Funny Girl

Laughter's the best medicine? For aspiring stand-up comics, it's more like heroin.

I knew the only way to fix it would be to get onstage again. I couldn't change that night, but I could make a new crowd laugh. I felt like I'd written something down in ink and needed to scratch over it with a big, black marker. I couldn't make it disappear, but I could make it better.

The next time I had an opportunity to perform for a sizable crowd, I obsessed over it for weeks. I got on the list for one of the Addison Improv's Tuesday night open mike bringer shows. I needed to get eight people to commit to driving to Addison on a Tuesday night and paying $5 plus that dreaded two-item minimum to watch me perform.

I became the obnoxious friend who sends out daily e-mail updates about her exciting upcoming events. I nagged my family, assuaging their fears about venturing from Tarrant County. I created a MySpace event page and bulletined the hell out of it.

How do you get to Comedy Central? Practice, practice, practice, says Paul Varghese.
Brian Harkin
How do you get to Comedy Central? Practice, practice, practice, says Paul Varghese.

I practiced my set over and over again, talking to myself in the car and in the shower. I'd had the advantage of breaking up with my boyfriend the week before, an event that spawned two decent jokes, and had the even bigger advantage of getting back together with him the night before the show, so he was there with a video camera. I would have proof that my comedy career was either hopeless or promising.

As I was called to the stage, I looked out at the wonderful people who'd heeded my pleas to attend despite the fact that the Mavericks were, at that very second, being soundly whipped by the Golden State Warriors. But my folks were quickly lost in the crowd of almost 80 people. The biggest yet. I was proud of having that big, shiny "IMPROV" logo on the wall behind me. So proud that I started off with an opening line I hadn't practiced and didn't really know where it came from. "Go Mavs!" I said. "Not a fuckin' chance in hell." The room shook with laughter.

Laughter! At a mean Mavs joke in Dallas during the playoffs! Is this what a real audience felt like? I had to wait for the applause to die down after my first bit, about being profiled as a lesbian because of my short haircut, absolutely soared. Then, the new break-up jokes: my friend comforted me by giving me a tub of Blue Bell ice cream. I thanked her profusely for being so thoughtful, as I was just going to egg my ex's car, but this would likely break the windshield. Laughter! I strode on, ad-libbing a MySpace joke and concluding with a sad-sack bit about eating frozen dinners made for two all on my own. And the audience just kept laughing until I saw a flashlight in the back of the room—the universal comedy signal meaning "time's up." Applause. Joy. Shock.

I had finally experienced that thing that comics crave. It was unreal. As Arlington comic Mark Agee put it to me over beers at the Green Elephant late one night, "It's like I'm a magician. I'm creating laughter."

I don't think I killed, but I do know that applause breaks are good. The Improv gig renewed my faith. Maybe bringer audiences are just nice, and it was a fluke. But I hosted another bringer show at the Backdoor just last week, doing a set as well as introducing each comic coming to the stage, and did even better there. That same weekend, I got to do a real Friday stand-up show at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, where I made a whole $5. Somebody paid to see comics, and I walked out of the theater with a little bit of their money. Life lesson learned: I absolutely love taking people's money, and I'm making it a point to figure out how to do more of it.

While I spent my nights trying to tell jokes, I spent my days trying to learn how to write them. I asked nearly every comic I met how they wrote material. I was dismayed to find no magical formula for funny. My first jokes were more like long, winding musings, and they were a far cry from the brilliant ramblings of my all-time favorite comic, Eddie Izzard. I needed to learn how to do some serious joke telling.

I called on Paul Varghese, possibly the only comic who lives in Dallas and makes a living off telling jokes. The Richardson native is living the dream out of a one-bedroom apartment in far North Dallas. He's already been on Last Comic Standing, and this summer, he'll make his Comedy Central debut.

Varghese told me about the first time he went up at the Improv. He had no expectations, just friends who told him he was funny. He killed. Six years later, Varghese has never thought about quitting.

"I go up every chance I get," he says, showing up at every open mike in town as well as occasionally headlining at the Improv or opening for big-name touring comics such as Dave Attell. For him, comedy is a seven-day-a-week job.

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