Saturday, January 28, 2012

Walking the Tightrope

I’m writing from my hotel room in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and if I can go for more than five minutes without that stupid Billy Joel song of the same name popping into my head, I can bring you up to speed on what’s been going on this week. I’m performing here at Wisecrackers Comedy Club. It’s Saturday, which means I did a show last night, and I’m happy to report that even though I was emceeing (Empress of Ceremonies), I got to do fifteen solid minutes up front and a couple of minutes in between acts. It wasn’t the ideal setting for developing continuity, but at least I got to try out some new things, some of which worked very well, and some either need to be discarded or worked on.

On Thursday past, I did a guest set at the Comedy Cove at Scotty’s Steakhouse in Springfield, New Jersey. It was open mic night, and wow, did that bring back memories!

There were about eleven comics on the bill, most of them young, twenty-something newbies, but there were at least four there who were going on for the first time in their lives. Two of them were very young (one was sixteen, if you can believe it), and the other two were probably in their forties. But the age difference didn’t really matter, because the look in their eyes contained the same abject fear that I experienced on May 30, 1980, when I stepped on stage for the first time.

Fear is a great equalizer. It transcends age, in a very primal way, and thrusts us all back to a yearning for the constancy of childhood, when all was safe and warm, when there were always clean sheets on the bed, and the familiar aromas of dinner were wafting through the house at six pm, right on time, every day. I call it “Mommy Time”, because in a right and just world, the thought of a Mom’s protective love triggers comfort, regardless of how it was in reality. If you had it, great; if you didn’t, you learn to create it in your mind.

As children, and later as adult humans, we come to love this routine, despite how much we may rail against it, because normalcy provides us with a sense of comfort and well-being. So, when we step out of our comfort zone, either by force and circumstances, or voluntarily (as in the open mic situation), our fear or flight response kicks in and we revert back to “Mommy Time”, regardless of how many years we’ve attained.  So when I saw these ‘comedy virgins’, wide-eyed with fear and anticipation, I knew exactly how they felt. And though my instinct told me to go over there and try talking them off the ledge, I knew that it would do no good; they had to go through their baptism by fire, come out the other side alive, and earn the right to call themselves comics.

To a civilian, this right of passage may seem overly dramatic. After all, soldiers, police officers and fire fighters go into battle and put their lives on the line every day, and you almost never hear about their fear. Usually, when they discuss it, they macho up and just say, “It’s part of the job” or something brave like that. And believe me when I say that I’m in no way comparing the danger level of those professions to being a stand-up. But consider this for a moment; in all of the aforementioned professions, the participants receive months and sometimes years of training. They are armed with tools, weaponry and the support of enormous organizations who are dedicated to their safety. There is fraternity and unity; the “I’ve got your back” ethic, which can offer some degree of   “Mommy Time” to the young firefighter rushing into a burning building. It doesn’t lessen the degree of danger or fear to which these courageous people are exposed, especially the first time they encounter it, but the sense of not being alone in it all can salve a lot of what’s going on in their gut.

Now consider the comic making that long walk to the stage for the first time. In him or her, you have a basically insecure person whose insatiable need for approval is so strong that he or she is willing to go before a room packed with strangers to get it. There has been little or no training, and the person is going up there armed only with words and this belief that somewhere deep inside, he or she has the ability to make this room of strangers laugh. The comic is charged with the responsibility of developing an intimate relationship with the audience in one minute or so, or risk silence-the ultimate rejection for the insecure.

Sometimes it’s even worse. I have seen first-timers encounter hostile audiences and not have a clue about how to handle them. Wounded and dying up there, you can see in their eyes the dissolution of a dream that they may have carried with them since childhood. All of a sudden, the kid who could always make his friends laugh is alone, naked from the waist up. I have had many of those sets in the beginning, and I can tell you first-hand that it is a horrible feeling to experience. And though it gets easier to endure over time, it never gets easy-even for veterans. Remind me sometime to tell you about my “Letterman” audition at Dangerfield’s. But back to Scotty’s (did you catch the irony of that name?), and my set.

I was to go up third on the roster, a great place to be in because it was early enough in the show for the audience to be warmed up, but not too late where they would be exhausted. I was to do five minutes (I had 15 prepared). Plus, it would give me a chance to see what I was up against, competition-wise. My biggest concern was bridging the age gap.

As it turned out, that wasn’t an issue at all. The previous few shows I’d done had re-ignited my ‘audience command’ skills pretty quickly and so ‘grabbing them’ wasn’t an issue. But I hadn’t had enough time onstage yet to edit a ‘TV’ set of 5 to 6 minutes. This set would be that test.

It went pretty well I thought. For the first time, I didn’t have to rely on notes (the brain doesn’t remember lines as quickly as it used to), and segues were much smoother than on any other previous shows. But most importantly, my confidence in the skills I have learned over the years are coming back. I am realizing that being transgendered is not a liability, but an asset. It gives me an edge that almost no other mainstream comic has. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am becoming fearless up there, because I have no secrets anymore. And let me tell you, that is one great feeling! So, the booker liked me, and the owner liked me. But most importantly, I liked me. And for a transgendered person, achieving that goal can be very, very difficult in this world of intolerance and hatred.

 I didn’t stay to see how these folks did. The weather was lousy and I had a long drive home. I’m sure that the ones who did well are still basking in the afterglow of their success, while the ones who didn’t fare as well are rethinking the Dream.

I was planning to wrap this entry up, but I just checked my Facebook Page a while ago and received a message from one of the audience members from last night’s show. Now normally, I wouldn’t share these with you, but I thought this one was kind of special. It’s meant for everyone, of course, but I particularly hope that my transgendered sisters and brothers take something from it. I’ve removed the person’s name, but nothing else. Here it is, verbatim.
Hi there! I just wanted to drop you a quick note to say kudos to you! My friend and I were in the audience last night at wisecrackers. BTW- there WAS another lesbian in the room... My best friend who although she has been out for over 15 years, was a bit shy to speak up. Anyway... I am a big comedy fan, and even had the great pleasure of knowing (name deleted) before his passing. I usually like to do a bit of research about the comedians I see, and stumbled upon your story of transformation! If I understand correctly, last night was one of your first times back on stage, if not the very first time back? I just wanted to commend and encourage you... Way to go! Follow your heart and your dreams! If being up there fills you with joy, then keep going! You have already done one of the bravest things and followed your heart to become who you knew you are... Don't let anything stand in your way. Kudos to you!

- Much Love,
(Name deleted)

And when I asked this person if I could reprint it, here’s the reply that came.

Post away! Good luck on your second show tonight, and please always know... For every ignorant, close-minded, hateful person you meet, there is also a tolerant, open-minded, loving person out there as well. I hope you encounter more of the latter.

I know they won’t all be like that, and I am doing my best to prepare myself emotionally for it. But I’m hoping that by offering some measure of understanding to those who don’t ‘get’ what we’re about, those folks who might be prone to hate or bigotry will take a deep breath, pause, and realize that we are no different than they. Until then, I'll just gingerly walk the comedy tightrope and try not to fall off. Having said that, there’s not much more to add to this, except to say, thank you to the humans in the group.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat! Abbondanza!

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