Our series, “A Comic’s Life” focuses on life on the road, performing stand-up. Dan Perlman is a young writer and comic, who has been performing comedy full time for just over two years. He performs nightly in New York City, and tours around the country at festivals, clubs and colleges. Dan is writing a series of articles for “A Comic’s Life”, which chronicles some of his thoughts and stories about being a young comedian just getting started in his career. This week, he writes about off stage fright, and how he made his fears work for him instead of against him.
Like many aspiring stand-ups starting out, I had to overcome stage fright. My fears extended beyond the stage, though. For years, I suffered from social anxiety. Through high school, I used to feel an invisible wall between me and everyone else. Group conversations felt like a doubles tennis match, where I just stared, overwhelmed, as others hit the ball at lightning-speed. I’d just stand silently, until I could fake a phone call and duck out.
I didn’t want to go to college. My disconnect from classmates in high school led me to expect more of the same. When I first arrived on campus, I used to imagine that I’d find a reason to leave. Like when an airline overbooks a plane, they’ll announce, “Hey, we have too many passengers. If you leave the plane, we’ll give you a free Delta mug.” If the Dean had said during my first week at school, “Yo, we took too many freshmen. If anyone leaves, we’ll give you a t-shirt,” I would’ve nabbed the t-shirt and bounced.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman gave one of the few anecdotes that changed how I thought. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Kaufman talks about the impact when he started owning his flaws after writing himself (played by Nicolas Cage) as a character in the film Adaptation:
“I do think that it’s a very hard thing to be yourself… There’s always this idea that you’ve gotta project this thing into the world. There’s kind of a nice thing about trying to shed that, and then there’s no concern. You are who you are. ‘This is who I am.’ For example, I often went into meetings — one of things that the Nic Cage character says that is true is that I sweat a lot in meetings. And I was always really embarrassed about it. And then, after I did Adaptation, I figured, ‘Well, everyone is expecting that from me,’ you know? So if I sweat, it doesn’t matter anymore. So I can sweat without embarrassment. And you know what happened? I stopped sweating in meetings.”
That line hit me hard. Everything used to embarrass me. I even kept my plan to do stand-up largely hidden until college. Yet Kaufman’s experience was eye-opening. By writing about his propensity to sweat in meetings, he took ownership of that anecdote. Kaufman took a feeling that triggered negative self-image, and used it as creative fuel. Taking this control distills the anecdote and removes himself from the pain and shame that he felt when he kept that embarrassment in his own head.
I’ve found this process to be true in stand-up. Some of my favorite personal moments, in terms of developing material, are the times when I’ve been able to discuss a previously painful experience. At times, I can’t make the bit strong enough to become part of my act. Yet even attempting to bring that embarrassment on-stage is rewarding, as it can help transform previously negative feelings into something that I’m excited to share.
My shyness served as some of the first material that I developed upon starting stand- up in New York. I opened up about it, because it was something that I viewed as a part of who I was. And I hoped that filtering these feelings through material, like Kaufman described, would help me “stop sweating.”
After two years of doing stand-up every night, I have gotten more comfortable on-stage. This comfort has helped my confidence off-stage. Today, I can talk to friends, acquaintances, and strangers with a degree of familiarity that I could not have imagined as a teenager. Stand-up helped tear down those walls I used to see.
Getting on stage repeatedly, in front of all kinds of crowds, has helped me become more secure, both on- and off-stage. I used to be quiet and stuck in my own head. With stand-up, I can climb out of my head and connect with others. After connecting with others, a stand-up can lead the audience on a guided tour of what’s inside their head. So the comedian is still exploring himself or herself, but they have some company. And that’s more fun.
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian from New York. Follow him on Twitter @DanJPerlman.