What becoming a stand-up comedian taught me about finding my voice
Ever since I was young, I have always harbored a secret dream of being a stand-up comedian. The dream was secret because I simply never considered I would ever actually be able to do what these mythic figures did — stand up on a stage and make people laugh, just by being myself. I respected comedians and their craft far too much to ever consider joining their ranks myself.
Then, a few years ago, I had an opportunity to take a beginning stand-up class at a local comedy club, and all of that changed. Attending that first class was one of the scariest experiences of my life, but it was so worth it. In the process of learning to tell a simple joke, I learned more about myself than I ever bargained for.
I have something to say.
The first thing I learned is that I have a voice, and I enjoy using that voice. I have a unique point of view, and I can contribute something to society that no one else can. It might sound basic and very Sesame Street Lite, but it was a deep truth to uncover while ostensibly being goofy.
It had just never occurred to me before that I could possibly have something to say that anyone would want to listen to. I’ve never felt influential or powerful, but I started to feel that change as the class went on and I got more comfortable being on stage. I started to feel the audience listening to me. Beyond that, I started to feel them understand me.
As I watched the other burgeoning comedians in my class experiment with their own voices and joke-writing style, I began to realize how universal my experience was. Everyone was surprised, and almost humbled, to discover how unique and imaginative we all really were. It didn’t come easily. It took a lot of work to uncover our voices and our points of view, but the work soon became a joy.
Laughter is healing.
The second thing I learned is that laughter is truly healing, both for the comedian and for the audience. If time heals all wounds, finding the humor in those wounds certainly helps that process along. I began to almost think about my jokes as cheap therapy, a way to work through things about myself that I wanted to change. I felt better about myself by seeing that all the things I worried about were things everyone else worried about, too. By being open about confronting my own insecurities, I could see the audience start giving themselves permission to be open about their own.
I began to notice that the jokes that got the biggest laughs were the ones that were most honest. Political jokes and observational jokes got laughs, but the jokes that people remembered and connected with were the ones where I talked about my own experiences and failures.
Being honest doesn’t have to mean being cruel.
A trap I’ve seen a lot of comedians, particularly female comedians, fall into over the years is the trap of being mean for the sake of being mean, both to themselves and to others. While you can get cheap laughs by doing this, I quickly discovered that it wasn’t satisfying. I didn’t want to tear others or myself down for a laugh. I wanted to be honest and transparent, but not cruel.
This meant I had to confront my life-long insecurities about my body without reducing myself to body shaming. It meant I had to talk about the ridiculous things people around me did without resorting to name-calling to pointing out physical flaws, as if calling someone “fat” or “stupid” was a punch line. It can be a fine line to find sometimes, but it’s a line that you have to check yourself over. It’s just too easy to get addicted to the laughter of people you don’t know that you cease to wonder why they’re laughing.
I don’t want them laughing at me, and I don’t want them laughing at other people, either.
I want them laughing because they identify with me.
It’s been about three years now since I began my journey with stand-up comedy, and it took at least two of those years for me to finally decide that it was okay to call myself a comedian. It’s a never-ending process of growing, developing, experimenting, and failing. It’s a process I wouldn’t change for the world.
Sarah Hohman is a writer, comedian, and teacher originally from Bennington, Vermont. She left a stable career and moved across the country to pursue her dream of being a writer. Her parents remain disappointed in her to this day. You can follow her blog here or follow her on Twitter.