Kelly Aija Zemnickis
Kelly Zemnickis
April 29, 2018 9:00 am

Two years ago, I dared myself to try stand-up comedy for the first time. Yup, I made my stand-up comedy debut at the tender age of 37. What possessed me to go onstage with a page of what I hoped were jokes and say them out loud? To real, live people?  There was no money involved, by the way — I had voluntarily put myself in this position. I’d never taken a writing course so it wasn’t an assignment, either. This was truly born out of wanting to do something for a very long time, but never actually doing it. One of those things you talk about doing for years — you keep talking and talking but… never actually put your money where your mouth is.

But when someone I loved became very ill, I had a painful realization: I had every ability to go out and try things I’d been longing to try — my friend, simply, did not. After what ended up being our final conversation, I signed myself up for an open mic.

Thinking, “I may as well give this a try,” I told my brother and a few friends about my ridiculous plan and asked them to come support me. (In truth, I was fairly certain if there was ever a time I’d faint onstage, this might be it. So best to have people I loved and who I knew loved me there to call the paramedics when I blacked out, amirite?)

I can tell you this about the first night I did stand-up: I did not know my heart could beat that rapidly without killing me, nor that my temperature could rise that high. I was an absolute mess internally — and I have panic attacks on a good day. This was like putting that anxiety on fast forward and in a blender. I was in a rollercoaster approaching a massive drop when the host called my name.

It’s not that I’d never been on a stage before. I’d been in numerous school plays and even worked as a technician at comedy clubs for years. The environment wasn’t foreign, but I was terrified. I held the mic stand with the tightest grip of my life, and it grounded me, it was there for me. And I realized that whatever I was doing was…working. People laughed. And before I knew it, it was over. I sat back down and knew instantly that I had to go and do that again. It was scary, but it also felt completely natural.

Kelly Aija Zemnickis

I have always loved stand-up comedy. Watching late night talk shows when I was a kid, begging my parents to get me tickets to comedians’ gigs in Toronto when I was a teen…there was an interest and appreciation within me early on. I figured that a way to get into that scene was to become a technician for various shows, and that’s how I established relationships with dear friends who let me swim alongside them in their comedy world.

But my own voice had been silenced without me even realizing it had happened. I’d followed a path that led me to a steady job on a long-running Canadian TV comedy series (again, I was on the comedy sidelines, but still in the room). I even bought a home in my early 20s and basically did a lot of things that other people thought I should be doing.

As I moved along through my 30s, little hints started to drop, reminding me of my true passions. I could have ignored those instincts, but I was getting better at listening — and that’s how I ended up walking away from all I knew career-wise.

I became a waitress, and it was that job that got me talking to all kinds of people — people who wanted to get to know me. I thought to myself, “Oh wow…I’ve got a story to tell, don’t I?” I had forgotten about my dreams of writing, of making people laugh. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but life comes at you fast when you have to put on your adult pants and do the thing. I thought I knew myself, but I only found my voice again in that waitressing job.

You know how you intently search for your phone or your keys or your glasses, and then you realize you’re holding your phone, your keys are in your pocket, and your glasses are on your head?  When I got up on stage that first night, it was if I heard myself say, “You finally showed up. This space has always been here — what took you so long?”

Lisa Romerein/Getty Images

In my teens, or even in my 20s, I’d never have been able to tell jokes in front of strangers (or people I knew). I simply wasn’t ready and didn’t think I had a perspective worth sharing. Now, I’m years older than most people I perform with, and while that made me feel very self-conscious at first, I soon became comfortable with my single-gal take on life.  As I head into a new decade of my existence, I’ve realized that I have a perspective that other comedians don’t. My viewpoint really does matter and might even be relatable to some people. Plus, I bonded with these wickedly funny folks who had as many hang-ups as I did, regardless of their ages. It felt like I’d found my tribe.

Some nights, my jokes kill. Some nights, I want to vanish from the stage out of sheer embarrassment because my jokes aren’t landing. The first time I bombed on stage, I cried as soon as I left the club. Yet I went back because I still felt how I did the first time I heard the emcee call my name… like a boxing coach was rubbing my shoulders, squirting water into my mouth, and readying me to get back into the ring.

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After two years of performing, I have joke books full of quickly written notes about what worked and what didn’t. My goal for 2018 is to sign up for an open mic when I’m next in New York City or L.A. It continues to blow my mind that I have the opportunity to go on stage and tell jokes. When I hop on the subway to get to a gig, there’s a smirk on my face. Folks are heading home for the night, and I’m off to go perform, to do something that scares me and makes me ridiculously happy (and sometimes pays me!).

I wanted to do this for so long. I just didn’t know that I could do it. Or that I needed to do it.

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