Article by Dominic Lafrencesca | Photography by Kennedy Wilson | Owl Staff
One of the first times I ever went on stage to do comedy was at a dingy fish restaurant in Havre de Grace. I stood in front of seven elderly women, who wanted nothing but a peaceful meal, but were instead obstructed by a nervous, shivering, acne-ridden teenager rambling about Bed, Bath and Beyond.
It all started back in 2013. I was a senior at C. Milton Wright High School. When I started doing comedy, I didn’t tell anyone.
I had always been very interested in comedy ever since my childhood. I remember sneaking into my father’s bathroom when I was in elementary school to try and sneak a peek at his copy of George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? It was the first time I had seen the mother of all swear words in print. It fascinated me. I couldn’t understand how one four-letter word had the power to upset so many people.
When I was finishing up high school, I was getting a head start on college by taking HCC’s English 101 class. I remember distinctly the day we had to share our essays about honesty aloud for everybody to hear in class.
Person after person, paper after paper, inspiration poured throughout the room.
Some of the more noteworthy papers actually prompted standing ovations by some of the students. It was just about the most patriotic collection of people I have ever seen.
Then came my paper.
You see, I guess I just had some different feelings about honesty. I cleared my throat and began: “There’s one thing in this world that bothers me, and that is men who were fat, but are now less fat. Chris Christie, John Goodman, Jonah Hill, Drew Carey, just to name a few of these felons. You know it, I know it. These guys didn’t get fit, they just got less fat. If you’re going to be fat, be honest, and be properly fat! They were always fat, they were happy being fat, we liked them being fat; so be fat. It’s that simple. These less fat people are doing for dieting what Barry Manilow is doing for heavy industrial gas welding.”
Crickets. Their blank faces blinked up at me in silence.
It was as if I sucked all the air out of the room with one of those NASA vacuums built to pulverize moon rocks, but I liked it. I liked drawing the reaction I did out of my classmates. Paul Provenza said one of the most important things about being a stand-up comedian that I’ve heard, “You don’t always need to be funny. You just need to be interesting.” This taught me to relish my details and to keep things organic, but compact.
After class, my teacher asked if I could stay behind. I waited for everyone to leave and approached her. She said, “You know, you should really try reformulating some of the opinions you have into a more comfortable medium. You clearly have no problem speaking in front of people, and you’re very funny. You ever thought of trying stand-up comedy?”
I sort of shrugged the conversation off, thinking about the less-than-stellar grade I was going to get on my paper.
I went home and sat on my couch and watched some T.V. for about an hour until my fingers possessed the remote to pause it. I sat in silence and thought about what my professor had told me.
It hadn’t been the first time someone had told me that. In fact, it’s something I’ve heard on loop for about all of my life, but for some reason, the words actually meant something to me now. I looked at the clock, saw that I had about two hours before I had to go to work, and immediately began writing.
It was incredible. At first, I took a lot of the ideas I had in my honesty essay. This freedom to create a product that I could manipulate into any order and structure energized me. When I got home from work, I wrote into the next day and slept through school. I woke up the next day with my laptop screen glaring light in my face and a trail of dried saliva down my windbreaker. I peered up from my position and took a good look at where my night went: my first 15-minute bit.
It took me a couple days to memorize and polish it. I’d say it in front of my mirror three times when I’d wake up, three times after I got home from school, and three times before I went to bed. Not to mention I watched so, so much comedy, everything you could think of. I needed to understand how people laughed at jokes and why they laughed at them.
I learned the concept of word salad from George Carlin. During any given bit, I found that George Carlin could somehow find 63 ways of saying the same thing. Impressing the audience with a colorful vocabulary and understanding of synonyms can keep them on their feet before you even get to the first punchline.
This went back with the whole “interesting” philosophy. Self- depreciation is another tactic I liked to use, so I looked no further than the great comedians who took this route, including Richard Lewis, Zach Galifianakis and Rodney Dangerfield.
A great deal of being a comedian is having the ability to make fun of yourself and believe me, in the beginning, I had to do plenty of that.
To say I was thrown into rough beginnings is the understatement of the century. I’ve let it be known that the first time I went out to perform my stand-up, it was almost my last. I was at an inner-city Baltimore comedy club (that will remain unnamed).
I suffered 15-minutes of absolute silence. Frankly, halfway through, I was wishing the audience would just boo me off. It was alright, though. I held solace in the audience for letting me know that I was “not in the right neighborhood,” which was more than decent of them.
On the way back to my car, a homeless man outside of the venue ran up to and told me he that he saw my set. He proceeded to tell me that my “bad night is about to get so much worse.” Luckily, as the man reached in his pocket to grab his switchblade, the bouncer of the club was quick to disarm him.
It was a total disaster, but it didn’t get my hopes down at all. Some of the best comics had unbelievably rocky starts. At Lewis Black’s first gig, the stage manager threw a Dos Equis bottle right at his forehead from the wings of the stage. The impact knocked him out.
I went bar to bar across the Harford County area; anywhere that would let a 16-year-old go up and perform, I would go. These nights were very important for me. They were crucial to my development as a performer and I would honestly trade them for nothing. If you go out, and everyone treats you with smiles, you don’t learn anything.
I savored every moment the audience decided to give me their worst. I did this for about 6-months before I got word of an amateur night at Magooby’s Joke House in Timonium, held on every last Thursday of every month.
I knew I had to try to get in. It was a funny way of thinking of it, but this would be the first time I ever really performed stand-up for people who actually planned to laugh at jokes that night. There were a ton of local comics who wanted to get on the billing, so I knew I had to send in a solid audition tape. After four takes of filming my 15-minute honesty set, I chose the best one, sent it in, and waited anxiously for a reply.
I got a reply that night saying that they “loved it and wanted to have me on the first amateur night that I could make.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so happy, I almost lost sight of how huge it could be for me. If you screw up at the places that really matter, it can really ruin your momentum as a comic.
I replied back thanking them and telling them that I’d be prepared to perform at the amateur night at the end of the month. One problem, it was five days away.
I worked as long as I could, preparing like I did the first time. Three times when I wake up. Three times when I get home from school. Three times before I go to bed. I was practicing so much that at some point I stopped believing that my material was funny anymore.
After you hear the same thing over and over again, it tends to lose its magic. But, I had to remind myself that the audience would be hearing it for the first time to keep my head in the right place. It was Thursday night and it was prime time. I made sure not to psych myself out and arrived at Magooby’s about an hour before my set started.
After multiple puke stops, I found out I had five minutes till I had to go on. Every time before I go on, I do a mental exercise where I watch the audience from the wings and completely destroy them. I always remind myself that if they had the courage to do what I was doing, they’d be on the stage and I’d be enjoying a drink under the dim club lights. It’s crazy, but it’s this mental belittling that keeps me sane before shows.
Without even thinking, I heard my name and ran out and started speaking as quickly as I could. No need for any grand entrance. I’m not the pope, nor will I ever be. The words flowed seamlessly, and I can honestly say I completely forgot who I was just for a second:
“I love my mom. My mother is world-famous for being a fervent consumer of blatant horse s**t. You got something to sell? Find my mother and she’ll buy three. I don’t know if you remember the whole Onion Goggles campaign back in 2012, but let’s take a walk down memory lane. I’ll start off by saying my deepest hope is that the common majority had the sheer intelligence to tone out any sales jargon associated with the Onion Goggles rating.”
Then I added:
“It’s simple: eyewear to make the onion-chopping experience void of pain. Sound familiar? Sort of has a similar list of functions to another rudimentary invention: regular goggles. We currently own multiple pairs of Onion Goggles. We keep them next to our collection of venetian-blind sunglasses and vibrating ab belts.”
The laughter was uproarious. I had never felt more gratified in my entire life. I was so excited that I almost forgot what I was going to say next. After segueing to my bit about fewer fat people, which surprisingly hit as well, I moved on to my closer.
It focused mainly on restaurants, most notably the Cheesecake Factory. I vaguely remember a one-liner pointed out the exclusion of dollar signs in fancier restaurants, and how American common folk take it as an implication of culinary expertise (Ex: Filet Mignon – 26). But then, it was time to close.
“What is with all this unneeded high-and-mightiness? Why am I all of a sudden eating at Taco Bell with a chandelier above my head? Overcompensation at its finest. What happened to the Taco Bell I used to love? I used to relish the moments before entering Taco Bell, where I’d spend time to scan through the array of potential foreign objects I could find within the meal. It was a whole adventure: paranoia, self-hatred, nausea, dizzy spells, stomach cramps and just the measliest touch of diarrhea. Now what do I get: a clean restaurant, new furniture and expedient service? Frankly, it’s heartbreaking, but spending some time with you guys has helped me cope. My name is Dominic LaFrancesca. Have a great night.”
I did it.
I had done what I told myself I was going to do for the longest time. Doing comedy has taught me more about the world and myself than any workshop, class or meeting. I wouldn’t trade it for anything on this entire planet…except maybe a case for my Onion Goggles.