little weird to go from a table in the audience to the stage though. The girl at the door, Stacey, had pointed out the table where all the comics hung out, but I also didn’t feel like I belonged there. I’m not a comedian yet

I ended up standing in a spot against the bar that was the worst possible place for anybody trying to sling drinks that night. This was before I had any experience working in a bar, and I would officially like to say sorry for camping there. 

I was doing five minutes and on seventh. I had no idea back then if going early or late was good, but I did like that I was following Don Kelly. He was one of the comics I saw the night I came to just watch the show, and he was hilarious. I figured I could ride his wave if nothing else. (Cut to me in LA, years later, where people oddly feel secure following somebody who bombs.)

The host was killing, but also leaking beer from his pint glass. As I nervously waited to go on, he intros me with a classic: 

“Ohhh it’s her FIRST TIME!!! She’s POPPING HER CHERRY! WOWOWOWOOW!” 

He fucks up my name, but that’s happened so many times in my life they’ve all blurred together. I think Air Canada takes the cake for printing Christina Wankinshaw on a boarding pass. 

I know it’s a hack line now, but at the time I was very proud of what I did when I grabbed the mic. Looking over at the host as he stumbled off the stage, I said:

“I remember my first beer too…

(That was my inner Pepper for sure.)

The cheers of so many friends relaxed me. What that meant for the future was unclear. I couldn’t stack the crowd every night. Would actual strangers like me too? (I could see Lesley laughing VERY loudly, just in case.) 

I have no pictures of my first time on stage. It’s strange cuz I distinctively remember the blare of flashes while I was up there. Cameras weren’t exactly inconspicuous back then. Plus a lot of my friends had those Fun Savers where you could literally hear them wind the film after every shot. 

The jokes went well. Since I knew there were so many Carleton students in the crowd, I knew it would be easy to take some shots at my own school.

“I go to Carleton…. (applause.) It’s the 42nd best school in Canada. Let’s give it up for the U of K.” 

Even though I was instructed to look for the red light when my time was up, I couldn’t seem to find it. When I got off stage, the manager greeted me in the greenroom.

“Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t see the red light.”

“That’s cuz it never went on.”

I break out into one of my big cheesy smiles that you might recognize if you know me. I couldn’t help it. What a compliment! They didn’t want me to get off stage!

“You only did three minutes.”

Oops. To be fair, my style in the beginning was more “set up, punch line, tag.* Was I in trouble? I start to panic. The manager interjects.

“It’s fine. It’s better to leave them wanting more. In general, you want to start strong, and end strong. If you can evenly distribute good jokes in the middle, hopefully you can connect the dots until the whole set is a straight line of solid material. You did good. You should definitely call in for more spots next month.”

Shit. Now I have to write another three minutes of material.

I mean FIVE. 

You can’t tell the same jokes a second time, can you?

I had sooooooo much to learn as a comedian.

And at this point, I had barely even interacted with any…

Get ready.

(I’m from the generation of comedians whose first head shots are black and white)

*My earlier material didn’t actually have tags.