Get up, stand-up 

When all you have is a comedy death pact and a mic

Nothing good has ever come out of a dare. Throughout the history of humankind, dares have led only to heartache and suffering, and occasionally to drinking most of—but never all of—a gallon of milk in under an hour. The very best result of a dare is the fulfillment of said dare with minimal permanent injuries. The worst outcomes of a dare include failure to fulfill the dare, embarrassing death and public speaking.

And yet there I was. At the Union Club on a Thursday night, way past my bedtime, drinking a vodka tonic like medicine and waiting for my turn on stage. It was Missoula Homegrown Comedy's monthly stand-up open mic night and all around me the tables were dotted with people—mostly young men—reviewing notes or talking shop. Farther from stage, the normal life of the bar pulsed, the crowd getting gradually louder over time as drinks flowed, like someone inching up a volume dial.

A month before, my husband and a few friends had attended this same open mic just to watch. As the night wore on and the amateur comics cycled on and off the stage, they entered into what they coined the Comedy Death Pact: in one month, they would all try their hand at stand-up. I was home with the kids, but the dare reached me via text message. I'm in, I said. It sounded better than sitting at home, and scary things often sound really fun when they are an entire month away.

But now things were really scary. It was the same feeling you have when you donate blood and are about to get stuck with a needle. Or when you walk up to the door of a party where you know you won't know anyone. It's more than nervousness. It's nervousness paired with the fact that this is all your fault. Your choices and actions got you exactly here. You idiot.

"Are you okay?" A friend across the table looked concerned.

I had been moaning involuntarily, I realized.

"Yeah," I said. "I just have to run to the bathroom." Again. For the third time. It felt like I had eaten a preschooler's discarded lunch for dinner. Which I had. Now my daughter's browned apple slices and half-eaten sunbutter sandwich squares were roiling in my stomach in a sea of hot-pink Disney-themed yogurt. Plus the vodka tonic.

Later, I'd talk to a few regulars who would tell me this was all perfectly normal. Homegrown Comedy's founder, John Howard, said his best advice to first-timers is to make it a learning experience—and to find a toilet that flushes. Local regular Kyle Kulseth described his nervousness settling at the top of his stomach before his first time—but also his elation after it was over. "I'm one of those people who would be in a band if I could play any instrument at all," he told me. "As bad as my first time was, I felt really good about it. I thought, I did a thing! Hey, I did a thing!"

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Of course, I got all of this advice after the fact. Going in, I had nothing but a long history of watching Eddie Izzard and Chris Rock DVDs and a wild imagination regarding worst-case scenarios. I spent the first 30 days of the month panicking, and it turns out that very little is funny when you are panicking.

The truth was this dare came at a time when my biggest creative outlet was putting mouse ears on my toddler's pancakes. I have two kids under the age of 3 and often feel like Mommy Sisyphus, doing laundry, washing sippy cup valves and picking up plastic molded dinosaurs only to watch my work become undone in minutes, for all of eternity. My first love, writing, is limited to the paid assignments I pick up as a freelancer. I don't have the time—or the free hands—to sit in front of my computer unless I am making a buck.

But, as I finally prepared my stand-up routine on the day of the Comedy Death Pact, I found that I did have the time to daydream. That morning, like a crazy person, I recited my ideas out loud as I pushed my stroller around the neighborhood. Out of necessity, I turned on my brain and started to observe my daily life and look for the humor. Watching The Little Mermaid turned from a form of under-sea torture into a joke-building exercise. I was using comedy muscles I hadn't flexed since college, when I had written some humor pieces for the student paper and ran with the improv troupe. And it was really, really fun.

Then the open mic started. I watched in horror as one person bombed and handed the mic back to the emcee like it was a bouquet of wilted flowers. I watched another person kill it, pacing the stage like a megachurch preacher. I watched most people do pretty okay. That's an honorable goal, I told myself. Besides, at that exact moment in time at least, I wasn't wearing a nursing bra. I was out, feeling nervous about something for the first time in a long time.

Then it was my turn. I got up on the stage and looked out into the crowd, but everything was warped by a fog of nervousness, haloed by my vodka tonic and drowned out by the stage lights.

You idiot, I said to myself.

Don't start moaning, I said to myself.

"Nothing good has ever come out of a dare," I said into the mic. And then I kept going. Before I had finished, I knew I would be back next month.

I had more than fulfilled my dare. I had done a thing.

Homegrown Comedy hosts the next open mic night at the Union Club Thu., Dec. 3, and every first Thursday of the month. Sign up at 9:30 PM, show at 10 PM. Free.

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