By Colin Ryan
A Stand Up Life 
September 27, 2011
Any comic can tell you: the first time you do comedy is a pretty big moment. It’s the moment you tried something you never thought would be possible. From that moment on, anything seems attainable.
It was perhaps the third or fourth time Melissa attended the Burlington open mic when she approached me about putting her name on the list. The crowd cheered supportively when she said it was her first time, but they laughed genuinely at her material. She had done well. And when she stepped off that stage, and handed the microphone back to me, you could tell something remarkable had just happened. I could see it in her eyes afterward – she was experiencing all the emotions you feel the first time you try something you thought you’d never in your life have the guts to try. It’s a moment where everything changes.
Not long after, I reached out to Melissa about the possibility of email interview. She agreed, and what started as few basic questions quickly became an incredible conversation, one that stretched out over several weeks and led to some pretty powerful places…
COLIN: So why had you never performed comedy before now?
MELISSA: I had never really thought of doing comedy, at least not consciously. I had enjoyed watching stand-up, but doing it was not for me. In fact, just being in the audience made me uncomfortable – I dreaded being focused on or singled out by a performing comic. Just going to an event with a large group of people that I don’t know well is enough to make me have to work really hard to show up, just as an audience member! I began to go to Patra  in an effort to get more comfortable with being out and about and meeting people. The first thing I noticed as I watched the performances how supportive the audience was.
COLIN: I’m glad you picked up on that. I think that’s one of the signs of a healthy open mic, when the crowds it draws recognize that it’s a commendable act to try comedy for the first time. They want you to be good. So you started going to Patra… when did you first start thinking you might like to try stand-up?
MELISSA: One day I found myself dreaming up what I later realized was a comedy set. It wasn’t intentional, and I don’t know why my mind went there. I scribbled it in my journal and didn’t tell anyone about it for a while. I was simply not the kind of person who could do stand-up.
Then I told my little skit to a few people and they thought it was funny. I began to admit to myself, and then eventually a few others, that I might like to try stand up some day. A few months later, I realized I did actually want to, but how to get over the fear?! Finally I decided I would do it, and to ensure that I wouldn’t back out, I mentioned to a couple of the other comics that next time I was going to stand up.
COLIN: I’ve made a habit out of talking people into trying comedy, but honestly, you did the work on your own. The first I heard of it was when you were asking where the signup sheet was! Okay, so describe what happened next. Your name is on the sheet. It’s too late to back out, and it’s only a matter of time before your name gets called. What were you feeling?
MELISSA: I felt terrified, and began to worry that everything I had memorized would fly out of my head. I wondered why on earth was I going through with it, and why I had brought people with me to witness what would likely be a terrible failure. Who was I to think I could do this? What was I thinking?! I am not a performer, I get nervous in the most mundane basic social situations! Why did I think I should do this? My heart was racing, and I felt kind of sick to my stomach. I was terrified and sweating and my shirt was glued to me. I wasn’t sure that my legs would actually carry me to the stage when it was my turn.
COLIN: Yeah, that sounds about right, actually! I could see you in your seat. I know everyone always says, ‘You didn’t look nervous at all!’ but truthfully you looked pretty nervous! Nervous, but ready. I called your name and you took it from there. It was your moment… So now you’re up in spotlights, looking out at the crowd. What was it like when you got up there?
MELISSA: It was scary. I have spent years being painfully shy and socially anxious, so standing up there with a mic and being the center of attention was overwhelming. That being said, once I mentioned it was my first time, and the audience applauded, I realized that I was amongst friends…
By some miracle I managed to rattle off the set. The whole situation seemed surreal and although I knew I was terrified and shaking, I also knew that somehow I was also having fun, and that people were laughing. I was actually doing it! Gradually as I relaxed a bit, I began to be able to look out at people a bit more and be more present in my surroundings. I found a couple of friendly faces to focus on and finished up my set. And honestly? I felt alive. More alive than I had felt in a very long time. Perhaps more alive than ever.
COLIN: And then, just a few minutes later, your performance was over! How did you feel when you realized you made it through?
MELISSA: I felt amazed. Hearing people laugh and tell me they liked what I said made me feel really, really happy. I felt pure adrenaline, and my heart kept pounding for a good 15-20 min after I finished. Although the performance part felt like a dream, like someone other than me, I felt wonderful, realizing that not only did I do something I NEVER EVER thought I could do, but I actually did it pretty well. Once I calmed down I realized that my life had just changed drastically and I began to smile. When I thought about being on stage, I realized it was kind of a blur, and I wanted to do it again, and be even more present so I could enjoy it even more.
COLIN: The first time I performed stand-up, the euphoria was just staggering. What’s more, it lasted for days. Was it like that for you as well?
MELISSA: Oh, completely. I had done the thing I was most afraid of and survived to tell the tale. I couldn’t sleep that night, and for days (maybe even weeks) I was on a natural high. I noticed I began acting less shy and taking more risks. I began to meet people and be more spontaneous. It felt good to be told I was funny, and it made me realize that despite the discomfort, I really love stand-up, and I wanted to write more material and do it again. I wanted to face my fear over and over because I want to be a different person, but I also wanted to make others laugh, I wanted to get better at it. 28 years of silence has given me a lot to say. I began to daydream about getting up there next time and maybe not being afraid, just being able to focus on telling the story. I felt full of life and excited, dozens of ideas were breaking loose in my head, and I began to tell people what I had done and that I wanted to do it again.
COLIN: Wow. That’s definitely the vision right there. One of my favorite things about comedy is the act of continuously searching your own day-to-day life for humor. Everything is fodder. You can learn to do jokes about your own unique experience, making them uniquely you. Of course, there’s a risk there too. When you tell your own stories, you take a risk that people won’t find them funny, and it might even feel like they don’t find you funny. When you went up there, were you afraid you’d be embarrassed or unfunny? What was at stake for you?
MELISSA: A comic once told me that it was a win-win situation because the worst case scenario is that I would bomb, but people would applaud anyways and think I was brave for standing up, and on top of that I would face my fear. I tried to remind myself of this as I anxiously awaited my turn. But I started to become afraid I would have some kind of panic attack or forget what I wanted to say and end up stuttering and embarrassed. I had been to open mic night before, and knew that the crowd would be kind no matter how I did, but I still feared failure. I knew that if I faced my fear and failed, then I might scar myself and end up doing more damage than good. Although it was just an open mic night at a friendly cafe, for me, EVERYTHING was at stake.
COLIN: Which makes your decision that much braver. Because you picture a pretty dark result, and if you hadn’t gone through with it you wouldn’t have discovered how inaccurate that picture actually was. Your debut was a small, simple risk that seemed to ask everything of you, yet you went through with it anyway. Has this experience taught you anything you maybe wouldn’t have realized otherwise?
MELISSA: I always saw comedians as being different from me because they are people who do something I could not. In reality, I did stand-up, and therefore somehow I am actually like them, which means they are just regular people, like me. Doing this has helped me see that I am not really so different from them, or from anyone else. Some of us are more extroverted than others and seem more comfortable and natural up there. But we all have awkward moments and we all have stories to tell. I really like writing material and sharing my life, and feel like I had so many things to talk about, the challenge is to keep standing up, and fitting these stories into into coherent little five minute narratives!
Most importantly, I think I now realize that comedy is not only about entertaining and having fun, but it’s also a way for people to come to terms with parts of themselves and their lives.
COLIN: Now that you’ve done this, do you feel bolder to take on other challenges in your life?
MELISSA: Absolutely! I was invited to help teach at a retreat and I found myself feeling much more capable of accepting the opportunity. All kinds of challenges and social fears (although still uncomfortable for me) seem to pale in comparison to standing up and making fun of myself in front of 50+ strangers. I now know that my limitations do not lie where I thought they did, and therefore, I push myself more. Standing-up has changed, and continues to change, my life. It shows me that I am capable of doing things I didn’t expect to be able to do. My definition of who I am and what I am capable of has changed, and I am learning to expand my concept of self to include not only someone who can be both painfully and neurotically shy and uncomfortable but also to leave room for someone who can also be brave enough to turn a fearful situation into good-natured fun.
I never expected comedy to be such good medicine, although I should have, because laughter is universal. Since that first time I’ve performed twice more, and each one has been special. As I look back on these challenges, it’s clear to me that each time I do stand-up, I am healed a bit more.