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HOW I DEAL WITH STAGE FRIGHT
by: Max Burbank

In about six hours, I'll be MC and auctioneer at a fundraiser for my kids' school. Of course, by the time you read this, it will all be over and done with, but that's of no real concern, it wasn't like I was inviting you. In one potential scenario, you'll have heard about it on fox news or seen unfortunate Youtube footage before this article is published on I-Mockery. Unless it's the property of the local DA by then.

Try not to get the vapors. I'm not threatening violence, this isn't a manifesto. Nowadays those are done on digital video and I haven't the time, the skills or the interest. All were talking about here is run of the mill stage fright, or what's left of it.

I don't perform on a regular basis anymore; I haven't since my first child was born, because like many babies, she needed to eat to stay alive. Once in a while the odd charity event like tonight's. Prior to fatherhood I spent almost a decade laboring in comedy salt mines and sweatshops up and down the east coast. Mostly with a touring improv group. We played clubs and colleges when we were lucky. Mostly we played bars.

When I first started I had miserable stage fright. Stomach cramps, sweats, the occasional bout of pre show vomiting. Three hundred or so performances will cure you of that. By the end of my career only a gig in the Deep South on the edge of army base or Prison Farm would even make me pop a Tums before I went on.

I'm sure the mind numbing repetition helped me calm down. And eventually you find out that even if the audience hates you so much the throw things, you don't die from it. Unless they throw big or sharp things, and even then the things have to hit you just right, which by the way is what happened with that comedian you really really liked who used to be so edgy and now he sucks unbelievable ass.

But the fact is, I stumbled across a little secret. A way to spend the few hours before show time that always calms me down. And I'm going to share it with you. Like I said, I don't perform much these days anyway, and I have no idea if my method would work for you or not.

Are you ready?

Heroin.

I'm kidding of course. Heroin is an illegal, addictive, dangerous drug. While admittedly very calming it's not a good comedy drug in any case. If you stand on stage with a sleepy, dreamy grin and mumble, people will laugh, but only for a little while. Then they get uncomfortable. Didn't I learn that the hard way.

No, I play a little game. A little 'what if?' game.

If you hang around comedy clubs long enough, you'll see a performer have a really bad night. Actually, you'll see it a lot. Anytime you go to what's called a 'showcase' night, where an endless cavalcade of beginner comics get ten minutes each, you'll see it. Open Mic nights? Pretty much all you'll see. But if you really go a lot, you'll see someone have a bad night and go totally mental. It's worth then wait.

That's what happened to Michael 'Kramer' Richards. And it happens a lot more often than you'd think. Comedy is a very stressful profession. Back in the eighties, I saw half a dozen comics totally flip out on stage. Most of them never got anywhere professionally, but you'd be surprised.

So the day of a show, I like to relax by thinking "What if tonight's my night?" Doing comedy is like riding a motorcycle. Even if you're good, every show statistically increases the odds you're going to have an ugly crash. The kind of scene that causes traffic jams for hours 'cause everybody wants to see what you left on the road.

If that doesn't sound very relaxing to you, I probably haven't explained myself well enough yet. It's not so much "What if I go mental tonight?" as "Since one of these days I'm bound to totally lose it, why not make tonight the night and have it over with?" I mean, who hasn't been out on the highway after midnight and thought to themselves "What if I just... kind of... closed my eyes, took my hands off the wheel and pushed my foot to the floor?"

You've never had that feeling? Huh. Maybe that's why no one wants to ride in my car. Whatever.

Me personally, I find playing out the possibilities in my head is like some sort of magic charm against it happening. I find it very soothing.

Well. I'm not being entirely truthful here. It's not so much just playing out the possibility of totally losing my shit onstage in my head that calms me down. What I really like to do is taunt my wife with it.

A couple of hours before a show I like to say "Hey, honey. What if tonight's the night?" And she knows what I'm talking about. I've made sure of that. And she's pretty sure I'm just joking around. But not one-hundred percent certain. Not certain enough that her coloring doesn't change just a little bit. I've made sure of that, too.

Have you ever actually met a comedian? 'Cause the thing is, if you're not totally okay with excrement, you don't grow up to be a plumber.

And if anything, this little game of mine has gotten to be even more fun in my semi-retirement. See, 'back' in the 'day', I used to tell my bride "Hey, sweety, do you suppose tonight's the night? You got my bail money all set?" and then I'd head off to some crappy little club full of drunk college. Now I say, "Know what I was thinking? What if, just follow me on this for a sec, what if tonight is the night I finally have a psychotic break down while performing and end up crouching next to the mic stand in my underwear sobbing?" And I'm not going off to any club. I'm going to the Elks lodge to raise money for our kids' school. And she's coming with me.

Did I mention she's the head of the PTO? And that she's the one who volunteered me? If you've never tortured your spouse like this just for the fun of it, I'm going to guess you're either single or in the first three months of your marriage.

I mean, what if, right? What if I'm just so sick of the tension that builds up wondering if tonight is finally the night the house of cards collapses? What if tonight I say screw it and just maybe blow a little on that house of cards? What if, say, what if tonight, right? I don't just blow on the house of cards, what if tonight I take it down with a FUCKING AXE?! You WITH ME ON THIS ONE?! HONEY?! You GAME?! Cause Poppa's feeling VERY GAME tonight! VERY GAME INDEED!

I mean, you know, suppose I start small, right? Subtle. Like the first time I only end up bringing in a twenty-five buck bid on the fifty dollar 'Ruby Tuesdays' gift card some well meaning mom donated, I turn to the guy that won it and say:

"Sharp bidding there, fella. You got yourself a real bargain. That's gotta feel pretty good, you cheap sack of crap. What about the rest of you, you feel okay with that? Sitting on your milk-white never worked an honest day in your life hands when I'm up here trying to raise money for your kids? Okay. Okay. If that's how it's gonna be."

And then I smile. And I probably get some nervous laughs. 'Cause this is a no kids event. The Elks are even running a nice little cash bar. We're all grown ups, right? It's just a little grown up joke. Hell, it even feels kind of nice to loosen your ties, let your hair down a little, like you did back before you had kids and your whole life slowly morphed into the kind of thing you used to make fun of. "Hey, you're a good sport," I tell the guy "Go buy the wife a rum and coke. Hell, I did."

And you can see them thinking, can't you? Even as I start pitching the next item, some free dry cleaning certificates or lawn care or babysitting, some other piece of suburban happy crappy. You can see 'em turning it over, what did that mean? Did he mean he bought his wife a rum and coke? Did he mean he bought that guy's wife a rum and coke? 'Cause it's not exactly a local secret Stella Hotchkins is a little fond of the sauce, that's why no one lets her carpool their kids to soccer, but he couldn't have been saying that could he?

And it's kind of fun to watch from up there under the lights, kind of makes it okay that it's a kind of hot, kind of sweaty, so why not push just a little harder?

"Seventy five dollars? Seriously? The Johnsons are putting up one of their time-share weekends at the lake and seventy-five dollars is as high as we're going here? Really? Okay, Eighty, that's more like it, you're a sport Davis, wise move, nudge it up just five bucks. What about it Selikmans, you gonna let the Davis family crush your nuts like that? Franklins, doesn't your kid have special needs? That shit's not cheap, get into the action!"

Ooooh. Tough crowd. Tough room.

Tell you what all; I think I see what the deal is here. Ya'll know Mister Johnson would rather slit his throat then spend a weekend vacation with Mrs. Johnson so you figure the cash value is only the tax write off anyway. Selikman's saving his money for #32 right? Case of wine? That oughta be good for a whole Thursday night. Hell, I'll throw in a pair of Sun Glasses so your wife won't be embarrassed when she picks Tony and Jane up the next day.

LAUGH, YOU CHEAP BASTARDS! See, see now, the sunglasses, right, that's a joke, 'cause see, Selikman's wife will need them to hide the SHINER he gives her after drinking all the DAMN WINE! THAT'S RIGHT, IT'S FUNNY, SEE, CAUSE IT'S TRUE! It's too true. Selikman over there is an alcoholic wife beater AND OH LIKE EVERYBODY DOESN'T KNOW THAT ALREADY! SOLD, the weekend getaway, at EIGHTY BUCKS to Mr. Davis! Next up on the block, oh, say, free Pet Grooming at "Wee Klip 'Em". How about you Mrs. Davis, it'll give you something to do while your husbands up at the lake. Don't hold back, check your program, you don't need to save your money; we're not auctioning Mr. Peterson. OH, OH, LIKE WE ALL DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT YOU AND PETERSON, NEXT THING YOU KNOW YOU'LL TRY AND TELL ME YOU DIDN'T KNOW HE WAS BI!!

Honey? Sweetheart? You okay? Don't we have to be over there pretty soon?

'Cause I'm good to go now. No butterflies in this stomach. Gonna be a great night. Magical.

Anything could happen.


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