I was once asked how much preparation comedians do before a gig. I think it ranges from either winging it on stage with some ideas or planning a gig like a terrorist cell plans a suicide bombing. As much as I would love to be a comedian who prepares for gigs without breaking into a sweat and ad-libs his way around the stage in a hilarious manner I am most definitely a member of the ‘extreme preparation group’. I approached my first gig with the intensity of a tax accountant with obsessive compulsive disorder. I still do, to a point. I prepare by writing, then editing, then writing, then throwing it away, then editing, then writing and then rehearsing and then finally doing it on stage and getting no laughs and resorting to dick jokes in order to get laughs. I don’t do as much preparation as I used to but I am still really organised before a gig. There is a reason for that. The first time I ever completely humiliated myself in public was because of a lack of preparation. I’m not talking about my first stand up comedy gig which was a lot of fun and possibly one of the best experiences of my life. No, we are going way back to 1985 when I was 12.
My Dad had been transferred to the USA in 1984. I went from living in a small town of about 4,000 people in Central Qld to living in a larger town of 40,000 people in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. We moved to Farmington which was a dirty, malevolent town on the edge of the desert at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It was a tired town filled with glum people and I loved it. Coming from Australia, everything seemed new to me. A shopping mall with more than six shops! Yes please! An ice-cream store with thirty-one flavours? What the hell? Is this heaven? I went to school at the local educational facility called Ladera Del Norte Elementary School and I loved it because I was the token interest for a few months. Kids and teachers alike would come up to me at lunch, demand that I say something in my ‘funny’ accent and then walk away laughing. I was popular but not as popular as Brad Smith who used to wear break dancing leathers to class and would dazzle the girls with his popping and locking during recess and the lunch break. I wanted to be like Brad. Badly. I pressured my mother into buying me a black vinyl jacket (with epaulettes) which I wore with pride. Then, I asked nicely for some matching black pants. They were parachute pants and had a zip that ran along the side which would open revealing a red vinyl interior and seven kinds of awesome. I wanted to wear both the jacket and pants to school as some form of wicked-sick ensemble but Mum never let me. Secretly she knew how tragic I looked with my spiked up hair and faux-angry B-boy demeanour so she’d always make me wear the items separately. I obliged but every night I would tear the basement down with my backspins and my version of the helicopter which only went halfway round and usually resulted in me smashing my groin into the concrete. Yes, I was truly bad-ass. I waited patiently for the moment I could shine. In my shiny black pants.
During the year, they introduced a Medieval theme in history class and we were told that if we participated in the class sufficiently and also completed numerous lengthy homework tasks we could ‘rank’ up in our class’s medieval society. You didn’t have to get really involved but your social status in the class would be based on how much work you did. People who did the least amount of work became serfs and peasants and those who excelled in the class became knights, barons and even kings. At the end of the semester we would have a Royal Feast and the serfs would serve the higher members of society. This whole approach appealed to me but I was dead focussed on becoming a professional break-dancer so my sole contribution to the medieval theme was building a castle made of Lego. This castle was manned by numerous Lego figurines, one of which always wore black. Shiny black. Sometimes he’d break-dance. I was very imaginative with my Lego. I probably should have focussed a bit more energy into the other aspects of the class such as listing all known diseases of the medieval period and/or creating an interactive collage that acted as a timeline of various medieval events which is what the kids who became royalty did. My stupendous feat of constructing a castle made of Lego granted me the right to become a serf. Yes, I was to serve the other kids during the feast. I wasn’t happy but I had myself to blame.
Luckily for me I saw a way out. A call was put out for willing volunteers to come forward and act as court jesters. Now this was something I could do. I was Australian so all I needed to do was say a few phrases in my Ocker accent and the crowd would be rolling around with tears streaming from their eyes. I was all set. I even had my outfit. It was black and shiny. Upon seeing a glimpse of the extent the other jesters were going to I also decided to learn how to juggle. I couldn’t, for the life of me, juggle three balls so I persisted with two until I was happy with my technique. The day approached quickly and I felt the nerves that I now associate with the creeping terror of not knowing what you have prepared will be enough. It didn’t matter. I was confident. I was Australian. I was going to wear the shiny black jacket and the shiny black pants. Together at last.
We were corralled into the main hall at school. There were students, teachers and quite a few parents and everyone was dressed up in period costume. I was wearing my decidedly non-Medieval outfit and people kept asking me if I was a break dancer and what did I have planned. I winked and said “just you wait and see!” We started off the feast with some warm, spiced apple juice which was supposed to be mead. As a serf I had to serve everyone and I ended up getting some of it on my arms and after 20 minutes my shiny jacket was shiny with added stickiness. We ate some chicken and some poems were read. It was now time for the jesters! The first jester came out. I was a little shocked because she was dressed in complete jester costume including bells on her hat and the ends of her shoes. She told knock-knock jokes that had been twisted to include medieval references. The parents, teachers and the assembled royalty laughed heartily and nodded their approval.
The next jester came out and he was dressed the same. He told jokes and then juggled some balls. Three balls to be exact. I sat there, cradling my two tennis balls in each hand, and watched in horror as this entertainer juggled his way across the floor and then proceeded to do some magic. He made coins disappear and pulled handkerchiefs out of his puffy sleeves. The crowd roared at his antics. It dawned on me then that I wasn’t prepared. It also dawned on me right then and there that I would be making a fool out of myself. I was shaking in terror.
My name was called out and I bounced up like a prized fighter. I smiled and strode out to the middle of the hall. There was not one sound. I remember hearing nothing but silence. I bowed to the king and queen and unzipped the side panel on my pants to reveal the awesome inside. I then cleared my throat as if I was about to launch into some jokes and but instead held out my tennis balls. I didn’t say a word. I just started juggling. Well, juggling isn’t the right word to use and it would be a slight on the terrific and dextrous work that jugglers do. I basically threw one ball into the air and caught it with my other hand. Then I’d repeat this process. It wasn’t so much juggling as it was passing a ball from hand to hand. It went well for about five tosses but then I lost all my coordination. I couldn’t catch one ball. I passed it off as a part of the act but it soon became apparent that not only could I not juggle two balls but I could barely hold onto one. I then reached into my shallow bag of tricks and pulled out my ender. I started falling over, repeatedly.
To this day I have no reason why I did it. I think I tried to do some break-dancing and had decided to intersperse my routine with a few ‘Three Stooges’ impressions. I have always been a fan of slapstick comedy but it is a big leap of faith to call what I did slapstick when in reality it more closely resembled a crazed junkie with cerebral palsy trying to dance the ‘Bustop’ in a tub full of lubricant. I look back and remember that people laughed and laughed hard. I also remembered when they stopped laughing about thirty seconds later and started to look at each other nervously as they waited for this rather dusty looking break dancing fool to stop falling on the ground. The stifling silence was the worst part of the whole ordeal. There was no music and no one was making a sound. I am certain you could have heard a pin drop if my grunts of exertion and the slapping noise my limbs made as they came into contact with the linoleum covered floor hadn’t been so loud.
It was at about the two minute mark of my routine when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a teacher making a move to try and stop me. I don’t know how she would have done that because I was in the zone. At that stage of my performance I was a spiced-apple smelling whirling dervish of sweaty embarrassment and anyone within 6 feet of me would have probably copped a vinyl clad leg in the face for their troubles. Luckily for Ms Odiorne, I moved onto my spectacular finale. I launched into my fabled helicopter move. This was the one that I had tried countless times in my basement without success. I could never complete it but I knew, having watched plenty of B-Grade movies, that everything usually falls into place for the cute yet misunderstood teen in these situations. With this knowledge I focussed my energy and did the helicopter. I vaguely remember hoping to hear the sound of the sharp intake of breath from a hundred people mixed with a few amazing hushed whispers of “oh my god, he’s going to do it!”
In reality what I heard was an “Ooooof!” as I slammed my groin into the ground with such force that the auditorium shook and some cups of spiced apple juice fell off a nearby table. I lay face down on the dusty linoleum, in extreme pain, and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart and the creepy sniggering of Brad Smith in the corner. Then the applause came. It started out as a smattering but then built to a thunderous roar as one hundred people took pity on that weird Australian boy who couldn’t catch a tennis ball and kept falling over. To this day I think most of the assembled parents thought I was the token ‘special kid’ in the class. I hobbled out of the auditorium safe in the knowledge that I’ll never be a professional break dancer. I copped a little flack from my fellow classmates but generally they respected that at least I attempted something. The only positive coming out of the whole incident was that I got out of cleaning up the auditorium with all the other serfs because I spent the next two hours with the school nurse who applied ice packs to my various bruises.
I learned a lot from that experience. I learned to prepare and to be ready for the unexpected and that break dancing is best left to the experts. I also learned how to juggle three balls and tell knock-knock jokes at the same time. Stardom, here I come.