Performing at my father’s funeral taught me the life lesson I needed most

When I first told my mother that I wanted to perform my father’s eulogy as a stand-up comedy set, she thought I was joking. I didn’t see the problem with it. We were Jews, and Jews take liberties with everything. Weddings, funerals … I’d had a show tune-themed bat mitzvah at a seafood restaurant, for goodness sake. My mom expressed some mild concern around my father’s Catholic relatives potentially being horrified by us turning Campbell’s Funeral Home into a comedy club. They were already shocked there wasn’t a wake. But the way I saw it, the service was non-denominational, not in place of worship, and my dad’s favorite thing to do was laugh. He always said I got my sense of humor from him.

In my gut, it felt right. But the truth is, much like my mom, I also had some hang-ups around it. Would my relatives think I wasn’t taking my father’s death seriously? Would they think I wasn’t coping effectively? Would they think I was making my dad’s funeral about me? Also, what if nobody laughed? What if I bombed my dad’s funeral?

I grew up a musical theatre kid—and I’m talking a Norma Desmond for Halloween and a history fair project on Showboat kind of musical theater kid. Any chance I had to be on stage, I took. One of the first times I actually cared what people thought of me was at a middle school talent show. I’d been rehearsing “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago for weeks. My mom had laid down a piano track and everything. But a few days before the show, I told my parents I’d changed my mind and wanted to sing a pop song instead, because I was afraid kids would think I was a loser and make fun of me. I already had braces and frizzy hair working against me. My parents gave me a pep talk about how I should always perform what I love to perform, and never conform to what I think other people will want, because it will never be as good. Also, no one wants to hear Britney Spears sung in Broadway style. I took their advice, and let me tell you, kids still definitely thought I was a loser. But it did get me a part in the 8th grade musical. It taught me the importance of facing your fears, trusting your instincts, and putting yourself out there.

My father always marched to the beat of his own drum. We had a long, rich, complicated, challenging, and awesome relationship, and the biggest lesson he instilled in me was to be genuine and to embrace being myself. He thrived on the motto, “Who cares?” He was a marathoner—he ran 32 of them. Each time he fought to go faster, and it’s that perseverance that I try to embody. Fear of rejection is a real thing. And like my father and his marathons, it’s important to continue to force yourself to go through the exercises. And the thing about rejection, which I learned from my dad, is that if you’re going to go down, you might as well go down being your authentic self.

I’ve bombed my share of comedy shows, but my dad once told me to never be afraid to be bad. Be brave enough to go out there and fail. I put myself out there a lot, because that’s what I’ve learned to do. But in no way does that mean I don’t experience tremendous amounts of fear and anxiety.

I wanted him to be memorialized and remembered the way he’d want to be. The way he’d earned. My mother eventually came around to the idea, and together we decided that if our relatives were appalled, it was their problem. After all, who cares?

No performance anxiety has ever been worse than what I experienced the moment before I took the “stage” next to my father’s casket. For me, that time wasn’t about having a bad set, it was about having one shot to honor the most important man in my life. I didn’t want to let him down.

As the funeral director introduced me, I scanned the crowd and tried to read the room. Everyone looked so serious. I was for sure going to be disowned. I remember thanking god that my dad’s best friend who spoke right before me had dropped an F-bomb, which did get a laugh. I knew I’d be able to tell within the first 30 seconds how this was going to go. My mom was in the front row, her eyes wet and sagging. In that moment, all I wanted to do was make her laugh. So, I went for it:

My dad loved to laugh.
My dad loved making people laugh.
My dad loved watching me make people laugh.
He said I got my sense of humor from him.
And I’ve got to tell you. This is…
The biggest room I’ve ever played.

They laughed. Everyone laughed. Thank god. And it was the best kind of laughter—the kind that comes out of you when you need it the most, when tension needs to be broken. My mom had the biggest smile on her face, and her demeanor gave me permission to push the envelope a little further.

I told jokes about how my dad never cared what people thought of him. I talked about how one Halloween he let me dress him up as a woman and proceeded to take me trick-or-treating in a dress. I talked about how he always played to win, and how when he took me to Club Med, he entered me in a singing contest and entered himself in a sexy legs contest. We both won.

My dad was the kindest man I knew.
Every time we went shopping for a Christmas tree he’d always pick the ugliest one.
He’d say that a tree is a living thing.
No living thing should ever feel rejected, no matter how sad or pathetic.
When picking out a living thing you always pick the one no one else wants.
It made me grateful I wasn’t adopted.

I’m so glad my dad taught me perseverance,
Because I had no idea being a comedian would be this hard.
I had no idea it would take losing my dad to get to headline an event.
Is it a 10 a.m. spot on a Friday?
It is.
Is it at a funeral home thirty minutes outside of Boston?
It is.
But you know what?
We did it, Dad.

That experience changed me. Now, whenever I have to play a tough room I think about the time I did a tight ten at a funeral. It was the complete essence of my father, and to think, I almost didn’t do it because I was so afraid of what people would think. Rejection is such an awful and uncomfortable feeling, but at the end of the day, I’m still here. We all are.

In the spirit of this risk-taking mentality, I started producing a monthly comedy show in New York City with comedian and author Sarah Cooper, called “You’re So Brave.” The point of the show is for the two of us is to take chances and try out new material. I can’t stress enough how important it’s been for me to continue the exercise of putting myself out there even when it’s scary. There are usually six other comics on the lineup each month, and the show is free because it’s important to Cooper and me that all walks of life have access to comedy. Never underestimate the power of laughter. My dad didn’t.

Be bold, be different, push yourself the distance. At the end of the day, if you’re going to go down, you might as well go down being your authentic self. What a tragedy it would be to fail trying to be something you’re not. I don’t know that I’ll be revisiting the funeral circuit any time soon, but I’m already working on the lineup for mine.

Nikki’s memoir Dry Run (Auctus Publishers) is available now.

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