How I Got Into Stand-Up Comedy — A Personal Memoir

I got into comedy because my Probation Officer made me stop smoking weed.

Alice Corrigan, a wicked witch of a corrections officer whose reputation was well known in my high school. “You got Corrigan?! Fuck, sorry dude.”

I loved weed, and continued to smoke through my first year after sentencing, carelessly trying to fool the tests via substances like Goldenseal, Test Pure, and/or gallons of water the night before each meeting. I’d strain to abstain from my beloved herb for 24 hours, then on the ride home from the Corrections office light up in joyous release, rapping along to some rap lyrics that denounced authority.

But Corrigan was no fool, probably why everyone hated her. After about 18 months of our cat-and-mouse game of urine testing, my mother woke me up one morning holding the (portable) phone in my face.

“It’s Alice Corrigan.”

Rude awakening.

“Hello?” I answered, trying to invoke sounds of maturity and sobriety all into two syllables.

“Hi, David. I need you to come in today by 2:00 for a random drug test.”

Long pause: Random drug test. Isn’t that an oxymoron?

It was my friend, Nick’s birthday the day before, and we spent the night on my porch listening to the new Cypress Hill album, attempting to match their lyrics in actual smoke. Alice filled my reflective gap.

“These are mandatory, so I’ll see you as soon as possible.” She was so cold, so adult, so stern and unforgiving. I hated her so much.

“Oh, okay, no problem,” I answered, trying not to reveal my devastation.

“I’ll see you later,” she hung up.

I proceeded to pound gallons of water, desperate for a miracle, only to be told at our next scheduled appointment that my hyper-hydration was for naught. I came up positive, much as I apparently had in many tests for several months prior. One more positive test would constitute a “violation,” which meant at least a brief period of jail time, which was a line for me.

I enjoyed the adrenaline rushes of graffiti writing and shoplifting but wasn’t cut out for prison. I was rambunctious and experimental, arguably damaged and angry — but with a 1240 SAT (imagine if I hadn’t smoked weed all night the night before) I knew I was better suited for zoot suits than jumpsuits. A prison sentence, no matter how brief, was out of the question. I quit smoking weed.

For a while I was bored and depressed, confused as to how to fill this void that copping, rolling, smoking and occasionally selling weed had done before. Fortunately it was around this time that I met E and moved into Manhattan.

The 90’s were arguably New York’s “sweet spot,” when it was becoming safe enough to always go about your business and enjoy yourself, but also pre-7–11 stores and gentrification, and the culturally rich neighborhoods that once made the city into the capital of the world still retained their integrity. The Lower East Side was still inhabited by broke artists, and E had grown up in Greenwich Village, which believe it or not still boasted some shady blocks where you had to be street smart.

E’s crew of friends could have shown up in a picture under “cool” in the dictionary. They were the best of both worlds, mostly private school educated, but equally street savvy: A racially diverse group of 18 year olds who’d grown up as much on downtown pool halls and hip hop as they did on independent film study and fine literature. They had nicknames for one another and secret handshakes and genuinely scoffed at ideas of style or dialectic parameters based on skin color. I thought they were perfect. I was as quickly accepted by them as I was influenced, and before I knew it my wardrobe was more urban, dialect more slang, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t embarrassed about sounding smart.

E and I became inseparable besties, literally overnight (on a magic mushroom trip), and frankly, I wanted to be him. He was mixed, Hispanic and white, but when you grew up in New York, dressed in all Polo and North Face gear, and referred to all guys as “niggas,” you’re just “Spanish.” He was the most charismatic, which made him the unofficial leader of our crew. His energy dominated every cypher, and he was as popular with the film nerds as he was with black thugs and girls of all backgrounds. Handsome and stylish, E didn’t need to be hilarious to get laid, but he was — funny bordering on psychotic even. We had many drunken nights downtown with the local pool hall crew that would leave my head spinning the next morning, not only in literal hangover, but also psychological reflection of who I was, who I’d been to this point, and wanted to be going forward.

Without weed I felt mentally clearer, sharper and wittier, more creative. E’s words began coming out of my mouth and mannerisms through my body. I noticed people laughing more at my jokes, gravitating more to my energy and deferring to me in conversation, and what 18 year old wouldn’t enjoy this?

Funny is a muscle like any other. We all have it, though some of us with a greater potential than others. Two guys can go to the gym together every day for two years and do the same exercises and will come out not looking the same. One’s biceps will be bigger than the other’s. Maybe the other’s legs will be stronger. One will have lost a lot of hair. The other did not. They look at each other constantly, almost as much as they do the mirror, coveting that which contemporary women deem more attractive. They go home and listen to bad music. They have simple jobs and terrible conversations, small penises and an embarrassing medicine chest. They’re unhealthy, too big, uninformed. I digress.

E introduced me to Manhattan Public Access, which up until the advent of Youtube and iphones, was a reputable vessel amongst our generation. Everyone who was anyone was up on the few dope shows that aired weekly on one of the free (uncensored) networks. Spic N’ Spanish, Sam Kellerman Live (RIP), and most close to home, Baby Show, which was produced by another crew of arrogant Greenwich Village kids that E knew from childhood. They would run around town with their video camera making comedy sketches, then air them as a half hour variety show, a pre-recorded, low-budget, uncensored SNL, if you will. Skits were hit-or-miss (also like SNL), but they were always interesting, vulgar but smart, and obviously having tons of fun. I decided for the upcoming Christmas to ask my parents for a video camera.

Over the next two years E and I made about 50 sketches (with the help of our crew). We wrote our first (awful) screenplay and laughed harder with one another than either of us had before in life. We worked hard and often, and my mind’s generation of ideas seemed infinite in the absence of weed. I understand many other artists have the opposite experience, which is just one example of how one size can never fit all, whether with diet, medicine, or otherwise. Marijuana became as distant a memory as an ex-girlfriend you know you’d made the right decision about.

We became instant stars (within our crew). Everyone looked forward to seeing the next joint. We’d hold screenings at crew headquarters, and a subtle “sibling rivalry” even developed, i.e. Who do you like better? Q-Tip or Phife? Havoc or Prodigy, etc.? E or Sauce?I knew I could never compete with E, though others would occasionally say otherwise.

Sadly, I don’t think our friendship was as emotionally rewarding for him, but served as more of a temporary band-aid for his own inner turmoil. When we turned 21 E got more into alcohol and girls, and who could blame him? Girls loved him and he loved liquor, and apparently handled them both very well. I was slightly less tolerant of booze and much less attractive to the opposite sex, subsequently less enamored with the bar and party scene that didn’t seem to reflect the urban identity I’d always aspired to anyway. For the first time a divide had formed between my best friend and I that I didn’t know how to respond to. E would regularly wake me up in the middle of the night with drunken messages on my answering machine, often times a girl’s equally intoxicated laughter in the background; a live audio reminder of my un-coolness and unattractiveness, and worst of all, the inception of my falling out with my brother.

“Saaaaauce! Where are you, Sauce?

Hot, drunk girl: “Where are you Sauce?!”

“Come out, nigga, we miss you!”

Long pause, as I lay in the dark room staring at the answering machine, feeling 40 years old at 20, probably angry that I didn’t believe he really did miss me.

“Aight… pussy-ass nigga,” and I feared that he meant it, or that I agreed, or it was objectively true.

Was I was a pussy-ass nigga?

E became an alcoholic. He would black out and have episodes where he’d insult or try to fight me, spewing whatever resentments he apparently harbored in sobriety. I never knew how to respond, whether to laugh it off as brotherly jabs and repress the upset I felt, or react more alpha, consistent with the hip hop culture we’d all immersed ourselves in. Usually I’d get stuck in the middle, leaving me more confused and insecure in my identity than I had since freshman year high school. E’s behavior grew more erratic and I would shut down, unable to compete or keep up with his intoxicated mania that would occasionally embarrass me in front of mutual friends. After one such incident that took place in my room I looked out the window at the sun coming up on another drunken night and saw him and Tre still downstairs on 13thStreet, leaned up against Tre’s car smoking cigarettes. I was unable to fall asleep, too angry and hurt and unable to make peace with how insulted I felt. Finally, I ran downstairs with the intention of attacking and fighting him, but by the time I got to the block they were gone. I was glad it apparently wasn’t meant to be. Eventually my anger transformed into sadness, and although our tight knit crew continued to chill, our brotherhood was over. E was the worst best friend I’ve ever had.

As I sought to fill the void left by the video camera collecting dust in my closet, my college Film Writing teacher suggested to me: “There are other routes to success in entertainment besides improv skits. Have you ever tried stand-up?”

It sounded preposterous, and I was naïve enough to think my teacher must not have been aware of the shy little boy that still existed within me — also young enough to believe that shyness or anxiety are mutually exclusive to courage.

One year later I started dating a girl whose mom had been a heroin addict for 17 years. Over the course of our time together I heard many stories from both sides, of the hell Mom put her daughter through growing up. They were probably the biggest fans of my jokes I’d ever had, hysterically laughing at nearly everything I said and did, thus encouraging me with their loud Nuyorican flamboyancy. We dated just long enough for me to realize how funny I was, also how lucky I’d been to have the parents and opportunities I did. I was given everything (tangible) a human being could ask for. Why should I not pursue the most difficult thing in the world?

One night shortly after we’d broken up I stayed home to watch a Richard Pryor special, in hopes of lifting my spirits. Not only did it obviously achieve said goal, I was mesmerized by his ability. While on stage Pryor seemed to me to personify “alive.” He looked so free and engaged, so courageous and perfect in his proverbial dance with the crowd and his material. I watched him take risks and rule his space, all the while exhibiting the joy of a child, and thought to myself: That’s it. That is the perfect vessel by which to taste life. I had no choice. The following week one night while E was out drinking I hit my first open mic.

If you’ve never waited three hours to do three minutes for three angry people in a dimly lit room devoid of any energy then you’ve never lived. Actually you’ve never metaphorically died the comedy death that is most open mikes. Truly it is awful, piercing deeper into our souls than just performance nightmares, but as existential crises, stomping on our egos, leaving us with the indigestible knowledge that we can never get back those few minutes of life. For the moment all worry and doubt of our talents are replaced with a bittersweet conviction that we are in fact definitely wasting our time.

A number of comics seated gaps apart from one another around the periphery of the room, faces buried in their notebooks, preoccupied with their own creative agendas while your material through the microphone resonates as nothing more than white noise. Every joke seems to receive the same one or two laughs from the same two or three sweethearts, their sympathetic contrivances bouncing around the room, ironically transforming its tone from awkward to dismal. Once in a while pops in a more veteran comic, unforced to wait his turn and the nerds perk up, temporarily uncovering their faces to actually pay attention. Consistent with their greenness, laughter is given as automatically as it is from laypeople to the Chappelle’s and Seinfeld’s of the world. They either assume his punch lines to be funny before they arrive, are just desperately attempting to connect with the comic in any way, or both. As soon as the popular guy leaves you can practically hear the plunder of energy, the re-separation of attention, sighs plunging back into future discarded material and half-attention (at best) to the poor schlep forced to go next.

The only thing harder than performing for fellow comedians is performing for fellow comedians who are waiting to go on stage; and the only thing harder than that is performing for comedians who are waiting to go on stage and don’t know you enough personally to give your new banter any shred of credence. These are not real people, for all intents and purposes, which can make it impossible to get an accurate read on how your new material or yourself will ever be received by real people. Maria Shehata once posted a joke (on Facebook) I’ll never forget. Some well-built, grown man challenged her to punch him in the stomach as hard as she could. She did so, and caught him off guard with her strength. “He didn’t realize how many open mikes I’ve done.”

Wednesdays’ “Train Wreck” at The Parkside Lounge on Houston and Attorney St. was appropriately named. Located so distally on the outskirts of the Lower East Side, by the time I arrived I barely felt like I was any longer in New York, especially because the inside of it always reminded me of some Midwestern bar. Fat, old, white men in beards and plaid shirts lined most of the bar in front of a thin, buxom blonde who looked good only at first glance, the TV’s above her head showing sports highlights or the News. The occasional Bud Light-guzzling, 50-year old black guy walks by, his afro not at all kept to uphold any of the standards of contemporary urbanites. The jukebox played a lot of Lynard Skynard, or maybe it was just stuff I thought was Lynard Skynard, and my post-adolescent mind could do nothing but define myself via harsh (silent) judgment of it.

As if some illegal black market we partake in, the comedy room was located through a dark narrow hallway of bathrooms, then behind a curtain in the back room. Sign-up was at 5:30 with “showtime” at 6, and I can recall some weeks walking purposely slow to the venue so as to convince myself that I’d tried my best, but arrived too late for sign-up. The handful of times I braved to punctuality ended up being awful bombs of silence that ate at my core for the remainder of that night.

“Sauce, have you ever been racially profiled as a wigger?” the host once asked after my set, and everyone laughed for the first time since I’d gotten on stage.

I wasn’t prepared to feel so small and didn’t know if I should risk retorting. Instead I remained mum, and it reminded me of the drunken, belligerent insults I’d had to absorb from my best friend during the past year. I felt like the new kid being pointed and laughed at by all the other cookie-cutter students who’d known each other for years. I felt I was being made fun of by the lames for being different, but I had no way to prove so, and was unable to laugh at myself.

In my 15 years in comedy to come, at the Parkside was the only time I was heckled by a comic. It was an Indian girl, a bit older than me, a regular, familiar face in the front row, who interrupted midway through my set: “Do you know that you’re white?”

Her remark got only a couple of laughs from the room, I assumed because even if the majority appreciated her sentiment, her timing was inappropriate. You don’t heckle fellow comics.

“I do,” I responded to her, able to muster only a hint of sarcasm through my lack of confidence. She’d hit a nerve. As my blood boiled I quietly finished my set, minutes later walking home, cursing out the Indian girl, as well as myself, rationalizing that I was “too real,” too authentic, and the act of stand-up was too contrived for me. It wasn’t for me. I figured I’d return to improve. A few months would heal this wound, and eventually I made my way back in time for sign-up.

At home life was worse, as I’d made the mistake of moving in with E. Our dynamic was fractured, probably by both of our hatreds for him, and I’d completely lost track of my voice. I felt like I was always bombing. I had no confidence, no sense of identity, and practically walked on eggshells when E was home, for fear of being derided in a way that emasculated my vulnerable ego. I’d gone from expressing the best version of myself to the worst version of myself and it was the inception of my anxiety disorder: An overwhelming head rush that would come on either at random and linger throughout the day, or during acute moments of social anxiety. I had no idea how we’d gotten to this place, and at 23 years old even less of an idea of how to climb out of it.

I consider February 13, 2002 to be when I actually started doing comedy. It was a different open mike, Gladys’, on W. 46thSt. in Times Square, known to be “one of the better mikes” in town — a spot I’d already bombed at once the week before.

For some reason beyond my awareness, for the first time in my life I killed from the first sentence out of my mouth. Something must have clicked, or maybe it was just dumb luck of the first joke hitting then riding the wave of confidence instilled by the unanimous laughter. From start to finish the entire five minutes was an out of body experience, watching myself delivering my words and the crowd responding as if I knew what I was doing; almost reminiscent of how it feels to lose our virginity. It isn’t that we’re unable to enjoy the moment, but the experience is clouded by the mental joy for its significance. It is literally unbelievable.

As I walked on air to the back of the room, overhearing my name repeated into the microphone by the host and the sincere applause that followed, I was stopped by a tall, friendly black dude, Max.

“That was great, man.”

“Thanks.” This must be what happens when you don’t suck.

“Are you available tomorrow night?” he asked.

Huh? “Sure,” I responded with a contrived calmness, and he booked me for a $25 spot on a Valentine’s Day show at some local bar in Castle Hill in the Bronx.

He’s gonna give me $25 to do comedy?! Literally 10 minutes ago I had under my belt about 15 shitty spots over the course of two years and no clue as to whether I could ever have a good one. Ha… sucker!

“Thanks, man, I’ll see you tomorrow!”

I invited Tre to the show, and it wasn’t only because he’s black. He was also my other roommate, had nothing else to do and a car, which would save me a late night train ride home from the Bronx (something I had no idea would be in store on a weekly basis for years to come). I purposely did not invite E — not that he would have come if I had — but his presence would have made me that much more nervous. Instead, Tre was neutral.

The show was at a typical Castle Hill neighborhood bar, probably 60% Puerto Rican, 40% black, and one white person. Familiar hip hop blasted from the DJ booth as the majority of the patrons all fraternized and flirted, or freaked each other to the funky rhythms filling the fortress. How fun! A quaint little room, though not offensively so, the “stage” was set next to the bar and facing out to a handful of tables while the rest paralleled the bar traveling stage right.

The bouncer was friendly enough, and gratitude washed over me when I saw Max immediately after walking in the door. Like I’d just spotted my friends’ table in the school cafeteria, I gave him a pound and hug that I hoped everyone else in the room noticed. He greeted Tre and directed us to two empty seats at the bar, almost directly in front of the wooden box they’d be using as a stage. We ordered a couple of beers and I tried to act like I wasn’t terrified.

I was told I’d be going on second and instantly wished I could get up and walk around, go outside to pace, or just be anywhere besides the confined physical position I was in. I learned later in my career that I absolutely could have. Instead I sipped my beer and felt it mildly settle my nerves as I struggled to pay attention to one word anyone before me said. I remember a Puerto Rican comedian making a joke about my being the only white guy, though amiably padding it with a compliment and head nod of camaraderie. He had a decent set, and none of this had any impact whatsoever on my internal state. As he finished and Max came back up my panic set it, and I realized I wasn’t seated far enough way from the stage for this degree of nervous energy to be walked off.

As Max introduced me the DJ played the new hit single by Jadakiss and Bubba Sparxxx, a white rapper from down south (surely not a coincidence), and for some reason I felt like I’d look more nervous if I didn’t dance. My nerves produced some idiotic, upper body dance moves that had to be atrociously caught somewhere in between serious and mockery. I was a damned fool, surely looking as amateur as I did white, but I got lucky. The crowd bought my faux confidence, misinterpreting it as organic from this goofy white boy with whom they were too unfamiliar to detect the difference.

I did the same jokes as I had the night before, which was really the only jokes I had, which was five minutes about the perks of dating a girl who already had a boyfriend (the ex-heroin addict’s daughter). It was hacky and simple and delivered with a hokey animation, but for the setting it was perfect. Every joke hit even harder than the night before. I got laughs on set ups and punch lines, and in between bits even my defense mechanism persona of laissez faire facial expressions sent many of the women into hysterics. I “had them,” as we say, and it became fun. I was killing.

I’d never experienced anything like it before. Once killing, we reach a point where the crowd no longer cares how clever each joke is, but instead they’ve fallen in love with us. Who we are begins to shape our material instead of the material shaping who we are, and our listeners reward us with a benefit of doubt not dissimilar to what we get from close friends. I’m sorry to break the news, but this is also why it’s erroneous when laypeople take pride in having just “made the comedian laugh.” First, we’re not necessarily funnier than every non-comedian in the world. We’re just the ones who chose stand-up comedy as a pursuit. Second, and more to the point, in a social engagement there’s a good chance that welikeyou,your personality and energy. We might even love you and/or are warmly responsive. This doesn’t mean our laugh is sympathetic or your joke is not funny, but “making the comedian laugh” is not the equivalent of knocking out the boxer. In the exchange of humor the importance of connection cannot be overstated. I digress.

Tre and I stuck around until the end of the show, basking in my glory. Max paid me the $25 in cash, and it felt like $25,000 in my hand. I couldn’t believe someone had just given me money to do comedy, but even more appreciated were the pounds and hugs I received on my way out. I could feel Tre proudly walking behind me; also some of the women in the room eyeing me, and I didn’t want the night to end. I suggested to Tre that we go to Club Passion, downtown. “My treat!”

Club Passion was a ghetto strip club on 8thAvenue. For clarification purposes, “ghetto” strip club does not imply only the strippers’ ethnicity, but also the nature of the club. Instead of a traditional strip club setting, Passion functioned basically like a party filled with male customers and extremely forward, sexy women in thongs and lingerie whose job it was to “work the floor.” Whoever happened to be on the stage and pole at any given time was usually the least paid attention to, as fly girls were all over the room grinding on guys for dollars at a time; and most touching was permitted, if not encouraged.

It was one of the greatest nights of my life, instilling in me a pride and self-confidence that seemed to heal all of my wounds from my fractured friendship with E, and filled the void left by our defunct skit productions. His habits and lifestyle continued in the same direction but our friendship began to feel like a friendship again, mostly because I’d discovered in myself a strong sense of purpose and pride, and even my anxiety symptoms got a lot better and less frequent. I was a comic, better yet an “urban comic,” and (thought) I was good at it! I felt happy for the first time in two years, and we developed a new dynamic, where the student had sort of surpassed the teacher.

Originally published at davidfostercomedyblog.com.

Acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese medicine in NYC, but my first loves are writing, stand-up comedy, yoga and old-school hip hop. Davidfosteracupuncture.com