Allow me to describe a moment of distilled fear. Imagine Simmons Hall Auditorium: MIT students line the seats, crammed shoulder to shoulder. Audience members spill from plush red rows onto the stairs. Every pair of eyes is fixed on a lone figure onstage. A spotlight chains her in place. As initial applause dies down, she begins to speak into the microphone in her hand — and in that moment, more than anything in the world, she wants the audience to laugh.
For all you super sleuths out there, that lone figure was me. Two Thursdays ago, 14 other students and I each performed five minutes of stand-up comedy. I stood in front of 150 people and told them about winning “Most Improved Christian” at my racist church camp, about my haircut (which makes me a man and a lesbian, according to my mother), about the DNA polymergays that aid this hair-induced transformation, and more.
Adrenaline, anxiety, and excitement drowned out all memories of performing. Only sensory snippets remain: the numb, wobbly weakness I felt in my hands and legs while walking onstage, the cool weight of the microphone in my hand, the heat of the spotlight and balmy waves of laughter.
Before you ask, this show was not affiliated with Roadkill Buffet, nor was it improv. We were not inflicting some form of weirdly public psychological self-torture, although this last point is debatable. Rather, the performance was a final exam of sorts for the IAP Stand Up Comedy Class (SUCC). Every Tuesday in January, the 15 of us trooped to Building 5 and worked on our bits with professional comedian Mehran Khaghani.
Mehran is a whirlwind of a man — hilarious, real, and insane in the best way, he coaxed the comedy out of all of us. Despite working full time as a professional comedian in NYC (he performs at the Comedy Cellar, a watering hole for top comics), he still commuted to MIT and breathed life into our Tuesday nights. I left each class with flushed cheeks and a giddy buzz in my chest, feeling like I had just run a marathon. We learned more about each other and ourselves than I suspect we would have in months of friendship.
Mehran exceeded what I imagined a comedian would be. If people were gourmet chocolates, he would be a fiery blaze of chili pepper in your dark chocolate truffle. Every word he spoke was saturated with absurd, crude, side-splitting honesty. He made us squirm, then giggle; he forced us to be our most brazen selves, to keep up with the magnitude of his own unabashed personality.
For me, this all started with a Class of 2019 Facebook post. A SUCC alumna linked the application and encouraged us all to give it a go. I had no experience with comedy, but I had a habit of watching stand-up clips on YouTube over bowls of stress ice cream and unfinished psets. It was a dream of mine to perform, but now that opportunity stared me in the face, could I take it?
My thoughts were shrouded in uncertainty. Was I too awkward, too vanilla? I love puns to the point of near defenestration. Was it sill-y of me to think that I could make people laugh? I felt myself waver, so I did the only thing that could prevent me from chickening out. I messaged a friend — all caps, dramatic Facebook stickers, the whole nine yards — and forced him to apply, too.
At the time, as I drafted that Facebook message, I was terrified of failure. Stand-up comedy as a performance art is uniquely unforgiving, vulnerable, and selfish. To be a comedian, you must be narcissistic and confident and crazy enough to think that your stories should make people laugh, that your ranting deserves their undivided attention and love. If you are met with a wall of silence, there is no question about where the blame falls. Comedy is entirely personal. On stage, you unravel yourself for the audience; you let them see inside your Pandora’s box of idiosyncrasies and taboo thoughts. They hold a bow and arrow trained on you; you hope that they won’t shoot.
Looking back, though, I’m glad I transcended my stress ice cream and YouTube binges. SUCC was the best favor I could have done myself. It is too easy to procrastinate on dreams; they are safe from our own doubts and fears when they’re not real. On top of that, while attending MIT, it is all too easy to believe that the only ideas worth pursuing span the steps of the scientific method. Following the tail end of a half-baked fancy, however, opened the floodgates of my mental dam.
If I want to do stand-up comedy, all I have to do is go to open mics. If I want to sing, I’ll try out for a cappella. If I want to speak my mind, I’ll do it, even if it scares me. There is no further preparation, no fanfare, no good omen required. As Shia LaBoeuf once vehemently expressed via viral video, “Just do it.”
I am more comfortable in my own skin, now that I’ve informed 150 people of my “lesbian” hair and lived to tell the tale. I’ve realized that it is easy to saddle future me with my dreams, and it is easy to hope that she will be more qualified to do everything I am afraid to do now. That is not the case. If I want something, I need to SUCC it up, take the mic, and step into my spotlight.