My First Time

Todd Sawyer 

It was a Tuesday night. I was twenty-three. It was dark. I was beyond nervous. The kind of nervous where you are hoping that you don’t end up hurling in an embarrassing moment in front of people.

Twenty-four years and five thousand times later, I’m not as nervous anymore. But occasionally I still get a slight performance anxiety. And yes, I count how many times. You don’t?

Like most first-time activities in life, I was not a natural. It takes practice to build confidence. I’m talking about the first time I tried to perform stand-up comedy. And that’s not a typo, I said “tried to perform.” I had all the subtlety of Fox News at that point in my life. But this is about my first time on a stage; not picking fights with comedy networks.

I think there are very few naturals in any walk of life; most of life’s accomplishments take a lot of work to go from good to great. And I had a lot of work ahead of me to achieve that level . That hard work and dedication has paid off in countless ways that I didn’t imagine.

My stand-up career has provided a lot of memories for me. From touring with the legendary Ron White, to performing for the USO in Afghanistan, to being on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson; but nothing stands out like the first time I was on stage at The Comedy Underground in Seattle. I was so nervous that I literally blacked out. ( It’s still unclear what happened in those 30 seconds during my lapse.)

I do remember that I had gone to a couple other open mics and naively thought, “it can’t be that hard. You just talk.” Oops! Like Donald Sterling, I hadn’t thought everything through. I had underestimated the gravity of the situation, just like I did prior to entering my first marriage.

The host introduced me and I remember reaching for his hand. The rest is just a vague guess at what transpired or what was said. I remember the blinding spotlight and it felt like I wasn’t in my body.  I certainly don’t remember any of the material I tried that night.

When three minutes came to an end, the host came back on stage, maybe the few audience members reluctantly clapped. Then I took my first step off stage, and my nervous knee buckled. Timber. I did a header into an empty table. Needless to say, that spectacle awarded me the only laugh I received from the audience. It’s a miracle that I didn’t become a pratfall specialist or a mime after that incident , which took several sessions of therapy to recover from.

I have spent years trying to figure out why I kept going at it after that painfully embarrassing night. The best I can come up with is that being funny is one of the only things, on the short list of things, that I’m good at and enjoy. But like Robert Klein says, “There’s a big difference between being funny and being funny Tuesday night at 8:30.” That, my friends, is a fact. It takes work and practice to be entertaining to strangers.

Luckily, other things I am good at is not quitting and facing my fears. I just kept coming back until I figured out what worked for me and what did not…. and hopefully I can continue my winning streak for the next twenty-four years.

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