by: Caitlin Bergh
I’m on my way to a comedy show with a beautiful, blonde-haired girl who I met in my stand-up comedy class. I signed up for the class a few weeks ago having no idea what I was really getting myself into but just driven by the most bizarre, blind motivation I had ever experienced. I had met a comic a month earlier, the one who teaches the class, and when I saw her perform, it was just like a switch turned on inside of me and suddenly I couldn’t stop, I had to go forward, I had to do comedy. The day before I met that comic and saw her perform, the world was a dull, lifeless place filled with everything imaginable besides comedy. The day after, the world was only comedy. That was all there was. I didn’t even really know what it was yet, I just knew it was the only thing.
I had emailed the teacher of the class, nervously, analyzing my email eighty times before sending it. It just said, “how do I sign up for your improv class?” That was how stupid I was, I didn’t even know the difference between improv and stand-up. I knew nothing about stand-up. Absolutely nothing. I had heard of Ellen DeGeneres and Sara Silverman and that was about it. I had been to one or two comedy shows in my life, but I had cowered like a chicken in the corner and judged the comedians harshly as they pointed out the flaws of the audience like mean, powerful dictators with a microphone and no heart. I knew absolutely nothing and yet, having seen one girl’s stand-up on one random day, I could already feel the stories bubbling up inside of me. Hilarious moments from my life were flashing through my mind. All the times that people laughed at the way I saw things, but did so dismissively, like I was the weirdo in their group of friends who was mildly entertaining but mostly weird, all of those times came back to me and it seemed to me that if I could relay them onstage, I wouldn’t be the weirdo and they wouldn’t be laughing dismissively. Maybe I would be the hero, and maybe they would be laughing for more.
We arrive at the comedy show and I start tugging at the drawstring on my hoodie to pull it up to my face, to hide my face a little bit as we go downstairs and take a seat in the front row. Within seconds, it becomes clear that this is a very terrible comedy show. I am frustrated. I came here to see things, to see bravery. These people on stage are unsure of themselves, fumbling with the microphone, telling us every dull thought that passed through their minds today, and it makes me sick. I have to get out of here, this is not what I’m looking for. I tell the blonde girl that I’m going to an open mic across town. Do you want to come? I ask her. No she says, she has to work early. Fine, I think, this is a one-person journey anyway.
I leave the terrible show and hail a cab and tell them the address of the first open mic I will ever go to. It’s run by the same comedian who teaches my class and suddenly I panic that I’m going by myself and how pathetic that will look to her but at the same time this isn’t about what she thinks of me. This is about evidence. I need facts, I need information, I need to find out about this thing comedy that I’m so desperate to throw myself into. I get to the bar where the open mic is taking place and my heart practically pukes inside my chest. It’s so much cooler than I am ready for. I feel totally awkward and ill at ease, like when I was a scrawny middle schooler who no one would dance with at camp dances because my mom dressed me in some ridiculous shirt with real flowers glued to it. I try to take a deep breath but there is no point. My lungs have tightened up so that no oxygen can get inside. I’m not even performing tonight, I’m just going to watch. And I have never been this nervous in my whole life. That’s really saying a lot coming from a girl who struggled for years with an anxiety disorder.
I sit in the front row to prove to myself that I’m not scared. This is the kind of logic I will use all throughout my comedy “career,” if I could even call it that yet. If I sign up for something, I can do it. If I can get booked on a show, I’ll just have to handle it. I constantly try to show myself that I have no fear and no shame and no nervousness by forcing myself into situations where those things aren’t allowed. It feels like I’m actually two people; one who wants me to be a comic, and one who is helpless to do anything but what the other one wants. I sit in the front and my teacher recognizes me and says Hi thanks for coming and I say Hi but my knees are shaking and I have to sit back down. The open mic starts and my hands are sweating. I get so mad at myself for being nervous because I’m not even going up tonight. What will it be like when I am going up? Spoiler alert: horrible. It will be the most gut-wrenching panic attack that I’ve ever had and the worst part is that at the end of the panic attack, there wasn’t the usual fucking myself up and falling asleep to look forward to, instead there was the actual nerve-wracking part of getting on stage. There was actually a reason to panic, unlike every other time that I’ve panicked in my life. But that wouldn’t be happening tonight.
As I watch my teacher host this mic, I am totally in awe. She doesn’t take shit from anyone. She keeps everyone in line and listening. At one point a dick-head guy wearing a cowboy hat starts heckling her and she just fucking lets him have it. Everything he says, she has the perfect word-knife to throw into his numb, stupid heart. At one point I’m so impressed that my heart actually stops, as I watch the word-knife fly in slow motion from her lips into this asshole’s heart, and then I watch the stupor manifesting itself on his face. Holy fuck, I think. Holy fuck. Fuck yes. This is the best fucking thing I have ever seen.
I go home that night in a total daze. I have to take the blue line to the red line and it takes an hour but I don’t mind because I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway after seeing that. I open the door to my studio apartment in Boystown and look around me. I see comedy everywhere. I get into my bed, which is just a sheet and a blanket and one pillow because I’m single right now and I don’t give a fuck about my apartment if there is no one to impress and I just start sobbing. Was that real? Did that really happen, what I just saw? I just saw a female comic get on stage and run a room and throw down when some asshole tried to derail her. It was the best thing I’d ever seen. I think about the other comics who went on stage, people who didn’t even seem nervous or phased when they didn’t get the right reaction, people who just fucking stood their ground up there and said their fucking ideas. It was like Plato’s cave, like coming out of the cave. Like seeing the true forms. The forms were not the things we see and experience every day, the forms are people telling these things on a stage and everyone else fucking listening. I start sobbing harder because I realize what a nerd I am to compare an open mic to Plato’s cave. But I can’t help it. Because I’ve been in here for too long, this cave, this dark, shadowy place where everything is bullshit and nothing is true. I’ve been in here for 24 years and it feels like 24,000. The part of me who wants to be a comic tells the other part to FUCKING GET OVER YOUR ANXIETY because you are getting up there, you dumb shit. You are getting on that stage and you are going to do that until it doesn’t hurt anymore, until it is the only thing that makes you feel alive, until you crave the energy that use to make you panic, until you can tell people the Truth like they just told it to you, until you are someone I can feel proud to call by my own name.
Caitlin Bergh is a Chicago comic & cast member at The Lincoln Lodge. She is the producer & host of The Funny Story Show at LooseLeaf Lounge and co-producer & co-host of Performance Anxiety Chicago at The Pleasure Chest and #LadyBros Comedy at Cole’s Bar. More info at www.caitlinbergh.com