Memoir

Stand-Up Comedy Saved My Life. Literally.

I had a gun in my hand when I decided to finally give that open-mic night a shot. Seven years later, I’m a professional comedian.

Stand-Up Comedy Saved My Life. Literally.

This story is presented as part of a partnership between Narratively and Gold Comedy, the only learning and social platform that gives teen girls the tools to find their funny and the places to share it with the world. Gold Comedy is here to amplify girls’ voices — literally, with a mic! — and more. For info and #inspo visit www.goldcomedy.com.

Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of the author’s suicidal ideations.

Comedy saved my life.

I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean that I was preparing to kill myself less than 24 hours before I tried my first open mic.

It was fall of 2012 in Norfolk, Virginia. I was 24, and I was lost. Most of my friends were in college. I had dropped out of ITT Tech. The friends I did have had drinking and drug problems and were in and out of court. I was on probation for two marijuana charges and a drunk-in-public. I worked at the dying mall in a dead-end job. And I had just broken up with a woman who had stolen all my money. Life was bleak. I wanted out.

So one night while my roommate was away, I found his gun. I sat on the couch with it until sunrise, weighing my options. And as morning dawned, it dawned on me: I should really try that open mic across town before I die.

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I had spent that year carrying around a tiny notebook and jotting down things that made me mad or made me laugh. My plan was that one day I’d cobble those thoughts into jokes, go to an open mic, and try comedy. All through school, I was the class clown and goof-off. I’d always gotten in trouble for talking and joking too much. But I didn’t care if I got detention because at least at school I had an audience. I was the only child of a single mother in the Navy, with only my grandmother there when my mom went out to sea. Home was too small a crowd.

As I got older, my friends always said I should try stand-up comedy. Although it sounded appealing in theory, I would just say, “Yeah, I’m funny to you guys,” and file stand-up comedy away under “Bucket List.”

I did know that if I tried stand-up, it would be at The Venue on 35th. It’s still there. It’s fire engine red with bright yellow signs. Back then, on Monday nights, for $2 (now it’s $3) anyone could get on stage and do whatever they wanted for five minutes. I’d been there with my friend Tremaine for a really open open mic — poets, musicians, singers, and one or two comics — and I hadn’t forgotten the vibe and the camaraderie. Everyone, no matter how or what they performed, was welcomed with open arms. Folks got hugs before and after they took the stage. The applause was always hearty. You knew the support in that place was real. I knew it would be a safe place to get my feet wet.

So that morning in 2012, I put down the gun and called Tremaine.

“You have to come and get me tonight,” I told her, “and make sure I go do that open mic.”

Why comedy, why that morning? I never once thought, “This is going to save my life.” In a way, it was the opposite. As in, “Before I kill myself, let me get these thoughts off my chest.”

She came, and we went. My anxiety made us early birds, so when we walked in the place was so empty and dark I thought it was closed. But as my eyes adjusted, I felt a sense of calm and friendliness in the air, along with the aroma of fresh coffee. I was greeted by an elderly man who grinned and said, “Welcome, new face. You want a piece of the mic tonight?”

With a timid smile, I said yes. He slid me a clipboard with a sheet of paper with numbered lines. It was the sign-up sheet. But people didn’t sign up in order. The first performer signed in at #4, the next #7, and the next #15. “Sign in whatever slot you want,” he said. I was full of nervous energy, so I wanted to go up early and sit back down. So #1 it was.

I moved past the man to find a seat. Every person there was smiling at me and everyone was warmly greeted as they entered, first by the man at the door — who I would soon learn was a tugboat sailor named Mr. Willy — and then by the rest of the folks there. Tremaine and I found a spot up against the wall and sat watching all the love and hugs go around the room.

Soon the lights dimmed and the host took the stage. He was a Puerto Rican man, close to my age, wearing a Nightmare Before Christmas beanie and glasses. He spoke with a gentle but firm voice. Even though I knew my name was going to be called first, I was still startled to hear him say it. There was no turning back now.

I went and just read the notes right from my pad. “I was on a date last night and the girl asked me what could I bring to the table. I told her cups.” And the audience actually laughed. It stunned me and sent vibrations through my body. They laughed at pretty much everything. I got off stage and, still tingling, decided that I would come back next week and try the next page in my notebook.

Me performing at GOLD Comedy’s one day workshop at The Experiment Comedy Gallery, December 2017. (Photos, courtesy the author, by Jenni Walkowiak)

And that’s how I lived for a while, week to week, waiting for every open mic so I could try more jokes. Week to week, joke to joke, I just kept thinking, “I can do this better. I can make this better.”

It wasn’t like I suddenly had huge goals materialize or dreamed of being on TV. I just wanted to do my best every week and hang out with new people. I just wanted to show up. That’s what gave me a purpose. I just wanted to entertain my new friends. They wanted to hear what new thing I was thinking about. They wanted to see my jokes work out. They drove me. The other bad things were still bad things. I still had a shitty job and an ex who’d stolen everything. But I couldn’t kill myself. People were expecting to see me.

That’s how low expectations got me far. I never had any expectation of success. I never even envisioned what “success” might be. I did the work. I showed up.

In 2012, I was going to be at best a miserable functioning alcoholic, and at worst, dead. Today, I live in New York City. I have been on NPR. I have been in the New York Comedy Festival. I’ve traveled the country telling jokes.

As a kid, I often got put out of class often for speaking out of turn, being loud, and generally just saying stuff. I remember when my teacher told my mom, “It’s not that Elsa is right or wrong, good or bad. She’s just loud and she talks over me.” Looking back, I see that if I’d had an outlet to be loud or silly, or just another way to communicate, I might not have grown up so frustrated with my life and my world. I just needed to talk.

I didn’t quite realize that until I began to teach teen girls stand-up comedy. In one group of girls there was a Muslim teenager who wore a hijab. She wrote a joke about hiding razor blades inside it so she could cut the boys who would try to grab it and pull it off. When she tried that joke, an intern shot me a look that said, “Can she say that? Do we pull that back?” I thought about it for a second. Then I shook my head. It was what she wanted to say and how she wanted to deal with the world. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s what is in her heart. She needs to let this emotion, this feeling, out. Who knows how the joke will land, or if she’ll ever tell it more than once, but for me in that moment, it felt really important to let her have it.

Comedy saved my life. I owe everything to the mic. So I reach my hand back and hope to save another young girl.

If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 or the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. You can also text HOME to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line, for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling. International helplines can be found at the International Association for Suicide Prevention.