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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to a Bucket List

After years of sitting and writing humor, this man went the stand-up route


As different as we might be, almost everybody has one trait in common: there’s something wild we want to try, before our hearing goes or we start throwing our backs out just reaching for the salt. The fantasy could be hang gliding. Doing a pole dance. Watching a pole dance. Anything that shakes up the norm.
 
I, too, had such a dream (aside from the one where Lauren Graham and I are the sole survivors of a nuclear apocalypse). After years of writing funny things, I wanted to say them — publicly. I wanted to do stand-up and hear uproarious, back-injuring laughter from an audience.
 
I’ve long envied folks who got onstage and told jokes. What’s kept me from trying? A fear of failing. Still, I craved the rush comics get when they kill in front of the audience.

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Time was passing. I didn’t want to be Walter Mitty, daydreaming until time ran out. So, some months ago, I stepped out of my comfort zone and plotted my arrival onto a stage. I knew I could stink so badly, my follow-up act would be guys fumigating in Hazmat suits. Still, I had to try.
 
Preparing For The Attempt
 
I spent days watching DVDs of Pryor and Carlin. I didn’t expect to be that good. I just hoped this regimen would work in a Socratic way and mold me into a watchable comic.
 
Then I sought help from Abdul, my mailman. I asked him if, the following week, he’d stay for five minutes after delivering my mail to critique my act. Abdul said sure.
 
After brainstorming, I had my idea. I’d talk about the band Kiss. They’re already a comedy routine. And, since the ‘80s, they’ve gone through more members than Congress. I went to work. The following week, Abdul dropped in to listen. I launched into my routine.
 
“You know about Kiss, right?” I said. “They’ve had hundreds of people in that band. In fact, I think you and I are the only guys who haven’t been in Kiss.”
 
Abdul chuckled. Then?
 
“That’s good, Peter,” he said. “But don’t telegraph your punchlines by smiling. Also, don’t stretch your arms out. You look like you’re begging.”
 
Wincing, I thanked Abdul. He was right. I needed polishing.
 
Days passed. I polished. Finally, I knew I had 10 minutes ready. It was time for the next step.

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Taking The Stage
 
I found a club with an Amateur Night for comics and musicians (as you know, sometimes they’re indistinguishable). The following week, I drove to the club, sweating and nauseous. Clearly, this was what I needed to jolt my fantasy to life. Unless I was experiencing a serious cardiac episode.                     
 
Been to an amateur night? There are plenty of us Walter Mittys out there. Many over 40. Many woeful. I stood in the dark, pacing unhappily, mostly due to the folksinger onstage doing his Harry Chapin medley.
 
A 50-ish comic came on and did some marijuana jokes, which made me long for the folksinger.
 
Emboldened, I hit the stage.
 
"Can you believe Kiss was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” I asked. Cheers went up. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me. I forged ahead.
 
“Does anybody know who was in the original Kiss lineup?”
 
Names were shouted out.
 
“OK, but who came later? I mean, what happened with Peter Criss? Was he fired because he wasn’t good? Or because he was so fried he could never find the venue?”
 
Several people laughed. Some booed. Undeterred, I plowed on.
 
“You know why they didn’t play on induction night, right? It’s because there are 1,300 guys in Kiss. Eric Carr, Eric Cantor, Eric Clapton, Eric Singer and I.B. Singer.”
 
The literary people laughed.
 
I did some zingers about the band’s makeup. And about Kiss’s farewell tour…. lasting 11 years. And then I said, “Thank you. Gotta go. I’m playing drums with Kiss tonight.” 
 
Then came an interminable 10 seconds while I asked myself the question I’d always feared. Was I funny? Would the crowd be silent? Applaud? Throw things?
 
Living The Fantasy
 
The emcee said my name again.
 
And there was applause. Solid, sustained clapping. I went out to my car, euphoric. I’d lived the fantasy! I’d done what Walter Mitty only thought about. I’d acted on my dream.

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I awoke the next morning smiling. No, I hadn’t gotten a call from Conan. But that didn’t matter. I’d had my Stand-Up Moment. For decades I needed to know what it would be like to stand on a stage telling jokes. Now I did.
 
It was thrilling. And I didn’t ever need to do it again.
 
Why push my luck? That’s one reason. The other? The next time, the Kiss Army might be laying in wait for me. And let’s face it. You know what a brutal bunch they can be.

Peter Gerstenzang writes about rock, pop culture and humor for Esquire, Spin, MSN and Next Avenue.

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