That time I performed improv to a sellout crowd on Second City's main stage and didn't die

This is part of ChicagoNow’s monthly “Blogapalooz-Hour” writing exercise in which the CN blogging community is given a topic and then conceives, writes and publishes a post in exactly one hour. This month’s topic: “Write about something you know now that you wish you knew then”

For the first time, I asked one of the bloggers to give me a topic so I could join in as well.

Here is the topic given to me: “Write about a time when you did something that was out of your comfort zone.”

I’ve jumped out of an airplane, written an 80,000-word book in four months, talked about sports on live TV more than a few times and taught blogging and social media classes to large groups of people who I really didn’t want to disappoint.

Yes, each of those things made me a little nervous. No, none of them compared to performing comedy in front of 400 people on the Second City main stage.

I use the term “comedy” loosely. But one day, many years ago, I really did perform to a sellout crowd on the Second City main stage. (Full disclosure: I also just used the term “sellout” loosely. Nobody actually paid to see me perform.)

I’m not an introvert but until I started taking improv classes at the now-defunct Players Workshop in 1991 I hadn’t been on a stage since elementary school when I sang the Beatles song “8 Days of the Week” with two other poor souls. Not performing was a very wise and conscious choice on my part, nobody likes to see anyone looking uncomfortable on stage, and when it comes to performing I’m a stiff.

Not trying to be self-deprecating here, the idea of being on stage and doing anything except grabbing a diploma horrifies me and it’s quite visible. I’m getting anxious just thinking about it and I still cannot imagine how people do this for a living.

When I started at Players Workshop I knew a “grad show” was part of the deal, but it was over a year down the road and I figured I’d quit well before it ever came to that. The classes started and I discovered being on stage is scary whether a lot of people are watching you or it’s just the other members of your class.

Let me emphasize it was scary for me. Everyone else seemed quite comfortable. And funny. And not hoping the fire alarm went off so they didn’t have to go on stage.

I remember one moment when I was doing some improv game and a couple of the really quick wits on stage with me were making the class laugh. I was standing there sweating and saying nothing, and then started to focus on the people watching. I finally heard somebody whisper, “Jimmy isn’t saying anything.”

Oh, I still cringe at that moment.

The big question isn’t whether I stuck with it, because I already told you I did, but why I stuck with it. And the answer is I probably started to believe I was a little better than I was, just performing on a regular basis gave me the confidence that I could do this without actually dying on stage, literally or figuratively.

It also really helped that I fell in with a really nice group of talented people who were largely together throughout our 14-month period of progressing through the six classes Players Workshop required before it was possible to perform at Second City.

The final class was spent writing and preparing the show, which was a combination of set pieces and improv games. Our show took place on a Sunday morning in March, 1993, and an assortment of family and friends filled the same space where Belushi, Murray, Myers and many other of my comedy heroes had performed.

I was nervous beyond words, but until the moment that the lights went up I didn’t know what nerves meant. It was an out of body experience only I was very much in my body, and the only way I can describe it is that I felt like I was under water. There was just no stopping the lights from coming up.

Which they did. And to my everlasting delight, I didn’t drown.

Filed under: Arts&Culture

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