I mark every show I play on my calendar. The year is not yet over, but I counted this year's total the other day out of curiosity. Fear not though, loyal reader. I will not pester you with the details of my public displays of mediocrity. Saying the number here would only be masturbatory on my part. Not only that, but the worst kind of masturbatory. The kind of masturbatory where the thing I'm boasting about is not only told to you against your will, but is also not even really worth boasting about -- like saying I beat a dog in a staring contest, or bragging about how many pennies I ate as a kid.
Suffice to say, I do alright. Three to four shows a week is average. Less than two is considered a failure. For a city with not a lot of opportunities to get stage time, I do pretty well. Some ups, some downs. Some I'm proud of, an uncomfortably large number of I'm not. All of them important. All of them vital. All of them done for reasons I can't really explain, and any attempt to do so would make both our heads hurt.
However, I have been asked several times over the past few years why someone would want to subject themselves to the cavalcade of angst and failure that is the first few painful months of open mic comedy. I suppose the question that people really want to ask is not, "How do I start doing comedy?" but rather, "How do I KEEP doing comedy when every rational urge in my body is telling me not to?"
A lot of people flirt with the idea of getting into stand up, and to you I say that's just wonderful. There is a distressing shortage of people voicing their first world problems to disinterested art school dropouts, so good on you for filling the void, brave soldier. However, the challenge is not in starting. The true test is in staying consistent. Starting is easy: you find an open mic and just start doing it. If you're having trouble finding a place to do it, start your own room. Or move. If you need to move, I'll wait here and you can come back when you are ready...
You done unpacking? Good. There, you are now a stand up comedian. Congratulations. Now, if you're comfortable being atrociously bad at it for a few months, you will eventually upgrade to being not that bad once every month or so. This learning curve thankfully does increase exponentially over time, and soon you will discover that you have upgraded from "irredeemably awful" to "meh, alright I guess" in the eyes of your audience. However, in your own eyes the curve is not as forgiving, I'm sad to say. Unless you are some sort of oblivious self-flagellating mess, your opinion of yourself in this time will have you keeping your sharp objects and prescription drugs in difficult to find areas of your home. It can take months, even years for you to finally start enjoying yourself up there without any regret or self doubt. In that time you will have to perform a minimum of one hundred times, often against your and/or the audience's will. You'll start getting good at it in about three years, and you will maybe be paid to do it in about seven or eight. If you're lucky.
Once you've stopped crying, we can proceed.
If this sounds depressing, then you clearly have been misinformed about the vocation you have chosen. You have no idea how many people I have seen try to do stand up, only to discover very quickly that it really is not for them. Quite often it happens moments into their first set, when they realize that their presence has become like that of a Ghostbusters containment trap, sucking in all the good will and empathy from the crowd and locking it away, never to be seen by any other comic for the rest of the night. And do not misunderstand, this phenomena is not "bombing", that cute little term comics use to describe a set that did not go exactly as planned. I like to think of those first few excursions out there as more like salting the stage so that nothing will ever be funny on it again.
But we have all salted the stage, I am proud to say. Nobody would ever try stand up if they knew how unrewarding it can be at times. Very often it is done simply for the sake of doing it, and enjoyment has to be found in the process. Anyone who can make it past the first few months with the same level of optimism they had when they started is in a rare class, especially when they are made aware of the things they will have to do and the places they will have to go to remain consistent. You will have to play to empty rooms. You will have to play to rooms of just other comedians, who will heckle you just to make the night entertaining for themselves. You will have to play to rooms that were not properly publicised, wherein you will essentially be ambient noise in a room full of people who would really prefer you'd stop interrupting their meal.
It will suck. You won't enjoy it. You will want to quit, and will seriously reconsider why you got into it in the first place. But, if you can still find pleasure in those shows, in some small form of creative satisfaction or flagrant sadomasochism, you can endure and stick it out.
At the risk of romanticising it too much, that is pretty much what make stand up so much fun at the start, and why only the most dedicated of misanthropes ever stick with it. There is the feeling, as delusional and self destructive as it may be, that just the fact that you keep doing it means something to you, and that hopefully it means something to those half dozen people who came out that night, too. If you're not doing this to at least make yourself happy, and if you can't muster the energy to advance yourself and be funny for the dismally-attended gigs that will be your testing ground, then perhaps stand up is not your thing.
If you can find satisfaction in making one lonely drunk bellow out a hellish cackle and toss a half-eaten chicken wing in the air because of one of your jokes, you've got stand up in your veins. If impacting people is only important to you if it's on a grand scale and requires little to no self loathing, perhaps competitive eating or serial killing is more up your alley.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.