On April 24th, 2014 I drove to the Tempe Center for the Arts, a beautiful new venue over looking Tempe Town Lake. I had performed there previously when it first opened. Before joining Jester’z I was a member of the Tempe Symphonic Wind Ensemble as a percussionist, and we had our performances there. I had to quit the wind ensemble to join the Jester’z, as the rehearsal schedule conflicted. Now, I was returning to the venue to take my first ever, stand-up comedy class.
I was nervous, this was a new experience for me and there was something about stand-up that terrified me far more than improv. As an improviser you are surrounded by cast who are trained to handle any and every situation. There are no mistakes as an improviser, and the crowd knows you’re making everything up on the spot so the pressure to be funny is actually less. As a stand-up comedian, it’s you and only you. If you say a joke and it’s not funny, there is no cast mate to hop on stage and save you, or to validate what you’re saying. It’s you, an audience, and your act. There is another aspect of stand-up that is also far more challenging for me as well when compared to improv. As an improviser you are always in character, you’re acting scenes where you assume a number of different characters. In one scene you’re a barista, in another you’re a lawyer, in another scene you’re a father, in another a villain. When you do stand-up, you are you…just you. You have to stand in front of the audience and convince them that YOU are funny. You have to prepare jokes well in advance and then stand in front of that audience and say that joke you wrote minutes, days, weeks, months or years ago and entice that audience to laugh, NOW! It is a daunting notion, and one I had stayed from for years, and Jester’z allowed me to avoid it. As long as I had Jester’z it was easy to justify why stand-up was not in the cards for me, but now, for some reason I felt compelled to challenge myself as a performer and give stand-up the ol’ college try.
There I sat in a room full of beginners when Tony Vicich started the class. Tony had started his stand-up class almost a decade before and had grown it into a sustainable business, training beginning comics from all walks of life to get up on stage for the first time and deliver 5 minutes of comedy. He said things like, “your ideas, properly applied have value,” and “stand-up consists of two parts, the writing and the delivery.” There was something very believable about Tony, he had the exterior of a rough around the edges guy, not the type of guy who’s going to give you a hug and tell you you’re pretty before prom, but you could tell he had accumulated decades of wisdom and experience and was at a point in his life, void of pretense. He knew exactly who he was, what he wanted to be doing with his life, and whatever regrets had experienced in his past, he had learned to leave them in his past. This would become a significant attribute as I began to realize the importance of that trait when being taught in the creative arts. I’ve learned since that anyone who is teaching students to be creative, stand-ups, improvisers, actors, musicians, dancers, etc, it is easy to be confronted with the old adage, those who can’t do, teach. This is particularly present as I have studied now with many different stand-up and acting coaches. Because there is a desire for so many of us performers to perhaps one day, “make it,” as a performer, meaning we get our big break and make it as a comedian, or we land a big role on a sitcom, sometimes there are teachers who carry with them a certain resentment that they were not so fortunate, and are now relegated to teaching when they’d rather be famous. I’ve had teachers since Tony who seemed to resent their students who had unique talent and were clearly going places, because the teachers still carried some bitterness that their careers never reached a level of fame and fortune that we all dream at some point in our life. Tony did not possess this resentment. As I became better acquainted with him and his life it was clear that he could have “made it,” and in some regards had made it, but he found his calling was to teach and to identify talent that he could nurture, encourage and inspire.
That first class primarily consisted of exercises, similar to what I had experienced in my beginning improv classes. Creating characters, harnessing different emotions and adding layers to a character. This was all prep work for being on stage and being able to convey certain emotions to an audience of course. At the end of the class Tony sat down with each student and asked if they would be interested in taking his 5 weeks intro to stand-up course. I was still unsure and was hoping Tony would validate me, “Hey, you’re clearly a funny guy, you definitely need this class.” But Tony is not an ass-kisser, as I suggested before he’s at a point in his life where he really doesn’t have time to play games and validate some insecure adult’s emotions. I realized that if I was going to sign-up for his class and give stand-up a try, I’d just have to decide, Tony was not going to give me a hug and tell me how special I am. I decided to take the class.
Over the next 5 weeks I would show up to class every Tuesday night and work on material I had been writing. Tony’s class structure was pretty simple, you would show up and sign into the class, and Tony would then use that sign in sheet as the running order for the class. He’d call up each student who would walk to the front of class and take the microphone out of the stand, and deliver their material. Tony would take notes, and then offer suggestions on how to improve the material. I cant’ say I recall much about these first 5 classes, since it was a beginning class and there was no real performance involved, it was just a fun time learning stand-up. After the beginning course, Tony would then invite each student to take his advanced stand-up comedy class. This class included a student showcase performance, on a real stage at the Tempe Center for the Arts in front of paying audience, granted most of those audience members would be friends and family of the comic, but there would be strangers there as well.
Now, the pressure was on. I spent those 5 weeks stressing about the fact that I would ultimately need to put together a 5 minute set of comedy that I would need to memorize and perform in front of a live audience. I wish I could say I was confidence and ready to go, but I wasn’t. I was terrified. I remember standing in my room and filming myself practice my routine over and over again. I event sent it to a few friends to get feedback. I wanted so desperately someone to tell me I was going to be funny and it was going to go okay. Every insecurity I’d ever had as a performer was coming to the surface, and I had no idea where I was going to land.
The night of the show I was nervous. There was a HUGE crowd, several friends of mine had come as well as my brother and his wife. This again, intensified the nerves. I had performed over a thousand improv shows and knew I was a funny, talented improviser, but I had no idea if I was a funny stand-up comedian. It was my turn and I got up on stage. My first joke killed, “So a friend of mine recently texted me to meet him and his two kids at a children’s museum, granted it was not the best day to wear a trench coat…” the crowd laughed, and I was off to the races. Not everything I said was hilarious, but I didn’t really bomb. I was supposed to go for 5 minutes and ended up going for 7, which in the comedy world is a cardinal sin. I was so nervous on auto-pilot I didn’t see Matt lighting in the back of the room, the comedian’s signal to WRAP IT UP! I closed my set, and left the stage to hearty round of applause. I knew I had done well. It wasn’t perfect, but for my first official set as a stand-up comedian it was good start.
The next class Tony would sit down with each comedian and talk over their set, make recommendations and talk next steps. When Tony sat with me he said something I did not expect, “What the hell are you doing Arizona?” I was taken back, I didn’t know what he meant by this. “Why aren’t you in LA, why aren’t you in New York, you’re funny, you could make it.” This was shocking to me, in 34 years of living NO ONE had ever suggested to me that I could be more than I was. All the years at Jester’z, people told me I was funny, I knew I was appreciated, but never did anyone suggest I should really, actually GO FOR IT! The fact that this was coming from Tony was even more shocking, since as I mentioned before he’s not necessarily one for warm fuzzies, and secondly because I knew Tony was void of bull-shit. Tony had been a touring, headlining comedian for decades of his live, and had seen and taught thousands of it not tens of thousands of comedians in his lifetime. And now, after seeing me perform 7 minutes of a 5 minute set of comedy, without hardly knowing me from Adam, he’s already telling me that I should be “going for it.” It was an experience I’ll never forget and will forever be grateful. My entire life I didn’t believe in my self, I lived a life of fear, scarcity and poverty. I spent every day worrying that I was never enough, I wasn’t enough for my church and religion, I wasn’t enough as a realtor, I wasn’t enough for women, I wasn’t enough as a performer, I wasn’t enough as a human being. I spent every day in constant need of the validation and approval of others, but even when I would get it, I would doubt it. “Ah, they are just saying that to be nice.” But now, Tony Vicich, a man who has no interesting being perceived as nice, or anything else for that matters, because he couldn’t care one ounce of what other people think of him, was looking at me asking me, “What the hell are you doing in Arizona?” It was a question that would challenge me for the next year of my life, one that would bring with it many incredible and intense experiences that would forever change my life.