People are petrified of the idea of performing stand-up comedy. In fact, according to several surveys, people are less afraid of death itself than standing up in front of a group of people and talking.
Clearly, when you think about the logic of that, it makes no sense. But yet most people, as Jerry Seinfeld once joked, would prefer to be the one in the coffin than the one doing the eulogy.
One comedian’s vivid recollection of dying on stage is described as follows:
“My whole throat constricted and I heard this roaring in my ears. My eyes were watering. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t control myself”.
That comedian was none other than Louis C.K: one of the world’s most successful and critically acclaimed stand-up comedians alive today.
But yet, despite the deaths, comedians keep getting back on the horse. Why?
Because, dying on stage isn’t the catastrophic, end of the world, doomsday scenario that your brain would like you to believe it is.
Your brain’s number one job is survival; to make split second decisions to keep you alive, i.e. don’t pet that angry man, don’t lie down on the motorway for a nap, don’t play with your toaster when you’re having a bath, don’t use dog poo as moisturiser, and don’t brush your teeth with a loaded gun. All day everyday, our brain kindly makes decisions for us that we’re not even aware of so we can get on with more important tasks at hand like scrolling through Facebook and checking how many likes your witty quip on service station sandwiches got.
And it’s this need to look good in front our peers that our brains mistake for survival. So the idea of dying on stage, and embarrassing ourselves in front of a room full of people, will illicit the same physiological stress responses as if we were about to get dropped into a shark tank. As far as the brain is concerned if you die on stage, you actually die. Stupid brain.
You’re not nervous when you try and make your friends laugh. You don’t sit around a pub table, sweating profusely, desperately reaching for the ‘banter’ you assiduously practiced in front of mirror days beforehand only to deliver it with a voice that sounds like you’re going through puberty again. So why does this tend to happen to us when we speak to a room full of strangers?
I’ve been doing stan- up comedy now for about five years and I’ve had my fair share of deaths. I’ve had people walk out, entire audiences completely ignore me and start talking to each other. I’ve had people shout out ‘get off’, ‘you’re not funny’, and I’ve had an MC come back on after my set and apologise to the audience: ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘this is open mic. It’s going to attract all sorts’.
And yes it’s horrendous in the moment. But once you get over the initial sting and dent to your precious ego, it’s weirdly quite liberating. Because you begin to realise that what you thought would be Armageddon was actually more like The Revenant, in that not much happens. The world keeps spinning, you’re still alive and NO-ONE ACTUALLY CARES. By the time you’ve shuffled off stage to find a corner to curl up and die in, the audience have already moved on with their lives and are thinking about things like; ‘do I leave the recycling out for the bin men tomorrow or is that next week?’.
Everyone should experience what it’s like to die on stage. Even if you’ve no interest in performing stand up comedy, there is no better jolt to the system that forces you to stop taking yourself and life so seriously.
I’ve actually got more from the times I’ve died on stage than when I haven’t. Namely that we’re basically all the same, audiences by in large want you to do well and the blood circulation in my face is second to none.
If I was to impart any advice to anyone reading this and thinking ‘why is this guy suddenly an authority on the subject? I hope he’s not about to start imparting any advice’, I would say; when you’re up there, stranded on your own on stage in front of a room full of judgemental faces staring at you, remember it’s not about you. Take the focus off yourself and don’t believe everything your brain tells you. You’re not actually going to die.
Another thing I find helpful is to go on Google maps, drop the little orange man where you are performing, then zoom all the way out until you see the entire world and realise that there are over seven billion people who couldn’t give less of a shit how this goes. It’s not that important.
Michael will be performing ‘Welcome to Ballybeg’ at the Edinburgh Fringe from 2nd Aug – 25th Aug, Pleasance Courtyard, 6pm.