Interview with a Stand-Up Comedian
photo by Eric Watkins
Today I have something special. A writer friend of mine I met on Twitter a few years ago, Harley May, allowed me to interview her for this post.
I should preface this by saying that there was a specific moment when I realized how funny Harley is. It was some random Twitter chat between a number of writers, and someone posed a question about what they would do if they ever ran into Harley in her hometown.
Within seconds (literally), Harley had posted a list of 20 laugh-out-loud hilarious ideas. I don’t know how to find the list at this point–it’s been a while–but they were amazing. And she came up with the list on the spot, instantly. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced such an outpouring of quick wit like that. I didn’t know that Harley would turn that gift into something bigger, though.
About a year ago, I discovered that Harley had taken the stage at a local bar and had performed some stand-up comedy for the first time ever. As someone who gets really nervous even thinking about public speaking, I was awestruck by Harley’s courage.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Harley do her act for the first time. Not in person, unfortunately, but in a video. After I watched it, I asked Harley if I could interview her about the experience. This is the story of someone who actually did the thing that we all say we’re going to do but never do–and not just once, but dozens of times. I am extremely impressed with and inspired by Harley’s willingness to put herself out there in this way.
Here’s what we discussed:
- When did the idea of doing stand-up comedy first cross your mind? How did you decide it was something you wanted to try? In the months before I turned 29, which was just yesterday, I wondered what else I wanted to accomplish before leaving my 20’s. People seem to enjoy my humor on paper and as a lover of laughter and comedy, I thought I’d give it a shot.
- What happened the first time you tried it? How did it feel afterwards? It was amazing. I spent a good two months writing jokes, running them through my head, and practicing aloud. If anything, I probably over-prepared. Performing it all on stage sent a real thrill through me and I wanted to do it again, knowing I could be better.
- In total, how many times have you done stand up so far? Have you used the same jokes more than once, or do you write new material each time? The first time was March of 2012. From March to October, I only did it 5 times. Then I lost my job. Standup became a cathartic thing and threw myself into it. From October 2012 to April 2013, I’ve done it 2-4 times a month, so 20ish times in all? I’ve absolutely used the same jokes over and over. That’s what open mics are for – feeling jokes out. I try to do two new jokes and two old ones.
- photo by Crystal Harris
Are the other comedians supportive? Is there camaraderie, or are you all doing your own thing? A little bit of both. Most of them are in a hugely different stage of life than mine. Some became instant kindreds and have gone out of their way to be kind. Others are certainly nice enough, but we won’t be best friends. Several of these kids have been at it for 4-5 years and I still feel so new. Being on stage isn’t the most natural and comfortable thing for me, so there does seem to be a division, but that’s probably only something I created in my head. Here’s me (meh) and over there is all of them (yay!). They are certainly supportive in the sense that they all come out and will listen to the same people throw the same jokes out there week after week.
- What are a few things that you wish you could go back and tell yourself before you tried stand up for the first time? 1.) Drink more before you go on and 2.) Don’t ever ask Matt Lamb to watch your stuff.
- I’ve watched one of your stand-up videos, and some of your humor is somewhat personal about your family life. Do you have certain unwritten rules about what you can or can’t make jokes about? When it comes to WATCHING comedy, I’ve always enjoyed the more personal stories. So, I’ll say if it’s about my family and my life, it’s fair game. There were jokes I tried on stage and afterward, I thought, I am not at all comfortable doing that bit, it goes in the trash. Writing something down on paper, or thinking about it, is a lot different than having it come out of your mouth.
- What’s the next step for you? Is this something you’d like to continue to do? Yes and no. I won’t ever be a traveling comic or move to New York or LA. I’ll do it as long as it’s fun. Like any art, I have bad art days, feel like I suck and wonder why I’m doing this at all. It’s part of the “process” and other pretentious words like that. I’ve seen it happen with my regular fictional writing. I become disappointed and angry with myself when I don’t do well. Some of the comics around me are so polished and continue to accomplish great things. I’m thrilled for them, but it doesn’t take much for me to get depressed that I’m not where they are or sad that they don’t find me funny enough. There aren’t a lot of girl comics who do this and it makes me want to rise up and GET THERE. It can stops being fun if all I focus on is where I’m not. It’s weird. I want to live where I am.
- From the perspective of someone who really doesn’t enjoy public speaking, I’m in awe of your bravery. What would you say to others who have thought about making a private hobby or skill more public as you’ve done with stand-up? JUST TRY IT. Even if you shake the entire time you’re up there, doing that thing you typically do privately (telling jokes, furry fetish, fish slapping, whatever, I’M NOT HERE TO JUDGE) you will get through it and say, “Hey. Look what I just did.” At the end of my life, I’ll be able to look back and say, “Hey. I tried standup. I even made a few people laugh and didn’t pay them to do so.”
- Is there anything else you’d like to share? I want some cake.
Harley, thank you so much for sharing your story. I can’t wait to see what you do next. Especially if it involves cake.