Stand-up is already an unusual art-form, but one of the most unusual things about it is that you start in the most difficult environments.
Nothing else is like that.
If you were teaching someone to ski, you’d pop him or her on the bunny slopes until they figured out how to turn, or decelerate, or at least angle their skis in a way that doesn’t make them look like a six-year-old snowplowing down a hill.
In standup – especially in New York, and Boston, where I incubated – you start in the roughest rooms, in front of impatient audiences that are persnickety, drunk, and generally unforgiving. The lighting is rarely focused on you, so you get to see the frowns on every disapproving face as you disappoint them. You’re not gently introduced by the experiences; you’re forged by them. In stand-up, when you’re starting, there are no bunny slopes. There are only black runs.
But that environment produces comedians that are, in a way, unbreakable. When you’ve done three short minutes in front of a scattering of people at a Chinese restaurant, or spent ten agonizing moments sitting in utter, careless silence created by an audience solely comprised of other acts waiting for their turn to spend some time in silence, there isn’t a whole ton that fazes you.
Still though. I’ve been doing comedy solidly for about seven-eight years now; I’ve never heard a first-time-onstage story with a collection of circumstances more unfortunate and pathetic than mine. Count the cringe-inducing things, if you can bear it. You’ll need more than two hands:
My first set took place not at a comedy club, or a bar, or a University talent show or something, but at a pizzeria called Roggies in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. It was a Tuesday night near a college campus during a winter break, so the college kids were gone home, for the most part. It was daylight outside, still when I roller-bladed to the gig. I was on pretty close to the end, but not so near to the end that there weren’t still four or five bands and singer-songwriters that were furious that a bona-fide child was onstage trying stand-up. Because the night was not a comedy night, it was a music open-mic, and when I showed up, the lady running it, a blonde named Chrissy who always hosted the mic and played songs with a Sheryl Crowish bent, looked me up and down and said, with justifiable concern, “you want to try stand-up comedy?”
“You look about twelve.” Yeah. It was 2005, and I was fifteen years old. The reason I was performing in a pizza joint was because, at that age, I wasn’t old enough to get into a bar, and I didn’t even consider a comedy club, because I was pretty convinced that there were only about ten comedians who played in them, and they were all famous like Bill Cosby. She was right, by the way, I did look about twelve. It was something I was sensitive about, and a source of real tension at home, where my parents were beginning to become worried that I wouldn’t grow. Out of desperation, they had begun urging me to take second and third helpings of food. I didn’t tell her any of this, obviously.
“I’m fifteen. My name is Alex.”
“OK, Alex. How much time do you want to do?”
I considered my material, which was about a page of scribbled notes I had put in the back of a Maths notebook. “Well, how much time do the musicians do?”
Chrissy told me they did about ten-to-fifteen minutes, and I nodded obliviously.
“Well, I guess I’ll do about that.”
About an hour later, she brought me onstage with—God, this is really a pathetic story—“we have someone here who wants to try stand-up comedy. Yeah. Well, I don’t know. Clap for him, his name is Alex.” I had been planning to do fifteen minutes on how I had recently seen U2 and they weren’t that good. The material lasted me more like three minutes, and about halfway through, I realized that U2 was actually great and maybe the best thing my fifteen-year-old mind had ever seen. The songwriters looked at me blankly, looked at each other blankly, looked at Chrissy blankly. There was a lot of blank in the room. I tried an ad-lib about looking like Macauley Culkin to no response. One of the waiters at the pizzeria walked directly in front of me holding a tray of soda.
I don’t remember what else I tried onstage, but the most vivid detail, the one that summarizes the set to me, is the only two audience members—a husband and wife who had shown up to support a trio of college students who were doing some original stuff mixed with Neutral Milk Hotel covers—looking at each other before one said, softly, but still loud enough for me to hear: “Are you understanding this at all? Because I’m not.” I think it was the wife, but I can’t be sure. In my occasional nightmares about that night, the voice would usually be my own, anyway.
I came offstage, flushed and ashamed, to sparse applause that managed to sound sympathetic, angry, confused, and relieved all at the same time. Chrissy went back on.
“That was Alex. Doing stand-up. Which doesn’t always work here.” I was close to tears, and readying my rollerblades for a hasty retreat. And then—and maybe she was just thinking out loud, but it felt like a lifeline—she said “perhaps he’ll get better and come back.”
Alex Edelman will be performing his debut stand-up show ‘Millenial’ at the Pleasance Courtyard from 30th July – 24th August at 20:15 (1hour). Tickets.