How To Get Through Your First Stand Up Routine

I’m not kidding, you guys. I’m being super serious. I am going to attempt a 100% bonafide how-to-guide.

Please keep in mind, this how-to-guide is being constructed by someone who has performed stand up twice. Two years apart.

I performed in Listen To Your Mother the year prior to my first time performing stand up.

Just real quick, my brain is an asshole, it’s saying “you really want to keep using the word “performer”? That sounds reasonable to you? You think you are a performer, because you spoke in front of a group of people who want you to succeed. Oh, and you also paid to attend. So, there’s that.” My brain is such a goddamn dick some times. 

Anyway, I read from a paper at Listen To Your Mother. Not reading from a paper is exceedingly different than reading from a paper.

But I really digress.

There will be a forward and then the guide to getting through your first stand up performance will follow.

Here is the forward:

Do I even want to be a performer?

I have been thinking about this all day.  Because sometimes I forget dreams I had. I honestly don’t think I considered performing as something I am interested in. And that is very nearly true.

I remember writing, directing, and acting in a play for the Campfire Girls when I was 10 years old. The play was called A Family Commotion . I remember there was something about lost car keys in it, but that is about it. I remember shining in that moment. I adored it.

As it turns out, I really do love to perform. I can look at that first stand up performance two years ago and I can pick it apart pretty fucking hard. I mean, there were some goddamn flaws there. On the other hand, I can look at that first performance and feel good. That was a solid first attempt.

Last night, I performed stand up a second time.

I will get to that in a minute, I’m veering off for a moment, but it’s important.

You guys, I have literally thought of nothing else the entire day. Nothing. I am so keyed up that my anxiety is through the roof. I don’t process strong emotions well. Usually, the situation is Michelle Poston Combssuch that it’s not hard to dull the feelings up a bit.

This isn’t always the case. It is almost always the case. But not always.

I felt terror. Abject terror. I thought I was going to cry and my makeup would run off and I’d be blotchy and my voice would be nasally. I forgot all the words. Blanks. Then I realized it didn’t matter if I cried or not, because I was sweating hard enough that my makeup would melt off.

There was no question if I would perform.

I was also at least 80% sure I’d be okay. I knew I’d be at least okay because I did a good job that first time. No way it would be worse. I mean, unless I peed on stage. Or vomited. That would have been worse.

My brain, who is usually an asshole, said “Yeah, I can’t argue. that first performance wasn’t horrible and it is highly unlikely you will suddenly become incontinent. The jury is out on the vomiting.”

Do you know how rare it is that my worst internal critic says “You absolutely did not suck”? Between that and the high of performing, I am literally stuck in this weird state that is not entirely comfortable. I mean, I’m not sorry at all, but still. A little anxious.

If by a little, we agree I mean a lot. 

Anyway, I’ve thought of nothing else. Poor Randy has had to listen to me tell the same story, from every angle, multiple times. Some of the times were in different voices. He is a saint.

I stood on my deck this afternoon and could feel all my bones and joints because everything ached. I could hear the old lady next door coughing and sitting on her deck. I congratulated myself from not engaging in conversation with her. She’s old and crotchety. The only other time I spoke with her, she told me about her dog who recently passed and I think she might have cried a little. Maybe. We were pretty far apart.

If I had opened my mouth, there is no way I could have prevented myself from saying “Hey, guess what I did last night? I did stand up and it went great”.

So, super proud of myself that I managed to not be a needy, babbling idiot.

There might be a little of my inner critic in that last sentence. Or it is possible that I’m a needy babbling idiot. It is not necessary to weigh in on this, I will figure it out. Either way, I didn’t do it. So, yay!

Okay, sorry, back to performing a second time.

The second time was a totally different buzz. Way more nervous the second time. I was nervous the first time, but I remember I was also pumped. I was mostly just nervous last night. And convinced I’d forgotten the routine.

Turns out I didn’t need to worry.

I mean, I haven’t seen the video yet, but I feel like I did okay. I got a lot of sincere, positive feedback from people who know their shit. I am trying to think of a way to describe how it feels to process this. I’m thrilled to have done the stand up, but it is a lot. It’s like getting a paper cut while eating a Dairy Queen Buster Bar. Except there is a microphone and a lot of people and flop sweat.

I was told I would be fifth in line, but after the third person, the MC, Wendy Liebman, told me I was next. I wasn’t completely finished freaking out, so I said, “I thought I was fifth?”

Holy shit, you guys, Wendy Liebman is amazing. She is genuine and supportive and funny as fuck. 

Wendy offered to put someone before me, but I decided to just go. If I really forgot the whole thing, then I might as well find that out sooner rather than later.

I can give you snippets of what happened on stage because those 3 minutes and 20ish seconds are a blur.

My fabulous purple boots were killing my feet. I never where heels any more. The lights weren’t dimmed which freaked me out. I remembered them being dimmed. I mean, it was a banquet hall, it’s not like it was lit up like a prison cafeteria or anything. I guess.

Even with the lights up, I never focused on any faces, not even Randy’s. I knew his general direction, but my brain temporarily lost the ability to recognize faces. I am not trying be funny here, this is actually true.

I heard the slightest tremor in my voice, but I think that worked itself out in the first 15 seconds or so. I don’t remember the words I spoke, but I must have either gone faster than I should have, or I dropped a few lines. I had this down to 4 minutes. When I was nearly at the end, I glanced at the time clock and still had 58 seconds left. I am not sure, completely, but I may have said either “shit” or “fuck” under my breath. We will have to wait on the instant replay for that.

I didn’t leave anything crucial out because I was aware enough to know I didn’t leave any holes. I think. Again, we’re going to have to wait for the video.

I’m pretty sure I did okay.  I’m actually more than pretty sure and even if I watch the video and the reality is way different from my memory, I do not care. I loved participating in the show.

I think last time, my first stand up video came out the following July, so it will be a while before I can show it to you. I won’t share my notes, but I will say I addressed my first performance. I hate the weird ass fucking way I waved my arms about in the first performance. I hate it. It makes me feel cringy to see it. So I addressed that last night. I addressed it. I loved being able to make fun of how I looked in the first performance. I loved even more saying, in a fashion, that is who I am and I’m cool with it.

I had fun. People laughed.

I don’t know if I want to keep performing or not. I won’t even consider that today. My brain is full.

Sort of dreading tomorrow because coming down from this high will hit me like a ton of hangovers.

Monday is going to suck.

I’m counting on a little residual excitement to help my re-entry into the cubicle.

Okay, now that we got the forward out of the way, here is how to get through your first stand up:

Practice. A lot.

I worked on this four minutes for two years. Not on paper, just in my head. I changed the routine and refined it. Then, about two weeks before the show, I put it on paper and timed myself. I was close. I had to tweak it a little, but it took me about 7 seconds under four minutes every time.

What I learned: I probably waited too long to write the words down. We do things the way we do, but for me, I am positive it would have helped to write the routine down and time it sooner. That probably would have saved me a little of that anxiety.

Flop sweat never killed anyone.

I don’t think. I don’t really know. I guess it’s possible that flop sweat killed someone. All is well, even if you are marinating in sweat. No one can smell you all the way from the stage. Don’t worry about being sweaty. There is enough to worry about before you get on stage, like considering the possibility of tripping over your own fabulous boots and stage diving into table 3.

For all that is holy, I hope I couldn’t be smelled from the stage. I do sort of feel sorry for all the people who hugged me after the show, that could not have been pleasant. I smelled like a water buffalo.

Fucking do it. Just do it.

It’s not easy to get on a stage and risk acting in a way that, instead of absurdly funny, is just absurd.

Personally, I find the terror gets worse, not better. Please keep in mind, this is just me. We’re all different and I am emotionally immature, so, grain of salt.

But if you want to try stand up, then fucking do it. There are places, find them. Or perform for your friends. Or your cats. In fact, start with your cats. They’ll hate your stand up and it will help thicken your skin.

It doesn’t matter if you fuck up.

You know what is better than never trying, even once, something you want to do? Everything.

If stand up isn’t your thing, then it would be ridiculous to put yourself through getting on a stage when you are scared enough that you can feel nerve endings in your hair.

But if you want to try comedy, then do it. You read what I just wrote. I assume. I shouldn’t assume. So, if you just read what I wrote, then you know the process wasn’t easy for me, but it was also a goddamn thrill. I will always love this no matter what I end up doing.

For me, what it feels like is a lot of work, some of it not pleasant, for an intense burst of pleasure that makes it worth while. Reminds me of something.

We don’t have to confine this to stand up.

What ever it is you want to do, then do it. Or at least start to think about working toward a goal.

Think back and see if you can remember something you felt passionate about a long time ago. Maybe the passion isn’t gone. Maybe it is. Either way, it’s worth finding out.

None of us are getting out alive. We might as well have some fun along the way. Even if it’s scary. I think if it’s not at least a little scary, then it’s not that great anyway. But again, that is just me.

You can take baby steps. At least considering forward motion would be a good start.

This is how I believe you get through your first stand up routine.

You just do it.

All the other stuff is just noise.


Photo courtesy of Elaine Ambrose.


Add your comments below. Profanity is encouraged, but not required. ;)
  1. Excellent description of the seductive, terrifying, and exhilarating reality of performing live comedy on stage. This won’t be your last routine. And congratulations for whipping out a climatic blog post so quickly. I’m still in the foreplay stage.

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you! This is mostly the only thing I did all day yesterday. I was too tired to even watch TV. I’m still tired. And I’m in my cubicle. Not a good combo.

  2. Lisa K says:

    *standing and cheering*
    Your brain is mush!!
    You did it! You wrung every last bit of effort, smile, courage and ‘get the fuck outta my way’ out of that thinking muscle as I have ever seen 🙂
    I can tell your brain is mush because you type just like I sound when I have given my all and survived – The words are there, the structure is there and the emotion is joyous relief <3
    I can hardly wait to see the finished product… wish we could see the 'Wendy Pep Talk.' The combination of expressions that flashed across your face HAD to have made her step back before she knew she just had to smile real big and give you that confident 'you can do this' look of support <3
    Ride the Mush Brain train as long as you can… it makes the flashbacks real and you can feel and hear the applause as often as you let yourself slide back into that moment.
    Once mush brain is gone, then it's just a really good memory 😉 and you are back in real time, planning your next conference talk and dreading the stage.
    As much as I hate the process of achieving Mush Brain, I LOVE the soft edges of reality that go with it 🙂
    I am so happy for you!! Great job <3

  3. curvyroads says:

    Congratulations! I cannot wait for the video, and guide is hilarious, and true. Not that I have ever done stand up…

  4. First off—your first performance was really good! You have a great presence, nice flow & yeppers you are funny

    I think once you have a dream of performing it never really goes away. You might tailor it to your life, which can sometimes be an odd thing thing to do (my imagination runs rampant because I’m not blasted on tv or in theatre. I need to perform somewhere so it’s in my head).

    I’m really glad you’ve done stand up again and if you want for that 3rd, 4th etc….then I hope it doesn’t take two years. You do have a gift and I’m glad you are using it. Hopefully you’ll make us smile and laugh and think in as many mediums as possible

  5. Jenn says:

    You were awesome. And brave. And sitting at the table in front of the mike, there was no odor of water buffalo anywhere, so you’re good.

  6. That’s really cool. I’ve never done stand-up (unless you count my grandfather’s funeral), but I speak publicly enough to be able to imagine how it feels. After I get the first reaction out of a group, I’m generally okay. I check a couple random faces to measure how I’m doing, and I just go.

    It’s a buzz.

    Congrats! Based on your comments and the reactions above from people who were there, it sounds like you should do it again!

  7. Haralee says:

    Congratulations! It takes a lot of chuspa to stand up in front of people and get them to laugh. Well done.

  8. Dana Starr says:

    You really were hilarious and very poised. Unfortunately, you did kinda smell like a water buffalo. No, I’m lying. You didn’t stink at all and your hair was flawless.

  9. Cindy H says:

    Loved reading this.
    Loved that you performed.
    Being terrified is part of the package! 🙂
    If you are even 1/8 as funny on stage as you are with the written word, then you succeeded in spades, and I’m sure you did!
    There really is nothing quite like the ‘high’ of performing! Don’t stop. xo

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you! I think I am going to try it out in ‘the wild’ at least one time. There are a few local places with open mic nights. I started working on the material on the car ride home after the show. haha.

  10. Fantastic! And your brain may be an asshole that won’t let you believe this but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with starting in front of an audience that wants you to succeed. Some of the best comics out there started in front of supportive audiences. That’s why they kept doing it. So that’s a little unsolicited advice even though I feel like a dipshit for offering it because the only standup I’ve ever done is in friends’ kitchens and living rooms and you fucking got in front of an audience and rocked.
    And your advice is so much better.

  11. Barbara says:

    I wasn’t there but, from reading your blog I can tell you are meant to do comedy. It’s a trait you’re either born with or not. You were born to make people laugh. That’s a gift. I represented comedians in the Pittsburgh area many years ago and it was a blast. My son did stand-up for years and now he’s got his own company emceeing charity auctions. He’s a born performer and you are, too!

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you so much!! And I am not going to lie. I am looking forward to the video coming out so I can badger you to watch it and tell me what you think. 🙂

  12. Fiona says:

    Your hair looks beautiful.
    Your brain is becoming less ashole-ish.
    You are great. We all love you.

  13. Doug in Oakland says:

    I remember a sort of queasy-feeling terror that would overtake me before I played music onstage, but as soon as I started playing, it would subside.
    It does take courage. I’ve done a lot of scary looking stuff on motorcycles, but the single most terrifying thing I’ve ever deliberately done was the first time I stepped up to a microphone and sang to people.
    I have confidence that you did well, and I am looking forward to seeing the video.
    And you’re right. It doesn’t matter if you fuck up. No performance ever goes exactly as planned, and the things you focus on when they don’t go the way you wanted them to go right past your audience, who are mostly focused on enjoying what you’re doing.
    So congratulations again, I knew you would do well.

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you! It was so much fun. A lot of pain, but completely worth it. I’m still recovering, though. I am so exhausted right now. I can’t wait to go to bed.

  14. Lou Clyde says:

    I witnessed it – both years – and you did great. (I could N*E*V*E*R do stand-up.) I loved how you clutched that mic like it was – well, never mind that. You were poised and at ease talking to a huge group of comedy writers. Sure, we paid to be there, but we were not paid to laugh! Can’t wait to see your next performance in 2020.

    • Michelle says:

      I am SO GLAD we got to meet!!! And thank you so much for your kind words. I was completely terrified Saturday night. I was WAAAAY less nervous the first time. I don’t know why I freaked out so bad. I literally could not remember a single word. But then I did. Haha.

  15. Liv says:

    And you were AMAZING.

  16. Wendy Liebman says:

    My heart is warm. My eyes are full.
    You are an angel.
    I loved watching you perform with grace and glee.
    Your voice was soft but strong. And you shared the essential funny you with friends and people who used to be strangers.
    I am so proud of and happy for you. And whatever follows, who knows. But you’ll always have Erma!
    To be continued.

  17. Spiked Lee says:

    xoxoxo <3 <3 <3
    you are the best, congratulations, I can't wait to see the video!

  18. Lynne says:

    You were funny! So glad I got to see you perform!! Keep making people laugh!!


    I am trying to send you a video stat. You were incredible. I adore you. Can I borrow Jesus?

  20. Chris Lines says:

    I really look forward to the video.

    I’ve given countless presentations, in the military, in sales, and in academia. Every single time I’ve had the same knotted feeling in my stomach as I used to get before a parachute jump. But once started, every time it’s been a high. [Pun inevitable!]

  21. Maria P says:

    So proud of you!!!!!
    And hey…even if you puke on stage you will be in the league of the Parkland kids, which is pretty good company, I would say!

  22. Cathy says:

    I heard from my best pal, Donna Cavanagh that you were amazing!! Sooooo wished I could have been there to see you. Can’t wait to see the video. You are extraordinary!

  23. Jim Hands says:

    I loved it, Michelle! Considering you were so…calm before the show. Energy successfully channeled! Got the bug? Please don’t wait two more years!

    • Michelle says:

      Holy hell, I thought I was going to die. I wasn’t even half that nervous the first time. My brain is such an asshole.

      I don’t think I will wait that long again. Little worried about people in the wild…but 40% of them are thinking about themselves, right?

  24. Lori Dawson says:

    You are very brave and awesome! I don’t know if I would have had the courage to get a in front of a crowd like that! Just checked out the video from last year, you’re very funny! Looking forward to seeing this year’s video!

  25. For all that I love to talk (seriously, it’s my favorite) I think all the words would fly out of my head if I was on stage with the lights and the pressure to be funny for people who paid to laugh. I’m hella impressed that you did this, and can’t wait to see your performance!

  26. Onlyme says:

    Proud of you! I could NEVER do what you have done! Three cheers!

  27. emelle says:

    I’m hella behind, but I’m catching up, and I just want to chime in that
    a) I’m proud of you for doing it
    b) I knew you’d kick ass because you’re so damn funny HERE
    c) confused regarding “performance” – haven’t you confessed to singing karaoke in front of audiences, on a not-too-terribly-irregular basis? Isn’t that a performance?
    d) I’m proud of you for doing it
    e) I can’t wait to see the video. Is the “first” one attached somewhere here in Hell, the place where you wear the Shoes of Rubber? I’d love to watch them back-to-back!
    You Go, Grrl! Now to sell and buy houses!