If You Can’t Laugh at Yourself, You Must Not Be Very Funny

Three years ago on my 33rd birthday, fresh off a break-up and entering my “Jesus” year, I made 3 resolutions, and I started with something easy.

1) Win a chili cookoff 2) Train to be a lady arm wrestler 3) Become a stand-up comedian

The easy one turned out to be trickier than I expected. I make a mean butternut squash, sage, and white bean chili that would certainly be a blue-ribbon winner (if said chili cook-off was held at Martha Stewart’s cottage in the Hamptons), but it turns out that for it to be a real chili cook-off it has to be sanctioned by the International Chili Society (ICS), and the FIRST rule of the ICS is:

  1. True chili is defined by the International Chili Society as any kind of meat, or combination of meats, cooked with chili peppers, various other spices, and other ingredients with the exception of items such as beans or spaghetti which are strictly forbidden.

There it was–my potential gold medal pot of fancy vegetarian chili, was strictly forbidden from the glory it deserved. I did not want to find out what happens when you break the first rule of chili cookoffs, so I decided to put that pot on the back burner, and move on to resolution #2.

In the years prior, Charlottesville developed a thriving lady arm-wrestling scene called CLAW (Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers), but after a few conversations with the organizers, I found out that the next tournament was several months away. In the meantime, I was going to start doing a lot of push ups, and move on to my most difficult task. I was going to become a stand-up comedian.

My interest in comedy writing started a few weeks before when a friend dragged me to an open mic night. There were a dozen young guys who took the stage that night. Some were quite good, but I noticed a running theme: jokes about lady parts and how “bitches be crazy”. I decided that this was a golden opportunity. If I did stand-up, I would stand out as one of the only women willing to make a fool of herself for a laugh. I was in a unique position, and I had something they would never have–100% certified lady parts that I legitimately knew how to make fun of, and a totally different perspective–I thought “bitches be awesome”. And I was fully prepared to sacrifice myself for a joke–I figured if you can’t laugh at yourself, you must not be very funny.

I signed up for a comedy class with the talented and hilarious Johnny Mac (John McCullough) in Charlottesville, VA, and in no time I was learning the craft of comedy writing. It reminded me of my days as a student and a counselor at the UVA Young Writers Workshop, and I loved every minute of it. I would jot down joke ideas all week, and then meet with a comedy writing group called the Charlottesville Comedy Roundtable on Sunday mornings. We would workshop jokes–keeping some, tossing others, giving one away if another comic had a better perspective or tag. We learned that jokes don’t have to be true. Every new comic thinks that they can only pull from real life. It is a tough lesson to learn, but sometimes a joke about a dog is funnier if is a joke about a cat, even if you don’t have a cat.

Also, I learned that anyone can write a joke. It is a simple math equation:

Premise + Unique Perspective + Surprise = Joke

Premise: Dating is hard in a small town because everyone knows everyone

Unique Perspective: You start dating someone and then you find out that they made out with your best friend.

Surprise: That totally happened…to my best friend.

(Wait for it…Get it?)

In the many years since Young Writers, it seemed as if my pens dried up. I stopped making time to write, and eventually stopped thinking of myself as a writer. But there I was–carrying a notebook, jotting phrases in my phone in the middle of the night, waking up and reaching for my laptop.

And then came the performance. The first show, the first clap, the first joke, the first laugh–after that, I was hooked.

It was terrifying and it was a thrill. Alone on stage with nothing between me and the audience but a microphone and some words that I thought of in the shower. People thought I was crazy, or crazier yet–”brave”, and I ate it up. The other comics became my closest friends, and I even tried dating a few.

Side note: There is nothing worse than having someone break up with you and then offer to help you write a joke about it. At least that is what I was told. (See what I did there?)

Things moved very quickly. As I suspected, there were not a lot of women putting themselves on the stage. Once at an open mic in Richmond I was one of 30 comics performing, and I was the lone broad. The result was some tough love from the other comics, and a lot of attention from the crowd and visiting promoters. It made sense–when you have seen 30 men perform in a row, the one lady who gets on stage is going to be memorable.

Within months I was opening for Steve Byrne, Whitney Cummings, Doug Stanhope, and other up-and-coming and seasoned comics. I regularly performed at open mics in Charlottesville, Richmond and DC, and in 2012 I was named “Best Comic in C-Ville”. I was huge (in Central Virginia)!

But then things started to change. The shows got further and further apart, and I stopped taking new gigs. I told myself it was because the scene dried up, but the truth is I was dealing with a rapidly growing anxiety. What started as a huge rush was starting to feel like panic. The butterflies before a show turned into tight shaking fists. The week before a performance I would repeat my jokes in my head over and over, convinced I would get on stage and forget every word. I lost sleep over the thought of a joke falling flat. I dreaded running into people whose first question would be “When is your next show?” or worse yet, “Tell me a joke!”

Eventually I concluded that I no longer thought of myself as comic, and that’s okay–because the things we enjoy doing aren’t necessarily the things that define us. Before getting into comedy I no longer considered myself a writer, but during those two years I was dedicated to daily writing and workshopping, and more of a writer than ever before. If you love your craft and you let it go, it will always come back into your life–just maybe in a different form.

Just like how I loved performing, and a few months later I found myself on stage as a lady arm wrestler.

I should point out that I didn’t just train to be a lady arm-wrestler, but I actually “won” a lady arm-wrestling competition. You can see some of my big night as June the Cleaver in the upcoming CLAW documentary.

Also, I am still determined to win a chili cook-off, because further down the list of rules from the ICS, I found this one:

  1. All contestants who have special requirements or who plan to arrive by special vehicle (i.e. decorated cars or trucks, hot air balloons or parachutes) are asked to notify the sponsors at least three days in advance so that adequate crowd control procedures may be used.

Parachute into a Chili Cook-Off? Sign me up.