I'm pretty confident as a TV anchor, but I'm sweating bullets as a standup comic
Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco talks to audiences for a living. So why is telling jokes so terrifying?
It's Tuesday night at Ottawa's Absolute Comedy club. I'm huddled by the pool table in the back, flanked by about a dozen of the night's standup acts. In the dim blue light, I see awkward smiles from tonight's entertainment. Most are first-time comedians, half are public servants, all are extremely nervous.
I'm not a civil servant. I'm a TV anchor. I'm used to performing in front of people. But my legs are trembling and my stomach is churning. A few weeks ago, I made a pact. Now it's time to fulfil my end of the deal.
An open casting call
It all started when I saw this advertisement pop up on my Facebook feed. Pierre Brault, a local comedian, promised to give anyone a shot at doing a standup set, onstage, in front of a live comedy club audience. My journalistic instincts kicked in. I knew there would be a story. I didn't know how personal it would become.
But then I met Rae-Ann Kublick and Ron Porteous. Ron is a tech guy for Canada Post. Rae-Ann is an analyst for the government. They're both at a crossroads.
Ron is a self-professed funny man. But at 55, he's starting to wonder if he's been fooling himself.
"I've always been a joker... the guy with the quick quips and the one-liners, making people laugh at business meetings," Ron tells me. "That to me is more deep down who I am. I was thinking, if I suck at this, then that 40 odd years of thinking that I'm funny could be, like, just a big lie."
Rae-Ann is on a much deeper and more personal quest. She's gone through a lot these past few years: workplace issues, trauma, burnout.
"There was a long period of just being shut down," she says.
She hasn't known how to talk about this, even with her closest friends. It's traumatic. It's serious. It's hard to talk about. But now she thinks joking about it might be a novel approach to explain what she's been going through.
"Like, tell that story and tell it in a way that people can receive it," she says. "I think humour is a way to do that."
What they're about to do will take so much courage. I make them a deal: let me tell your story, and during that final performance, I'll go up on stage and do a comedy routine as well. Sink or swim, we're in it together. It's a prospect that will soon become terrifying.
I talk to an audience as a job. Every weeknight, I prepare a broadcast with our city's late-breaking stories of crime, corruption, and occasionally, kindness. At work, I wear a suit. I wear studio makeup. I project my voice to be heard over the images on screen.
It's me, but it's a curated version of me. I've never had to go up on stage as myself.
Putting it all out there
I've always been told I'm "funny." I realize now what people mean is I have a funny personality — that's a far cry from being a standup comedian, as the three of us are about to find out.
"Every once in a while you throw something out that will grab people and make them really laugh," says Ron. "But I left after that first time ... feeling very vulnerable."
There's something really odd about staring at an audience of people who are expecting you to give them an involuntary emotional reaction. When the laughter isn't there, it's distressing. You feel naked. And there's a spotlight.
Pierre tells us to use our own life experiences to guide our sets. Build it into a setup and a punchline and knock down the crowd like dominoes. But all I've got are lame jokes about peanuts getting "a-salted."
Dark mic of the soul
Professional comedy is so much more difficult than I had ever stopped to think about. It's ridiculous, absurd, unexpected. It's polished wit. The trick is, the professionals make it look unrehearsed.
I've been staying up until 4 a.m. writing and throwing out jokes by the page.
The three of us are learning a little about comedy, and a lot about ourselves.
"I sent my jokes to my friend," Rae-Ann tells me, "and his response was, 'Are you OK?' I'm like, yes! None of that was funny? And he's like, 'Not really.'"
I've been staying up until 4 a.m. writing and throwing out jokes by the page. I'm analyzing comics. Every word is crucial. Every pause has purpose. Every setup has a punchline. But I'm still missing that key element: the joke.
Performance day comes and I'm terrified. I have no set written. I've barely slept when I wake up to a skunk spraying my home.
I find out coyote urine is the thing that will scare the critter away. So I'm making the rounds of the wildlife departments at Canadian Tire looking for coyote urine.
Funny because it's true?
Rae-Ann has taught me to find the humour in the absurd. She's basing her entire set on that notion. If she can do it, maybe I can too. My sleep-deprived search for coyote urine is so ridiculous, it's absurd — and it might just be funny, too.
I workshop jokes in between commercial breaks during the supper hour newscast. No one is laughing with me. I'm pretty sure they're laughing at me, and not in the way I want. In two hours I'll be on stage, and I haven't been able to make anyone laugh all day.
I'm looking so anxious, my manager pulls me aside. She's worried about how anxious I look. She wants me to know I don't have to do this.
But a deal's a deal. Sink or swim, we're in this together.
With an hour to go, I scribble a handful of jokes onto a piece of paper in the comedy club kitchen. Waiters are walking by me. I'm practising my performance in a closet space.
And then it happens.
The moment of truth
"Ladies and Gentlemen, our next guest…"
I'm walking up on stage and I feel naked. I'm sweating. I'm breathing fast. The teleprompter, the makeup, the suit and tie, that's all gone. I've been stripped down to nothing but my personality. And I'm starting to wonder if people are going to like what they see.
"So, I'm really tired. I spent the morning looking for coyote piss," I begin.
There's mild laughter.
"No, this is true, do you guys know how hard it is to find coyote piss?"
I've set up the joke. There's now the expectation of a punchline and laughter. The spotlight is disconcerting, but I point to a random person in the crowd.
"That guy does. I bet you have some right next to the scented candles under your bed."
And there it is. The laugher. It's not much, but it's enough to keep me going.
As I collect the little bit of laughter that I can, I think, "They like me! They've seen the guy behind the suit and tie, and they want to hear more." All of a sudden, that nervous energy starts to dissipate, and as I walk off stage, I feel a mad rush of adrenaline.
Rae-Ann taught me sometimes you have to laugh at how bad things seem to be. Ron taught me there's a lot to be gained from putting it all on the line.
And comedy taught me not to be so scared to present my authentic self to the world, just a little more often than I do.
To listen to Omar's documentary "Stand-Up Bureaucrats," click on the Listen link at the top of the page.
About the producer
Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco loves to chase the people behind the stories. His pursuit of documentary storytelling has taken him across Canada and to remote areas in Africa. In his off time, you'll find him backpacking around the globe in pursuit of his other passion — paragliding. You can reach Omar at firstname.lastname@example.org. Instagram: @dabaghipacheco.
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.