Fear of failure keeps me from trying lots of things. Maybe it is because I have tried something new and failed miserably in front of people and it was humiliating. One New Year’s Eve circa 2006, I was with my husband, Rob and a group of his friends bringing in the new year at a bar. Beers were flowing and the karaoke was in full swing. The people who signed up to sing had taken it pretty seriously and had decent voices. I thought, why not be fun and sing an oldie that I know and love? So, I got up and “sang” Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night” in front of everyone. Did I mention that I had no vision in my left eye? I had poked myself in my eye the day before and had eye drops to help it heal. The song starts and it was then that I realized that Eddie Rabbit has a very low voice…a pitch I cannot match. Something that eluded me all the times I sang my heart out to the 45 record in my family room when I was 10 years old. As I covered my left eye with my hand and strained to see the words on the monitor, I knew I was failing. I looked to my husband for help. My good eye met his gaze and then he looked away — telling me that I was on my own for this one, no help was on the way. I floundered. I finished. I was embarrassed. Happy New Year.
I have always thought that trying stand-up comedy would be fun, but call it the Eddie Rabbit Effect, I am too afraid to fail. I have watched plenty of stand-up acts that were serviceable — but didn’t knock my socks off. The audience laughed, no one threw anything and no mean people yelled horrible things at them. These so-so stand-ups had the confidence to get up there and be vulnerable. But the fear that no one would laugh holds me back. But then it dawned on me, I have been doing stand-up comedy for the past four years and I have lived to tell the tale. I performed six sets a day as a high school substitute teacher.
As a sub, it is a pleasant ego boost to see teens react with a loud whispered, “YES!” or a full-throated, “Let’s go!” when they see you instead of their usual teacher as they enter the classroom. They love you before you’ve even opened your mouth because of who you are not. If comedians had that luxury, I guess it wouldn’t be so daunting to get up on stage and try.
When you do stand-up, you have the luxury of already knowing 99% of what you are going to say and when. Subbing on the other hand is a constant improv game. It’s like walking into each class and a student yelling, “Thank God you are here!” and on the fly having to decipher what is going on. While this keeps the day fresh, it is also exhausting.
Most people would never sign up to be a high school substitute teacher or attempt stand-up comedy, for the same reason: people are mean. Both are performed in front of a room of strangers, but one group elected to be there and is in the mood for laughs while the other group is just a bunch of uninterested, moody teens. The high school audience didn’t elect to come to the show — they were forced — so the laughs are definitely harder to come by. And the teens are not given a two-drink minimum — so most of them are extremely sober. A tough crowd, indeed.
The rules of a successful stand-up comic and a successful substitute teacher are basically the same.
Rule #1: Be confident
Whether it is on stage or in the classroom, you have to maintain control of the room. This is easily achieved when the audience trusts you know what you are doing. Any audience — especially teens — can smell fear. If you hesitate for one second, they will pounce. Pretending to have confidence is an important life skill for all career paths. I achieve this by speaking loudly and definitively — even if I have no clue what is going on. Teens and adults alike will fall for this. So, even though I’ve wanted to cry and throw the computer when I couldn’t get the movie to play, I never let them see me sweat.
Rule #2: Lead with your strongest material
I don’t feel like I need to tell you that the audience expects a stand-up comedian to be funny. But being funny and engaging is NOT listed as a requirement to be a substitute teacher. The only requirements to be a substitute teacher seem to be a pulse and the ability to take attendance. But I have found that saying funny things makes your day go much smoother. You only have a minute to make your impression. My favorite method to win the room was simple: Make it an us-against-them scenario. I am just the bearer of the bad news of what we are doing in class. The conversation would go something like this:
KIDS: Where is Mr. Thompson? Is he at home sick or is he in the hospital?
ME: Are you asking because you have great concern for his health or because you want to gauge if I will be here all week? I don’t know where Mr. Thompson is — I was going to ask you the same thing. Maybe he needed a break from you all…maybe you made him sick? But, oh my gosh, you guys, we are going to have such a fun class today!
KIDS: Really? What are we doing!?
ME: I’m just kidding…we are going to do busywork. Mr. Thompson said you have to read chapter three and answer the questions at the end and turn it in before the bell rings.
KIDS: Ugh! No! It’s so stupid! He never even looks at this stuff.
ME: Ninety percent of real life is about doing pointless stuff. You have to learn to play the game, kids! Just get with a partner and get it over with. Once you turn it in, you can do whatever you need to do: cram for a test, finish another assignment, sleep. If you are quiet, I will never question what you are doing with your time.
Rule #3: Identify and befriend potential hecklers
In that first minute it is also necessary to determine who is the Alpha in the room — who is the class clown. Within the first few minutes, it was necessary to befriend this person — to point them out — to give them the attention they wanted — to let them know I know their role and have my eye on them. It is best to take the offensive. Talk to them first and be just unfiltered enough to alert them that you can and will put them in their place if push comes to shove. I usually ask this person to quiet the room down after the bell rings when no one is listening to me. The kids listen to them, and I have successfully befriended the class clown.
Rule #4: They will remember how you made them feel
Sometimes high school kids need a breather, a soft place to fall. They are exhausted from homework, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and general lack of sleep. I am there to encourage them and let them relax for one period of their day. All adults sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to them, but kids will listen when you say unexpected, funny things. When the bell rings, I like to say, “Well, I hope I don’t see you tomorrow…but I guess you never know! Hang in there, kids!” They walk out of the classroom with a glimmer of hope that Mr. Thompson will be out for at least one more day.
This is your encouragement to finally try that thing you are afraid to fail at. Realize you have probably done something just as scary — or scarier — as what you are afraid to do. You lived. You learned. You improved. I have successfully entertained high school kids with improvised material for hours. Should I be afraid to try stand-up comedy? Well, yes, I should be afraid, but that should not stop me from giving it a try. As long as I don’t try to sing an Eddie Rabbit song, I will be fine.