Life & Culture

My life's routine. So I tried being a stand-up

Nick Gendler describes how he fulfilled his ambition to be a comedian


For a man approaching 50, 2011 turned out to be a year of personal growth and discovery when I might have assumed I knew all there was to know about myself. Never particularly ambitious and more interested in knowing a little about a lot than being a specialist (and therefore not a bad person to have on your table at a supper quiz), I have tended not to wander far from my area of comfort. However, last year I changed. I felt it was time to push myself, partly to see what would happen.

In the summer I cycled 15 miles up the iconic Mount Ventoux in southern France. Slowly, I'll grant you, in fact significantly more slowly than my two friends, although they were not burdened by my belly. When I reached the top, I pretty much burst into tears at the accomplishment, having inched and strained my way up the mountain with more determination than I could remember applying to any previous endeavour. My emotions comprised a mixture of utter exhaustion, delight at overcoming myself, and anger at realising how many times I had needlessly given up on something in the past through lack of self-belief. I knew I had given everything and this was a novel feeling.

That bike ride gave me the confidence to see new challenges as potentially rewarding rather than as opportunities to fail, and this has altered the way I look at life.

Over the years I have written for pleasure and public consumption, yet hankered after experiencing an immediate reaction to my work. I have long considered that it is one thing to receive no letters of appreciation from a remote audience, and quite another to be there in the room with an audience failing to show its approval.

Until recently I would never have been brave enough to put myself in the position of Daniel by entering the lions' den that is stand-up comedy. Daniel had faith that he would survive his ordeal - I did not. To me, extreme humiliation was the most likely outcome.

Shall I give it a go, I asked my wife. Every cell in her body seemed to say no

Until last month's Limmud Unplugged that is - an opportunity for undiscovered talent and the deluded to perform before a small and kind-hearted audience of people who also want to perform before a small and kind-hearted audience. There is an unspoken deal - be nice to each other. Musicians, singers, raconteurs and poets are given a chance to make that important transition from private amusement to public exposure, and while I had thought that climbing onto the stage would be far tougher than climbing Mount Ventoux, I realised that my shtick was possibly at least as good as some of the others. I had the beginnings of a stand-up routine languishing in some remote corner of my laptop's hard drive and thought I might test-drive it.

"Shall I give it a go?" I asked my wife. Every cell in her body seemed to say no, but when I read her my script, ambivalence morphed into encouragement. She LOL'd, as they say nowadays, and after 20 years of marriage I know better than anyone that it is not easy to make my wife laugh out loud.

Nonetheless, throughout the day leading up to the open-mic session I found myself questioning my judgement. I had not had time to learn the script. Well-meaning friends advised me that success depended on creating a relationship with the audience, and I would not be able to do this if I had a couple of A4 sheets of paper hiding my face. I could not argue with them - in my professional life I teach people how to build rapport with others. Still, this was not what I wanted to hear, so I ignored the warnings.

And then there was Robby Hoffman. Robby is a comedian who was over from Canada to perform. She told me that not knowing my act by heart was not important, I should just to get up there and do it. Still, as an insurance policy I invited a few friends along to provide enough polite laughter to drown out the silence.

Quick as a flash the time to perform arrived - and just as quickly it was over, probably because I only had five minutes of material, which I rattled through in half that time. I returned, relieved, to my wife and friends and appreciated their expressions of admiration. It's good to have friends.

My daughter, in contrast, was deeply embarrassed, but how is a 17-year-old girl ever going to relate to the existential crisis of a middle-aged Jewish man whom she knows primarily as the person who makes annoyingly bad puns over dinner?

But I wasn't discouraged. I was high on "Limmud lurve" and, besides, the voices in my head had drowned out any audience reaction. I therefore cannot describe what it's like to die on stage, nor can I describe what it is like to experience an audience laughing at my jokes.

What next? Well, before I lose my nerve, it seems I must submit myself for some open-mic slots in places where people actually pay to be entertained.

I guess I had better start learning my act. Now I am scared.

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