People don’t have to believe me on this one, but I promise that I hate being on stage.
My entire list of theatrical credits is: “Little Girl” in “Cinderella” at age 8; “random child who skips across stage a couple of times” in an unidentified opera at Luther College when I was 10; “Radio Announcer” in “Annie” when I was 16 (though this is stretching it because I did this part while sitting in the pit band); and a variety show at age 18 where I did a lip sync rendition of “I Got You Babe” while wearing a dress. That’s it. That is my IMDB page.
I have a music degree and managed to graduate without ever playing a solo piano piece in front of anyone. (Please don’t tell WSU that or they might take the diploma back.) I loved playing jazz piano because my back was always to the audience. I loved accompanying soloists because they were the focal point. When I was a senior in college, I was the “featured” pianist on a song with the band where at one point I literally used my entire forearms to make “Godzilla-like sounds” (whatever that was) but obviously didn’t require a great deal of precision and I didn’t have to memorize anything.
That is my entire stage history. You’d be amazed at some of the lengths I’ve gone to in order to avoid having to do more in this regard. I was never a natural “performer.” My brother got all of those genes and uses them exceptionally well. I always wanted to get in and get out of it as quickly as possible. People who know how to take a professional bow amaze me. I basically always nodded my head and ran offstage.
Then I spent 20 years of my life listening to people tell me I should be a stand-up comedian. The genesis of this came from exactly one place: A very well-honed defense mechanism intended to defer people away from my insecurities. The list of those insecurities used to be super long and I quickly learned that if I could make people laugh, then they might not focus on the fact that I was gay or overweight or had mental health concerns or was a little too obsessed with approximately 823 things.
But the gay insecurity was the one I tackled most consistently. I served on my first LGBT panel when I was a sophomore in college in 1999. I remember a very recent ex-girlfriend was also on that panel and we somehow managed to riff on this fact and make everyone in the class laugh. And I remember the magic that I felt when we did this: People relaxed. They asked better questions. They paid closer attention. It diffused the entire room.
When I worked at Mayo, they had these “diversity education” classes that employees were encouraged to take. And they weren’t necessarily looking for panel members for the LGBT class, but one day, my wife (who had been on the panel a few times) invited me to come along and be on it with her. I spoke last and when I told my story, I managed to get everyone to laugh without making fun of myself or their beliefs but rather just by telling stories about my experiences up to that point in my life. I loved every second of it.
We got home that night and my wife brought me a card that had the Shakespeare quote on the front: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” And on the inside of the card, she wrote, “And some leapfrog their way to greatness by being significantly funnier than their wives on a panel.”
It was such a weird thing at which to excel. So I kept doing it. I spoke to Mayo employees regularly; I spoke to third year medical students about lesbian sex; I spoke to community members during the gay marriage debate of 2004; I spoke to classes at the university; I spoke to church congregations. I just kept doing it. And I realized that I never did it the same way twice. It wasn’t a canned speech. I just talked, read the room, and adjusted based on the audience.
At almost every presentation/panel, someone would write on their evaluation or tell me afterward, “You should really do stand-up comedy.”
And I always took that as high praise, giggled at the absurdity of getting up in front of people with the sole purpose of making them laugh, and internally thought, ‘My ego would never survive that. I would rip myself to shreds if I failed.’ And trust me. In every possible visualization of that potential experience, I only saw failure.
I have no idea when it fell on my bucket list. It’s annoying when that happens. It’s like one too many people mentioned it and suddenly, I couldn’t get it out of my head. “Well, I suppose I should try that once before I die,” I told myself. And there it stuck.
I wrote one half of a potential routine in January 2017 and didn’t look at it again until four days ago when Bub’s announced an open mic night. “Welp,” I said as though that’s a word. “Might as well.”
My plan had always been to run off to an open mic night in Chicago where I knew no one and could bomb in peace. But I guessed the basement of Bub’s where 17 years ago my dixieland band held a speakeasy would suffice. I counted on Minnesota niceness. I was the 11th comedian so I also counted on alcohol helping out. And I had a variety of support show up on short notice. One of them downloaded a laugh app on her phone to break up silence if that happened.
If you watch the video, see if you can catch the moment where I basically black out and come back to my body with a microphone in front of me thinking, “What the hell am I doing?”
It went well. I feel real good about myself today. And I’m going to be stuck doing it again because even though I hate being on stage, eight minutes of making people laugh at stories that are 100% true is addicting.
I have amazing friends and a fabulous wife and live in a great community.
All I don’t have, now, is a bucket list. Whoops.