How I survived 8 minutes of stand-up comedy without a nervous breakdown

If you follow stand-up comedy, you’ve probably heard horror stories about famous comics bombing sets early in their careers. It’s as if catastrophic embarrassment is a rite of passage in order to earn the “funny” badge. Patton Oswalt was heckled and called a faggot. Omid Djalili fell off the stage. Jerry Seinfeld blanked and stood in silence for 30 seconds.

Given the endless list of first-time flops, coupled with the fact that cajoling strangers into laughter is painfully difficult, nobody in the right mind would voluntarily do stand-up comedy unless somebody lined their pockets. And yet, being the compulsive doer and hyper-ambitious person that I am, I took the plunge.

There was a big problem, though: I hadn’t given a solo speech since Communications 101 during my freshman year of college. Even then, I was shaky.

I’m a prototypical introvert: I prefer solitude over company; I enjoy talking, but not around crowds; I have ideas; but I express them better in writing than aloud. Frankly, I’m the opposite of the “entertainer” archetype: a gregarious, chatty, think-on-your-feet kind of person. But there was no turning back.

After embarking on a long string of nights that involved dozens of rewrites and copious amounts of caffeine, I had my set memorized. It was eight minutes worth of opportunities to forget lines and make a jackass of myself, but I figured that shame would be nothing compared to the regret of not trying.

During the hours leading up to the set, I knew there wasn’t anything I could do that would make a difference. I already put in the work, so I didn’t bother cramming. When I walked on stage, I zoned out (in a good way), like what happens to an athlete in the middle of a competition. I generated some laughter (presumably with me, not at me) which put me at ease — other than that, everything was a blur. More than anything, I was preoccupied with whatever my next line was.

Eight minutes later, I handed over the mic without getting heckled or falling off the stage. I was baffled as to how I managed to survive that set without a panic attack or even a slight slip-up that would’ve thrown my entire set off kilter. So, the next day I did some research as to why people willingly abandon their comfort zones, and more importantly, how they hold themselves together. That’s when I came across Free Trait Theory, originally proposed by Harvard psychologist Brian Little.

Free Trait Theory states that our personalities are sort of like rubber bands: they can stretch, permitting us to act “out of character,” but only to a certain extent before they break. We are born and culturally endowed with personality traits like introversion, but we’re capable of putting on different masks when we’re involved with projects that “we consider meaningful.”

Like telling jokes about the social tension of an Uber ride and the monotonous living hell of grocery store checkout lines.

“Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important…or anything they value highly,” says Little.

Now it made sense: I didn’t survive the stand-up set because I can memorize material or because I forced myself to become an extravert for eight minutes — I survived because I valued the creative challenge. Daring to write, memorize, and perform a comedy set was important enough that I was able to override my pre-set temperament and “stretch” my personality to its limits.

An important side note: while the performing aspect of comedy is geared towards extraverts, the art of the material itself is a task for those who keep to themselves. Comedy demands intense attention to social nuances that most people don’t pick up on, brutal self-criticism to admit your first drafts are shitty, and perfectionism to select the right word at the right time using the right tone.

Let’s set the record straight: I’m not ditching my career to go on tour as a comic. But if I do opt to stretch my personality again, I know it better be for something important — because I don’t want that metaphorical rubber band to snap.

Storyteller, provocateur, bibliophile. For book rec’s and history lessons 👉

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