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Stand-Up Virgin

By Linda B. Parker

To get comedy insight from a pro, but really on a whim, I went to Wendy Liebman’s Stand Up Comedy “Boot Camp.”

All 60 of us were given index cards with jokes to present. Each of us took the dead mic and told a joke. Wendy wanted us to get a laugh, to know what that felt like. No critique … so generous.

The group included such evolved comedy students that they recognized different joke writers! My comedic background was teaching branding to hostile sales officers, forced to sit through two days of training at Indymac Bank. To ease the tension, I did the classic comic warm-up — jokes based on names or where people came in from. “My mother-in-law is from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. She’s 5 foot 11. A Jewish mutant,” followed by my impression of my now ex-mother-in-law’s nasal voice. “Jerry Garcia! Hey. How’s Elvis?” Linda does stand-up with a Powerpoint.

Wendy gave each of her students a charm as we left class. Mine is a silver key. I bolted to the bathroom, and as I returned, Wendy and Teri Rizvi saw me in the hallway. “You want to do stand-up tomorrow night?” Wendy asked. “But I don’t do set-up/punchline like we just did in class. I tell stories,” I replied, feeling relieved I could easily get out of the invitation.

Though performing a stand-up gig had been on my bucket list since 1987, I was so terrified. I never even slightly pursued it. “Like what kind of story?” Wendy inquired in her kind, soft voice, so unlike my imagined female comic, since I’d never met one. I told the breast biopsy story. They laughed, right there in the hallway. “That’s your opening. It’s only two and a half, maybe three minutes,” she commented reassuringly, her voice going up at the end in a lilt. “Okay,” I agreed, foolishly committed to my bucket list.

Walking to the classroom, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. Acute panic overwhelmed me. My mind raced as I tried to think of something to fill the three-minute black hole, sure I’d be sucked into humiliation oblivion. “Everyone loves the law firm story,” I thought, but I needed an opening and transitions. I can’t just tell two separate stories. I sort of practiced in my room before dinner, but did it work?

I met a fabulous stand-up. “Write it down,” she firmly instructed. I practiced some more, but I was too exhausted to open my laptop, despite knowing that I’d be mortified in front of a couple hundred people. Sleep eluded me. Terror wasn’t leaving, though I tried to befriend him. “Who cares? It’s just a couple hundred people.” Nope. Still there. “They don’t know you. It doesn’t matter.” “Leavvvvvvveee!”

I typed my “set” before lunch the next day, arriving just in time for the keynote. Lunch was irrelevant because I was queasy from nerves. Katrina Kittle’s story was inspiring, and her advice resonated with me. But RIGHT NOW, I needed immediate stand-up help. Nope. Time for the next session.

Hoping to gain insight on how to structure my divorce non-fiction, I went to Ann Garvin’s session, “How to Plot Your Book With Ease.” I am NOT a novelist; I don’t create worlds and characters in a story, but Ann was hilarious and engaging with important information I could apply. I scribbled frantically. Epiphany!!! OMG! I am the protagonist in my non-fiction, thankfully distracted and panic-free for 75 minutes.

The 20 performers met with Wendy to learn the show’s details, pick a number in the line-up, and get guidance on material. I read my “set” (oy…not a REAL set since I am an imposter) to Judy Carter, a virtuoso comic, joke writer, author and humor fixer. She suggested a couple of changes as did one of my hilarious classmates, a former winner I was following in that night’s line-up. Oh, NO!!! Terror stretched the skin on my face so tight that I didn’t need a facelift. Everyone seemed calm except for one young woman who swore she’d be in fetal position. I understood down to my DNA and each double helix. “This audience WANTS to laugh,” Wendy said reassuringly. “You’ll be fine.” I knew that was a bold-faced lie from a pro who just needed to fill a spot. Other people auditioned and were chosen. I just went to the bathroom and got caught. Bad bladder timing.

At dinner, I met James, a psychologist. I desperately wanted a session but thought it rude to ask. The chocolate dessert didn’t help my nerves, and I was afraid to drink before going on stage. Not smart. The brilliant Alan Zwiebel, the empathic genius who signed his book to me with kind words and love, introduced Laraine Newman. The SNL icon shared her story of acting, writing and life, with equal parts hilarity and struggle. We were with her and wanted more. After she read two side-splitting pieces — farting in front of Prince and wetting herself on a first date — the room erupted with love and adulation.

The time arrived. The 20 of us, all chatting with nervous energy, gathered for a photo with Wendy and emcee Leighann Lord. The audience sat down, and Wendy opened. Everyone loved her. Introduction for One. Laughter. Applause. Two. Three. Four, the darling Southern classmate who gave me a great line, slayed.

“Here’s Linda Parker. She writes for a hedge fund and lives in Cincinnati.” Breath. Walk. Start. “I am 68 years old and these are wrinkles. I’ve earned them. This one is my son’s carjacking. This one is my other son’s breakdown. And the smile on my face is my ex-husband’s super spreader second wedding.” Big laugh. More laughs. I finished. As I left the stage, Wendy said loudly through applause, “Aren’t you glad you did it!!?” Lots of hugs.

Oh, yes, Wendy. You have no idea how important that experience was. I have lived my life with big dreams, but was the shy girl who hid behind her waist-length hair and never opened her mouth. Driven, despite almost crippling anxiety, I forced myself way outside of my comfort zone and did what terrified me. Brandeis University. New York City. Cornell MBA. New career. Los Angeles. Children. I flung myself off the precipice and hoped I’d succeed, over and over again.

At 68, with lots of life behind me, it’s not at all tempting to go to the precipice and jump. The fear and anxiety are too unpleasant. Life should be easy now. But life is never easy for long, and if I want my book and humor essays published, I’ll have to go to the edge of my comfort zone, face my darkest, not-good-enough fears, and fling.

Thanks for the practice, Wendy. I needed it.

And thank you for the key charm. It is over my heart on a chain, a reminder that the key to success is taking risks.

— Linda B. Parker

Linda B. Parker is a writer and senior marketing strategy and branding professional. She moved back to her hometown of Cincinnati after 30 years in Los Angeles.

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