“What’s the deal with oranges?” I asked, standing alone on stage in the large sanctuary of my family’s church. “That’s kind of a lazy name, isn’t it? Do you think the guy who named them was really tired, like it was the end of his shift.” Absolutely zero noise came from the surprisingly large crowd. “Maybe he thought, ‘Hey, it’s round, I’ll just call it ‘a round.’ Ah no, that’s silly, but hey, it is…orange,’” I gave the “orange” that special emphasis reserved for punchlines and exceptionally witty observations.
And yet, the room remained positively silent. Until, from somewhere near the back of the sanctuary, a teenager yelled “make it stop!” and almost instantly the entire crowd erupted into maniacal laughter.
I was 14 years old. And I was doing stand-up for my church’s teen talent show. Let the full horror of that statement wash over you for a moment, let the Lovecraftian despair consume you. I was a teenager. Doing stand-up. In a church.
Back then, in that church, the teen talent show was a big deal. It only happened every other year and, if you won in your category, you were invited to compete in nationals. Other children had sung songs, or performed dramas, or juggled, or unicycled, or baked cakes, or, God help us, preached, but I had the bright idea to try and do comedy, the only category without any competition.
So technically I won. But standing there on stage, being laughed at—and never once laughed with—I experienced the one thing that 14-year-old boys fear the most: public humiliation. I set the mic on the pulpit and looked back and the looming wooden cross that hung just above the baptismal.
Never again, I thought. By God, never again will I try stand-up comedy.
Some of the best memories I have are staying up late on Saturday nights, watching SNL with my dad. He was always a fan of comedy, he loved to laugh and, even more than that, he loved to make people laugh. I always suspected that he secretly wanted to be a stand-up comic even though, in the end, he became a preacher.
His commitment to God didn’t stop him from playing old tapes of Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd performing as The Blues Brothers, or Steve Martin in The Jerk, or even old bootlegs of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as Bob and Doug McKenzie in The Great White North. Some kids grew up in families that love to read, or in families that love to play sports, but I grew up in a family that loved to laugh.
When I got older, I was always the funny guy, it’s probably the biggest contribution that my dad ever made to my character. I was chubby, awkward, and horrifically clumsy, but I was funny. I was able to follow comedic timing, find beats, say things at just the right time in just the right way to make the people around me laugh. I realized that people were shocked by humor, even though they adored it. It’s something that few people understand—and even fewer are able to do well—but it’s something that everyone in every culture can relate to. When you see a fat man slip on a banana peel, no matter where you’re from, you laugh.
I’ve carried these ideas with me my entire life, always trying to find creative ways to make people laugh. I wrote and drew a funny comic in high school, and in college I made comedic films with my friends. Soon after I graduated, I wrote and acted in a few shorts with the hopes of landing a job in the backrooms of late night TV, even going so far as to interview with Jimmy Fallon.
In the end, I was never able to make it as a straight-up comedian. Maybe I could have, if I had persisted, but the crushing defeat that I felt after every failure was so great that I eventually found myself held captive by fear. I laid in bed for an entire day when I found out that I didn’t get the job with Jimmy Fallon. I still remember staring at the ceiling, thinking, “That’s it, I might as well become an accountant.”
Since my nightmare on stage in front of hundreds of un-laughing Christians, I’ve lost almost 100 pounds, moved to the other side of the country, and started working as a full-time writer. But the memory of that pudgy boy making jokes about oranges is one that persists in my darkest nightmares. Make no mistake, I am intensely afraid of doing stand-up.
“Which is exactly why you should write about it,” said Mark Shrayber, a fellow writer, and an actual comedian. We were eating burritos in San Francisco’s Mission and, thanks to the bar next door, I was already well on my way to being drunk.
“Ha ha, yeah that would make a great article,” I said. “I’d rather get punched in the face.”
“Girl, you’ve already been punched in the face,” Mark replied, waving my concerns off like a puff of smoke.
“Eh,” I shrugged. “Why not?”
“Great, I’ll get you on the bill at Blondie’s.”
What? Bad idea! Abort! I’d thought that our conversation was hypothetical. That it was all a joke. That Mark was only making a friendly suggestion, one writer to another. Maybe he’d forget. I decided to stay silent and focus on my burrito. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I heard a teenager yell, “Make it stop!”
TWO MONTHS LATER
“Are you nervous?” Mark asked, as he and I stood outside smoking cigarettes. I didn’t want to smoke, I don’t like to smoke, but there was something calming about the menthol Camel that Mark had given me, as if it proved to the the world that I didn’t give a damn.
“Not really,” I lied.
“Did you…did you write any jokes down?” he asked.
“No. Was I supposed to? Do you write jokes down?”
Mark threw his hands up in disgust and walked away, signaling the end of our pre-show pep talk. I was left alone, outside, with a half smoked cigarette.
What I didn’t tell Mark—what I was too afraid to tell Mark—was that I hadn’t written any jokes at all. In fact, I hadn’t had the time to prepare, between my full time job and freelance gig, I barely had time to sleep and eat. But I’d done a pretty good job of putting all of that out of my mind, and somehow, in a weird way, I found a sense of zen-like calm. I knew that I was going to write about this experience and, like my attempt at boxing, I knew that failure was a completely acceptable option (probably my editor’s preferred option). If things went terribly, if it was just as bad as the last time, then at least I’d have an interesting story.
I walked inside like a convict to the gallows — but because of the whole “life as content” thing, this time I wasn’t afraid to bomb.
There were three comedians ahead of me, including Mark who was the host. I sat in the front row and listened, intently. The comedians were all funny, especially Mark, but listening to them perform forced me into a last minute epiphany. They were telling jokes, well practiced, with steady beats and punchlines. I knew I couldn’t do that, even if I wanted to, I knew that I’d never be able to tell jokes like a comedian. Which is exactly when I decided I wasn’t going to tell any jokes, I wasn’t going to even try and tell any jokes. Because I’m not good at telling jokes, but I am good at telling stories.
“It’s his first time doing stand-up,” Mark said when he called me on stage. “Wish him luck!” He handed me the mic and patted me on the back. I turned around and, before I knew it, I was once again alone on a stage standing with a microphone in front of a silent audience. Well, I thought, here goes nothing.
“Thank you so much for having me, I always love being in San Francisco. Is anyone in the room a San Francisco native?”
One person clapped.
“That’s great! What about Oakland, is anyone from Oakland?”
One other person clapped.
“Alright, cool, represent. What about, um, is anyone from a sexually repressive religious family?”
And then there was laughter. Oh, thank God, there was laughter. Several people clapped, and a few in the front row even raised their hands. I pointed to a man sitting at the far end of the row.
“See, this guy knows what I’m talking about. It’s hard being a virgin in your mid to late twenties. Right, dude?”
The dude shook his head, embarrassed, but everyone else laughed. I was already doing better than my fat, younger self.
I went on to tell the story of growing up in a religious family, and of the embarrassing sexual experiences that come along with staying true to your faith while also going through puberty. Eventually it led me to a story about meeting a girl on OKCupid, only to have things go horribly awry. None of it was a joke, it was all real and honest, but it got laughs. Okay, not a ton of laughs, but some. And I savored them all.
Mark flashed a light from the crowd, signaling that my time was up. I walked off the stage to some applause and made a direct b-line for the bar. The bartender poured me a glass of whiskey.
“Good job,” he said. “This one is on the house.”
On stage, Mark introduced the next comedian, then he grabbed my elbow and steered me toward the door. He offered me another cigarette and, if memory serves, I accepted.
“You did great,” he said. “If this was an open mic night, you would have slayed.”
“Really?” I asked, always the dog for compliments.
“Girl, I would tell you if you were lame,” Mark said. And I knew it was true.
I left the bar and made my way to the train, traveling sleepily under the Bay and back toward my home in Oakland. Sara, my girlfriend, was waiting at my apartment. I told her how it went, and she poured me a drink. She told me she was proud. We curled up together on the couch and she asked me to tell her a joke.
“What’s the deal with oranges?,” I asked, just before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.