Ella Steinbeck performs a standup show at Carolines On Broadway comedy club in New York after taking a six-week class. The $395 class, held at a nearby acting studio, culminates with a graduation performance at the club in front of friends and family.
NEW YORK — Since I was young, I’ve always made my friends and family laugh. That’s because I’ve always found myself in funny situations — and I have a knack for self-deprecating humor.
But did I ever entertain the idea of doing stand-up comedy? Not really.
However, I recently found myself at the iconic Carolines On Broadway in Times Square, waiting nervously backstage minutes before my debut performance as a stand-up comedian. As my name was announced, I ran onstage, but my knees were trembling so much that I almost tripped. After regaining my balance, I delivered my five-minute set of jokes. I bantered about stupid questions New Yorkers get asked on the street by strangers, joked about my Italian mom and delivered one-liners about having my own laundry TV channel in my apartment building where I can watch my laundry — and everyone else’s. In full disclosure, I don’t have one.
“It’s like laundry porn,” I smiled naughtily.
The audience wasn’t exactly rolling in their seats, but they laughed — and that was more than I could have hoped for.
I’ve been a business journalist for two decades, and I’m used to public speaking. But I’ve never been as frightened as I was right before taking that stage. With stand-up comedy, you’re alone in the spotlight, delivering jokes to strangers. If they don’t laugh, you’re in big trouble.
“No one laughs to be polite — unless your parents are in the audience,” says Jeffrey Gurian, host of ComedyMattersTV.com, a Web show that has interviewed more than 250 top comedians, and a former comedy writer for such names as Joan Rivers, Richard Belzer and Rodney Dangerfield.
So how did an amateur like me suddenly get onstage at Carolines, which helped launch the careers of such celebrities as Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno in the 1980s, the heyday of stand-up comedy? It started back in mid-December, when I enrolled in a six-week class in stand-up comedy through Carolines. The $395 course, held at a nearby rehearsal studio, culminates with a graduation performance at the club for friends and family.
A friend had marveled over the class a few years ago with the same instructor, Linda Smith, who’s been in the stand-up comedy business for more than 20 years and wrote for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” She is the director of new talent at Carolines. Ever since then, taking that class was on my bucket list.
How hard could stand-up be? My friends think I’m funny, so I figured my classmates and instructor would, too.
I was wrong. I learned from Linda how difficult it is to craft a joke and keep delivering punch line after punch line.
On my first day of class, I was happy to see a wide variety of about 20 students of all ages and backgrounds.
Some were more seasoned, like a former doctor who has been on the comedy club circuit for a few years. Then there were the less experienced, like a tax consultant who fell into my camp.
Each week, Linda would ask us to get in front of the class and deliver a set of jokes. The goal: Build on the material until we nailed down the best five minutes for our stage performance. She critiqued the jokes, and classmates also added their input.
But each week, I became increasingly stressed out. No one was laughing. “Where’s the punch line?” Linda asked me. One classmate blurted: “Why don’t you just play your neurotic self?”
After that, I decided to take more control. I booked two coaching sessions with Linda for $100 each. She helped me tighten the material. I then started to rehearse the lines in the shower and in front of friends.
And so once I got onstage, the jitters disappeared. I stared into the crowd of about 80 people and relished being in the spotlight. I kicked off my set by recalling how a stranger asked me on the street: “Can you put eye drops in my infected eye?” For the record, I did.
It’s been over two months since my performance, but I’m already taking another class with Linda who is helping me revise my material. I’m hoping to get back onstage later this month. I’m thinking this may be more than something I just checked off. This could be a new hobby for me.