Where TGB Readers Live and Going Home to New York City

Guest Blogger doctafil: What's So Funny About That?

While I am away in New York City for a couple of weeks, a fantastic group of elderbloggers and elderblog readers agreed to fill in for me. Today it is doctafil aka Brenda Henry, who is semi-retired from teaching high school. She lives in the suburbs of Montreal with her husband and cat. She writes, gardens and supervises student teachers.

Days after my sister moved to Florida, I became so despondent. I was going down. I knew I had to do something bold to combat the blues.

I spotted a tiny ad in the Montreal Gazette offering lessons writing and performing stand up comedy. The ad seemed to be pointing straight at me, so I tore it out and stuck it on my fridge, alongside assorted tropical fruit magnets and old photos of my sister and me shoehorned into a two-dollar, instant photo booth.

A couple days later, I called the comedy club, told them I was interested and omitted to mention my age.

I was fifty then, and would rather have walked barefoot over smoking coals than speak in front of an audience, but that was my secret.

So how did I wind up standing in front of a downtown comedy club at six o'clock sharp on a Monday night?

"This is probably the dumbest thing I've ever done, but it's better than bawling at home," I mumbled, swaying like a metronome on the sidewalk.

Obstacle number one: How would I get past the crusty, disheveled, tooth-deprived dude spread-eagled across the bottom steps of the club?

Was he a graduate comedian, the comedy teacher or the owner of the club?

His straight-line cowboy mouth and wrong-foot winter boots in summer radiated he was in no mood to dance the polka. In fact, he looked as though he was recuperating from a never-ending Molson Canadian beer bender.

As I gingerly stepped past him, he suddenly whipped around, looked me dead in the eye and said in a Gravel Gertie voice: "Hey baby, yawanna give me a kiss? I'd sure like to give you one."

"I'm good, thanks," I croaked in a freaky, way-high voice.

As I nervously entered the club, the downstairs bartender looked me over, asked what he could serve me. I said I was there for the comedy class. He shook his head sadly, then jerked his index finger sideways toward a set of steep stairs in the back. I climbed up and into a pitch black room. How many people were there, I had no idea.

My hands hit the back of a chair, I grabbed it and sat frozen.

A male voice cracked the quiet, welcoming us and claiming we have requirement one for stand up comedy - a big set of testicles for showing up.

Then the voice commenced to outline the rules of comedy. "Everyone thinks stand up comedy is easy. You will soon find out it's the hardest job in show business. It's all you and the audience, and when your lines go tits up, you have only yourself to blame. Get off the stage, go home, write more material and try again.

"No racist, homophobic, ageist or sexist jokes. We are not here to tell one liners. We will teach you how to write a monologue. Your own life is where you mine material. Tell the truth and use big gestures.

"If you think you can walk into a comedy club, stand at the mike and shoot off jokes like 'two nuns walked into a bar,' forget it. Montreal audiences will throw your ass out. Montreal audiences don't appreciate pea-brained jokes, and the whole goal of comedy is to get chosen for the Just for Laughs Festival, then land a sitcom.

"Do you see Seinfeld using the F-word?

"This is your comedy boot camp. Here you will learn how to take the stage, hold a mike properly, use your voice, gestures, come up with ten minutes of original material, and then we will throw you up on stage in front of a real audience.

"Drugs and alcohol don't mix with comedy. Remember John Belushi? Where is he now? I rest my case. Get a small tape recorder and any time you see or hear anything remotely funny, talk it out and write it down.

"Stealing jokes is a no-no. And when the red light goes on at the back of the club, wrap it up and get off the stage.

"I'm turning on the lights now, so any of you who didn't like what I just said, leave quietly and there will be no hard feelings. The rest of you get ready to work your butts off."

I heard major shuffling. Someone kicked the back of my chair as they left mumbling, "This is crap, man, I'm outta here."

The lights clicked on. I looked around and saw four twenty-something women sizing each other up. I was proud and terrified to be the oldest one in the group. Nobody pointed that out, though, and I was on my way to some adventure.

I carried my little tape recorder around, whispering lines, bits and pieces that might be remotely funny. Days shot by as we greenhorn comics went downtown every Monday night to wait our turn, throw out our bits and get critiqued.

Homework was doled out. Oh yes. We were told to go watch other comedians ply their trade at least two nights a week, not to steal their jokes, but to study their body language, timing and a hundred other subtleties of the trade.

I will never forget sitting backstage with my jagged piece of notes on paper, last-minute cramming with shaking hands and wobbly knees while other performers did their thing. A small, smoky window on the door was just big enough for me to see who was on stage and when my turn was up.

Unless you've done this yourself, you can't imagine the frisson of fear and excitement running along your spine when it's your turn to perform. The emcee introduces you, a piece of music is played while you run from the back through the crowd onto the stage, grab the mike and deliver your opening line.

"Hi everyone, how are you all doing tonight?

"I'm a dreamer. I used to dream about being a perfect little housewife - until mom slammed a three-piece Little Miss Homemaker set over my head. That's when I realized that housework and pain go hand in hand."

I'd like to brag and tell you I killed every night on stage, but I'd be stringing you a line. The truth is, some nights I did okay and other nights were back-tooth pullers.

Doing shot gun stand-up performances in front of hecklers, drunks and dodging waiters scared the blues far away. I was too busy trying to improve my act.

And when the laughs came, it was like being bombed with love. I'll never forget that feeling.

The best thing about being in the comedy club was the camaraderie between comedians. Sometimes famous comics would drop by the club while on tour and test drive a new act. They'd even hang around backstage and yak it up with us.

I kept on performing and found comedy clubs whenever we traveled to the USA and the UK.

Those were the days, my friends. Comedy turned into motivational seminars across Canada.

I carry a picture of me doing stand up in a Virginia Beach comedy club, just to remind myself to look up, think forward and welcome new experiences.

A few years later, my sister moved back to Montreal. She came to see my show.

We're still best friends.

EDITORIAL NOTE: While I am away, The Elder Storytelling Place is on hiatus. You can read past stories here. And if you are inclined, you could send in stories for publication when I return. All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.


Ah shoot, the line should be "my sister and I."

Good for you. Stepping beyond the comfort zone... to be with your sister — a perfect motivator/carrot.

You are a funny woman, so I'm not surprised that you could do stand up!

I admire your courage. Making people laugh is very hard work. Bet the audiences for motivational seminars are easier than the comedy clubs.

Kudos to you, doctafil. Good show!

Cool!!!!!!!!!!! I admire your courage! My friends have dared me to try it but I resist.

My son did stand up while he was in college and was starting out coaching (it started on a dare from his frat brothers) and I nearly got the vapors when I asked what he talked about on stage and he answered, "Our family." He said it paid better than bartending.

Way to Go! And you write about it beautifully.

Great story, I always wondered how people got themselves up on the stage the first time.

"look up, think forward and welcome new experiences." great stuff.

No, "my sister and me" is correct: prepositional object. Anyway, wonderful story. I love the idea of doing something so outrageous and tough when you're blue.

Oh delightful. Marvelous. You also offer the perfect example of writing for a blog. Thank you.

Great story!
"when the laughs came, it was like being bombed with love" A great line - may I borrow it?

A wonderful story, well told! Indeed there's nothing like a tad 'o terror derived from a new experience to divert the mind from sadness :-) But to embark on something that involves an expectant audience, now THAT is bravery. Bravo!

I love your courageous pluck! You have told this story with wit and charm. Just love it, and would like to see your show.

You knocked 'em dead today, Brenda!

Homerun post - and my admiration knows no bounds...stand up is scary, unless maybe you're the middle kid family clown.

I was the oldest - so go figure. Took me decades to find my humor bone!

You are braver than I. I could never get in front of an audience without shaking to pieces. Good for you trying a new adventure.

Wow, I am overjoyed by all the motivating comments on my story. Thank you so much, and thank you, Ronni.

Good for you! I remember periodically thinking I might like to give standup a whirl, but that's as far as it ever got. I still remember the elating feelings of an audiences reactions to some of my activities in my young adult years -- very addictive.

Whatever happened to "Just for Laughs?" That was a funny and orginal show.

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