Altitude Sickness, Column

Altitude Sickness: performing comedy naked

Most of you know that I was, for a very long time, a nationally touring stand-up comic. Some of you know that I had a weekly comedy show this past winter up at the Summit Lodge. What nearly none of you know about is that the best audience for which I ever performed was the brass ring audience. It was the audience that every comic dreams of.
The third best audience I ever had was in Zumbrota, Minnesota. Overweight, middle-aged, drunk Lutheran women laugh like it is their job. The two best audiences (ahead of Minn.) were in the same place, two years apart.
When a friend asked me to perform at a nudist campground in northern Vermont, I was nonplussed. But it was a booking a year and a half out and the money was good, so I decided not to worry about it and accepted.
Then, in the meantime, I got married, got divorced, and became aggressively unfunny (think Owen Wilson solo wedding crashing)—and lost all my comedy gigs. A month before the show (about which I had forgotten) I got the confirmation call, and I was completely uninterested, but again, badly needed the rather excellent paycheck, and so told them I was on.
I rehearsed for two weeks (handwriting my set, working it with a mic in hand in my office, and listening to my last set on mp3 when I was out on my morning walks, or driving in the car. Thoroughly unpsyched, I grabbed my best jacket, a good pair of jeans, a nice shirt, and headed off to naked land feeling alternately unsettled and diarrhocious. (Yes, I created that word just now. No, you can’t have it.)
I got there, and they gave me my very own trailer (it was like being a movie star!), and I proceeded to puke new material onto the page. I have a few basic rules about stand-up comedy: 1) Never do new material at a paid gig; 2) Never perform in a room where the temperature is over 68 degrees (cold people laugh significantly more than warm people); and 3) never follow live music. It was nearly 87 degrees in the hall where they were going to have me perform, so I was already hosed. I figured, why not break out some nudity-based material? What could go wrong?
None of the people there, but one, knew me, so when I walked onstage, I whipped out my (wait for it …) best Captain Jack Sparrow/Dudley Moore-as-Arthur British accent (not what you thought I was going to say, right?). Then I proceeded to do a bunch of jokes about naked people (“When they hired me for this gig, I knew it would be a tough audience, but I had no idea it would be a bunch of dicks and assholes.”).
They laughed like they had just gotten high for the first time. It was the best set of my life, and instead of the 45-60 minutes that I was hired for, I did a full 90 minutes, 30 minutes of which were off the cuff.
Rule #4: Never go off book during a paid set. About halfway through the set, I had a punchline where I removed my shirt, and so after that, given that it was a million degrees, I went full monty, and did 45 minutes of stand-up comedy fully naked. I lived out every childhood nightmare of showing up to my school, swimming lessons, etc., without clothing. And it was good.
The second time I preformed at this venue, things were different. I now have a great job. I don’t need the money. I haven’t performed a set since early February.
But I was, once again, thoroughly unpsyched. Most people don’t realize this, but I have crippling stage fright. I became a professional actor, singer, stand-up comic because when I was eight years old my father told me that if I was afraid of something it was best to do it a lot so that I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. It was apparently a compelling argument. I’m sure he regretted the advice more than once—when I see a bridge or cliff with deep water underneath, I jump it, and so on.
He was wrong about not being afraid anymore, but repetition does make difficult things easier.
This time there was an opener and a middle comic, and I watched their sets. They were intimidatingly good. My preparation for this set had been minimal. No rehearsing; I listened to my set on the way there. I then sat down for three hours and typed out my set once. That was the entirety of my preparation for reciting an hour of memorized material. This was not the smartest thing I had ever done … Furthermore, it was the same set I did last time. While I had literally three hours of new material on deck, I had not had the chance to preview it, and certainly not to memorize it. At least the weather was cooler, so people would be more likely to laugh. Also, they were wearing some clothes.
I went on stage, and in my best Captain Jack Sparrow/Dudley Moore I said, “I didn’t recognize all of you with your clothes on. You know, the last time I was here, I felt like a real rock star … there were more bare middle-aged breasts than at a Paul McCartney encore. Now it just looks like a Trump rally.” They fell apart.
My set flew out of me like it was on rails. My delivery was the best it has ever been. The audience laughed like hyenas. I had them in the palm of my hand the entire time! Cooler though it was, it was still hot on stage, and so at the appointed moment, I once again stripped, and lived out everyone’s favorite nightmare. I finished the set like a freight train going through a spider web. I killed it, and I got a standing ovation.
I need to perform more. I miss that. I need to quit talking about what I used to be and start talking about what I am and what I will be, being who I was so that who I was will be who I am.


Provided Photo
Performing at the LOL comedy club at the Turningstone Casino.

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