She Signed Herself Up To Do Stand-Up, Learning That Growth Happens Outside Her Comfort Zone

"The goal had never been about winning, just finishing."

Before the debut of America's Got Talent, Ed McMahon hosted Star Search, seeking talent from across the country. Our popular hometown radio station decided to hold a local contest offering the winner a trip to Hollywood to audition for the real show.

"We need singers," the disc jockey said. "We want to hear from our local musicians, dancers, and magicians." It sounded like a lot of fun, but of course, I had none of those talents. "And I know we have some comedians," he added.

I'll never know why, but I couldn't get that idea out of my head. Comedians. Granted, I had a lot of funny stories, and certainly our adventures throughout my husband's Navy career provided plenty of bizarre tales. But stand up and do a monologue? What made me think I could do that?

Nevertheless, my mind kept replaying those words despite the memories conjured up of grade school, where I'd been petrified of reading aloud in class. Somehow, a week later, the phone jumped right into my hand, and before I could regain control, my fingers had punched in the radio station's number.

A voice sounding exactly like mine said, "I want to sign up for the Star Search competition."

"Great! And what is your talent?" asked the cheery male voice.

The still functioning part of my brain posed the same question. Yes, what exactly is my talent?

I don't have a talent, came the response from the working part of my brain. But I heard that other Barbara Bennett say, "I'm going to do stand-up."

"Wonderful! We haven't had anybody sign up to do comedy yet." The man collected the necessary information and went over the rules with me. When he gave me a choice of several show dates. I took the last one offered, hoping I'd be able to coax the crazy side of myself off the ledge of lunacy.

I spent every minute of my lunch hour for the next few weeks trying to write material for a two-minute performance. My rogue brain cells had at least created a somewhat feasible story line focused on having recently lost over sixty pounds. My naysaying brain cells continued to ask how I was going to do this without throwing up or passing out. But I kept going.

After writing out the basic idea of the routine, it was time to practice. Professional humor requires perfect timing. Fortunately, we owned a video camera, and my office was only two miles from the house. Every day, I sped home to record myself doing the material, play it back while sipping soup, then recorded again to adjust that all-important timing. But the idea was to take it out of the solitude of my living room and onto a stage as a monologue—mono meaning one. Solo. All by myself. Musicians and singers typically perform with others, or at least musical accompaniment. Bands and dancers perform in groups. Even a magician has a rabbit or two! But a comedian is alone. Center stage. All eyes on him or, in this case, her.

A week before the competition began, the radio station began announcing who would be performing at the first show. The second week, the contestant list included a comedian.

"We have to go," I told my husband Bob.

It might have been better if we hadn't. The guy simply wasn't funny, and the audience was brutal. They booed and even threw ice cubes at him. Making it worse, he kept going—actually reading the one-liners from a sheet of paper. The host of the show tried to gently end the act.

"I'm supposed to have two full minutes," Mr. Humorless insisted indignantly, apparently oblivious to the jeers of the crowd. I would have been more embarrassed for the guy, but he was just so very bad.

"Well, that was cruel," I said to Bob as we headed to the car after the show. "And scary."

"Hon, you could tell a knock-knock joke and be funnier than that guy. Don't worry. You'll do great."

The night of my debut, I felt pretty confident. It probably helped that the event took place in a bar. Hopefully by show time, major critics would be softened by Happy Hour.

I watched as the first violinist from the Philharmonic Orchestra played, followed by an opera singer who'd performed on Broadway. Next up came the lead singer of a popular local band. That's when the overwhelming doubt and paralysis hit.

Are you crazy? I yelled at myself. You don't have to do this, I assured myself. True enough. And yet I needed to. While I hadn't figured out why, I'd chosen to volunteer and needed to go through with it.

I was next. Picturing my big fan base of family and friends waiting out there, I released my death grip on the stair railing. I was still hidden by the curtain, but had made it up the steps onto the stage and walked shakily toward the emcee.

"How are you tonight, Barbara?" The host greeted me with the confidence of a pro.

"Fine, thank you," I lied.

"So how long have you been doing stand-up?" he asked.

My mind shifted into comedic mode. I paused, ticked off a few fingers and said, "Counting tonight," with a thoughtful, timely pause, "about eight seconds." The laughter blew away my fear, proving I could do this.

The goal had never been about winning, just finishing. I did that, taking fifth place to boot! All without a stumble, to startling applause, and cheers sufficient to fully banish my fear of public speaking. A few years later, I began a career I loved, providing educational seminars to large groups about avoiding scams—quite an ironic result of having scammed myself, then an audience, into thinking I was a "real" comedian!

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone: 101 Stories about Trying New Things, Overcoming Fears, and Broadening Your World © 2017 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.

Cover image via Ekaphon maneecho I Shutterstock


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