I had heard this phrase quite often in my life, but I never actually put 'stand-up' on the top of my To Do list.
Growing up a middle child, I began exhibiting odd behavior at an early age in order to get attention. I developed various parlor tricks that came in handy, not only around the house but on the school playground. I was also very observant, so I learned to mimic facial expressions and do impersonations of friends and family members. I was the class clown.
Once I began acting, I had an affinity toward comedic roles. But stand-up comedy? That remained in an entirely too frightening league of its own.
After taking some comedy classes, however, my thoughts begin to shift.
Always a cautious and hard-working performer, I prepared. For months I started logging in a "comedy journal" daily—writing down funny ideas, bits of jokes, and strange observations.
Then I committed myself. I decided I would take the plunge.
I set a date. Gulp. Once it was etched in my calendar in black permanent ink, I went into serious crunch mode. I wrote and I wrote. I scratched out. I threw out pages. I punched a table or two. I practiced my jokes in the car, in the shower, and on customers as I waited tables.
When the night finally came, I felt really confident that I had created some solid material for myself. The jokes were named, timed out, and arranged in a set list.
I was ready.
Though I had told several friends and colleagues that I was going to perform stand-up for the first time, I refused to tell anyone where. The only person I allowed to actually come to my performance was my very non-judgmental boyfriend. This was so (a) someone could testify that I did, in fact, actually go on stage; and (b) he could videotape this personal milestone.
For reasons I won't get in to, instead of doing my first ever stand-up comedy act in a comedy club—where your stage time is three to five minutes—I decided to perform at a quirky coffee shop in a trendy San Diego neighborhood.
The place had specific rules: Each artist gets ten minutes of stage time, and could choose any performance medium they wanted.
As I waited with sweaty palms and short breaths in the audience, I noticed there weren't many empty seats in the place. In fact, people were still filing in.
Also, it dawned on me that every performer thus far had been a singer-songwriter with a bleeding heart. And the crowd was eating up every last tormented lyric.
Had I heard anyone laugh all night? I thought. Had anyone even mustered up a smile? Was that guy in the corner crying?
Suddenly, it didn't seem to be the best time to start cracking jokes. I was sure I'd be dead on arrival.
After a particularly anguished musician left the stage, the host announced that the night would be switching gears.
I think my heart stopped. There stood the host, attempting to drum up excitement and encouragement from this gloomy group as he announced the first comedian of the night. Their disconcerted faces exchanged quick glances that said, "What is that doing in here?"
As I vacillated between nervous frenzy and a self pep talk, I heard my name called off in the distance. I was being summoned.
I shuffled through the metal folding chairs and hastily climbed up onto the stage.
After a few awkward fumbles with the microphone stand, I broke the silence. I uttered out some sort of disclaimer, and apologized in advance as it was going to be my first time attempting stand-up for a crowd.
I stood center stage and basically said to them: Brace yourself. What you're about to watch may be a total waste of your time. But you should still watch because you might have a front-row seat to a complete meltdown. Enjoy!
Smooth move, Lauren...
For the first half of my act, everything was on autopilot. I was going through the motions and somehow my mouth was working without much help from my brain.
Somewhere in the middle of my act, I sort of came to. Suddenly I was that girl from my dreams who shows up naked for school.
Only I was very much awake.
As I stood there under those hot lights, I started remembering stories of people spontaneously combusting and wondering if I could will myself to do just that. It couldn't be worse than those bulbs that were burning my retinas.
I felt the eyes of the audience scrutinizing each syllable that left my lips. And just like that, my jokes went Benedict Arnold on me. My very own words—which I had meticulously arranged for weeks—just left my head completely.
I scrambled for my cheat sheet and tried to scrounge up some humorous anecdotes. What was I doing to myself? How could I have voluntarily signed up for this?
In what seemed like hours, the seconds ticked by loudly in my head as I searched for my words. The silence was mounting—and it was suffocating. After a few awkward mumblings, I ended abruptly with, "Well... that's all I have left to talk about."
I couldn't get off the stage fast enough. Spots from the stage lights blurred my vision as I scampered off into the darkness and tried to reach the nearest exit with a modicum of composure.
I didn't quite make it. I felt welled-up tears in my eyes involuntarily falling onto my cheeks. Never before had I felt the joy of accomplishment and the shame of disaster in one colliding moment. I was humiliated.
After some consolation (from aforementioned boyfriend) in the solace of our car, I reluctantly decided I had to watch the playback from my set. Looking at the side of the recorder, I realized that the performance had lasted over 13 minutes. This is hours in first-time comedian world.
With a trembling hand, I drummed up the courage to press 'Play.'
I tried to calm down and think positively, and look at the performance critically. Maybe I could learn from my mistakes—seeing how I actually said each line on stage as opposed to how I remembered practicing them beforehand. But every 30 seconds during the performance there seemed to be this strange noise that I didn't hear while I was actually on stage.
Not just one, but multiple laughs. Continuous laughs. Appropriate laughs.
With each single laugh, I felt the corners of my mouth rise wider and wider into a big grin.
I had almost missed it.
With all the effort and the preparation I had put into my act, I had almost missed the joy experienced in the moment as a performer. I let my nerves get the best of me—and they almost ruined it.
Since that night, I have performed dozens of stand-up comedy sets. It has done tremendous things for me as an actress and as a writer. My auditioning skills have gotten much stronger due to my level of confidence in my performance abilities.
Thank goodness I had the camera to capture the emotion and moments I was too flustered to notice while on stage. If not, I probably would not have put myself through that ever again.
Lauren O'Brien is an actress, comedian and talk radio personality. Originally from New Jersey, she now works in the Greater Los Angeles area. Lauren can be heard during morning drive on her radio program "The Mikey Show." She regularly performs stand-up. She has done various projects in film, TV and comedy, and most recently a commercial for OnStar. For more information and to contact Lauren, please visit laurenobrien.nowcasting.com.