Like many students upon graduating from college, I had big aspirations and dreams. In my particular case, my goal was to become an actress, and I was so certain that my name in bright lights was just around the corner. I was the stereotype of the young wide-eyed ingénue. Instead, I found myself sitting in corners of destitute rooms, amongst other actors, waiting to hear my name called for an audition, while clutching a copy of Backstage; the actor’s go-to guide for auditions. How I detested waiting hours upon hours, receiving competitive glares from other actors, only to find out that the part would go to one of my opponents! The worst was when the audition lines would form outside, in hypothermic weather. The holdup of the lines would sometimes be for 10 hours before I could get inside. By the time it was my turn, my lips were too numb to correctly speak my lines and I sounded like an extraterrestrial, which was not very helpful in acquiring a role. Every so often I would land an audition by appointment, where I did not have to wait with the rest of the acting cattle. Occasionally, I would even get a role; small parts in independent films and off-off Broadway plays.
My roles have ranged from a male truck driver, an injured tennis player and a nervous cashier about to get shot in the head, to a catty schoolgirl, a dominatrix, and a young homeless woman. The latter was a great challenge, especially due to my germophobia. When I was given my costume, which consisted of damp sweatpants with suspicious stains, and a smelly sweater with holes, I asked the wardrobe stylist where she found such convincing attire. “I don’t reveal my sources,” she replied. “Great, I’m wearing a dead man’s clothes,” I thought to myself. I wore a unitard underneath, so that my skin would not be contaminated by whatever filthy microorganisms inhabited the “costume.” The makeup artist placed dirt all over my face and hands, and I was asked to wear a grimy hat, at which point I was ready to faint. I wasn’t going to risk catching lice by wearing the suggested headcovering unworthy of its proper name, so I successfully convinced the director that it would be more fitting to the character if I simply messed up my hair and did not wear a hat.
When the time came to shoot my scene, I was given a cardboard box to sit in, which I’m sure was somebody’s stolen home—at least it smelled like it. I held my breath until the director would shout “Rolling!” and in between takes I would leap out of the box. At one point, I was asked to wait while the crew changed the shot, and a passerby threw some coins in my cup. That was the last straw, and at that very moment I decided that I needed to switch roles in life. After the shoot was over, I changed back into my clean clothes and took a cab to a spa uptown for an emergency sterilization, (also known in women’s circles as a mani-pedi), during which I pondered what I was going to do with myself. I’ve always loved to tell stories, primarily funny ones; why not give stand-up comedy a whirl?
My eureka moment had arrived as the manicurist applied a color named “Fed-Up.” The next night I went to Caroline’s On Broadway to watch Susie Essman’s comedy performance. I was so thrilled by the energy in the room, and knew that this was definitely the new path I would take. After the show, I stayed up until wee hours of the morning, jotting down whatever I thought was funny. I began to take a notebook with me everywhere I went, writing down any comical moments I witnessed; I felt like a comedy detective.
Once I had gathered enough material, I called the talent coordinator at Caroline’s to ask if they ever showcased new talent. “It depends, are you funny?” the talent coordinator asked. “That’s what I’ve been told” I responded. “Do you have a tape or a DVD so I can see your material?” I hadn’t thought of that. “No, sorry, not at the moment.” I was asked to go to Caroline’s for an audition instead. The very word “audition” sent a shiver down my spine, reminding me of the agonizing hours spent waiting to enter rooms with discriminating casting directors and their highly arched brows.
I arrived at the club, where Andy, the talent coordinator met me. “Alright kiddo, let’s see what you’ve got.” It was like a scene from a movie, except it was so much better than a movie; there was no waiting around on a set for infinite instants. I was given a few notes and the ultimate seal of approval: a performance date. I exited the club already feeling like a comedian. For my first show, I had beginner’s luck, a roaring audience and resounding applause. I was told by a comedian backstage not to get used to such a feeling because with comedy, it’s hit or miss, and sometimes beyond your control. I quickly learned that the comedy world is very democratic and upfront; you have ten seconds to win over your audience, and if they’re not laughing from the get-go, chances are you’ve lost them.
Unlike the acting world, in comedy you are representing yourself and not a part; which is terrifying but equally as exciting. I love to have control over my material, and I love to represent myself as a character, rather than playing odd and random parts that are not befitting of me. The anticipation before a show, especially the final moments backstage with other comedians, gives me the greatest adrenaline rush. Before my turn to take the microphone, Andy often says: “Kill ’em kiddo!” and being on stage, confronted by an audience, without a fourth wall, feels exactly like a duel, where my only shot at survival is to knock them dead with my humor. There are times when I fall victim to the audience, but when I return backstage, I often get a pep talk from other comedians who have dominated and surrendered to audiences for many more years than I have.
I receive a huge sense of fulfillment when I thrive at making people laugh, and one of the most gratifying aspects of stand-up comedy is to be able to tell my stories, in my personal style and to discover that even when the going gets tough, there is a glimmering group of aficionados who look forward to my turn in the comedy arena.
- By Flavia Masson
Flavia Masson is a writer, comedienne and TV personality based in New York City.
She has performed in clubs such as Caroline’s On Broadway, Gotham Comedy Club and Comix New York.