On being an anxious funny person

I get nervous every time I go on stage.


I’m not new to stand up comedy at all. I’ve been performing for coming up on five years now. I recently did my 300th gig. 300 might sound like a lot, but I know people who are well into the thousands and have been performing for the same amount of time as me. I’ve performed around Cambridge, at shows in Norwich, Manchester and Cardiff, told jokes from the stage of massive venues at the Edinburgh Fringe and slogged my way around near-deserted pub gigs on the London circuit. I know that I am a good comedian. I’m not the best comedian in Cambridge by a long shot, nor do I have the best jokes, the slickest performances, or the cleverest put downs to hecklers. But I know I am ok, and that’s fine for me.


And yet still, whenever I am about to go on stage – I’m terrified. I feel light headed, my hands shake uncontrollably, my material gets jumbled in my head, and I am basically in the worst possible frame of mind for comedy at the precise moment I take hold of the mic.


It’s odd, really. One of the reasons I got into comedy was because I have massive social anxiety. People think that because I stomp around, getting involved in campaigns, write lots of things, scowl perpetually and listen to far more black metal than is acceptable that I am a confident person. I’m not. I have crippling social anxiety about interactions with people, even my friends. Conversations feel like I’m skipping over hot coals. Put me in front of 200 paying strangers with a mic, and I am fine, because I know the parameters of the interaction. I talk, they laugh, we all leave happy (mostly). Suggest I go for coffee with an interesting friend of yours and I’m terrified.


So, in other words, I know that I am “safer” from anxiety when on stage, yet I am still anxious about going on stage. Maybe it’s because I know that the material I do is not everyone’s cup of tea. I talk about things which people might not relate to, like death metal and metal subculture. My sets are often very left wing rants that also have a go at some of the idiocies of the left, as much as they do the Tories. I talk about things like feminism and queer politics. I often write sets trying to convince people of some sort of message. I am pretty public in my belief that jokes about rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence and the like are not ok, and I’ve had my fair share of arguments with people about why that’s not “impinging free speech” (you can say it if you like, but don’t expect me to listen or laugh). I run the only openly feminist comedy night in Cambridge, which has gotten me some flack.  In short, you may not like my set. That’s an odd thing to be worried about, logically speaking. Every comic is going to find someone who doesn’t like their jokes. Comedy isn’t universal. But I guess because my identity is a leftist stand up is so integral to who I am that if people don’t like my material, it feels very much like they don’t like me. Weird, huh?


That said, the feeling of standing up in a dark room full of people you don’t know, and sharing something funny with them is like no other. There’s a moment, about four minutes into my sets, where I try to take mental stock of how it’s going down. Either they love it or they are staring at me wishing I was elsewhere. If by that point, I’ve made them laugh, and if the chuckling is rustling around the room, I’m fine. I know that I can do this, and I am right to be the one with the microphone in my hand.


If I had to pin down the meaning of comedy, I’d say this: it’s about sharing an experience. A story, an observation, and by sharing that experience, you create a shared experience. Collectively, though none of you know me, you agree with something I say. You might not agree with my politics, my dress sense, or how much meaningless waffle I post on my blog, but you hear me describe something odd or out of place and you say “yes. I see what you mean. I know where you’re coming from.” In essence, it comes down to validation, and my sense of self worth. It’s a horribly cliche thing to say but I feel that I know myself best when I’m on stage.


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