Comedy

10 Musicians & Comedians Recall Their First Performances

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10 Musicians & Comedians Recall Their First Performances

Most of us have dreamed of taking the stage in front of thousands of enamored, ecstatic fans. Selling out shows, being admired, respected, beloved. Hearing thousands of people singing our words or laughing at our jokes.

We don’t dream of performing in front of six people. But, as the old saying goes, “Everybody starts somewhere.” And nobody starts in Madison Square Garden. People start in dive bars and little clubs, in living rooms, on sidewalks. In open mics and talent shows. The dream is an audience of 10,000 people; the reality is an audience of 10. We hear and see a lot about the former, not so much about the latter.

So we’ve gathered a group of quick interviews with notable musicians and comedians, in which they share experiences of the first times they performed in public. The common themes: They were terrified, and the experience wasn’t exactly transcendent. We also requested some advice for those who wish to perform but have never done it before.

1. Amanda Palmer

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
This could have so many answers. My first group performances were in the church choir and in ridiculous school musicals. But my first full-length solo performance of my own songs was in college. I’d booked the show myself. There was an old, big room in the university I went to that had classical performances. And I just asked if I could use it for a night of songs and someone said “Yes.” I had about two or three months to get ready, and I was scared shitless.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
I’d flyered the campus and invited the few people I knew. I was an angsty, isolated college freshman and didn’t have many friends. All told I think about 20 people came. They sat down and I awkwardly assaulted them with about 12 songs, a few of which were actually good enough to make it onto the first Dresden Dolls record, seven years later. I barely remember anything about the performance—I was so terrified. From the recording (Yes! I recorded it straight onto my four track! I’ll release it when I’m dead! It’s totally humiliating! I sing with a fake British accent half the time!), it wasn’t actually awful. But the two things I remember most? One: A girl I was passing acquaintances with took me aside after the show and said “Wow. Are you okay? Not, like, right now, but in general. Are you…alright?” and Two: The next night, when I was doing the graveyard shift at the radio station, a guy who’d seen the show came to the station door at 4 a.m. with a Twinkie that he’d stuck a candle in. He told me he liked my music. From that night on, he was my boyfriend. So there was that.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
Don’t be afraid to fake it. I’m a real believer in the “Fake it til you make it” philosophy of performance. Sometimes acting confident and acting relaxed is enough to give you space and permission to actually become those things. So try that: Experiment. It can work. The other thing is: Remember that nobody out there cares about our music as much as you do. When people seem loud or bored or uninterested—truly try not to take it personally. That can feel impossible. But that’s also why being in a band, or at least having one other partner on stage, can make such a huge difference. All of a sudden you’re a gang, and if you’re being ignored, at least you’re not alone. Oh and one more thing: Shit gigs make you better. Shit audiences make you better. Play like you give no fuck and play from your heart and play for the one person out there listening even if it’s your housemate. And if there isn’t even one person, close your eyes and imagine them into existence. The only alternative is to give up and get depressed—and that’s a hard hole to come back from. I know—I’ve gone there.


2. John Michael (MyNameIsJohnMichael)

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
I was 15 and I got caught smoking pot by my parents. The way they grounded me was sending me to father’s office; my father’s a lawyer in New Orleans. His secretary at the time, whose name was Filipina, and I became good friends. I was grabbing files from shelves, like a runner. So instead of sitting home and smoking pot, I was doing that.

It turns out she was, and is, the sister-in-law of George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic. So she got George to send me a signed t-shirt, and then George and them came to play at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in September. Basically, she said, “George wants you to play to come play guitar with the guys during soundcheck. He thinks it’ll be fun.”

So I played with them during soundcheck, and they were like, “Yeah, you’re gonna play a couple tunes with us tonight. You’re gonna play ‘Red Hot Mama’ and ‘Cosmic Slop.’ They’re in E and F-sharp, respectively. You’ll figure it out.”

And I was like, “Oh my god, I’m 15 years old…” So that was the first time I ever played a proper show. I got to meet and hang out with some of those guys, and they’re the sweetest people. They taught me a lot.

What did you feel during that first performance?
Being scared out of my mind. It was a sold-out Tipitina’s show, like a thousand people. And being a little white kid playing guitar was kinda weird… Backstage, I was just thinking “OK, it’s in D. This one’s in D.” You have to figure out by listening, so just listen, just listen, just listen. It was just like “Use your ears, use your ears, use your ears.” That was my mantra. Granted, it was 12 years ago, but I think I remember that part.

What advice would you give for others who’d like to perform for the first time but have never done it?
Just do it. Just go play in front of people. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. If it’s a stage fright thing, just do it. Keep doing it. If it’s playing in front of your girlfriend or your aunt. Play in front of your girlfriend, then your best friend, then 10 people, then a hundred. Just doing it’s the way to break in.


3. Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon)

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
My first public performance was playing Christmas music at Rose Lane nursing home, in Massillon, Ohio, when I was in seventh grade. I have no memory of how the gig got booked. But I do remember visiting my grandfather there, years earlier.

What did you feel during that first performance?
I played a ‘70s Les Paul, which I still own, and my neighborhood friend, Polly, accompanied me on flute. You can barely see her there [in the picture] next to me, stage right. We weren’t very tight, but the old folks didn’t seem to mind.

What advice would you give for others who’d like to perform for the first time but have never done it?
My advice to anyone getting started is to practice your instrument, a lot. If you get to a point where people gather around you at a music store, to watch you play, then you’re headed in the right direction.


4. Grant Widmer (Generationals)

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
My first performance ever was the first show of our old band The Eames Era. We lived in Baton Rouge, and one of us had a friend in another band who had a show coming up at a bar right off campus. We promised them that we would get all our friends to come out so they put us on the bill.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
I just remember it being really cold. It was an outdoor stage in the middle of December, right in the middle of finals for school. We practiced for the show for months, almost every day. I remember Ted, the other guy in Generationals who was also in The Eames Era, had a big architecture final the morning after the show. He failed the class.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
If you act like everything that happens was done on purpose, no one will question you.


5. Peter Silberman (The Antlers)

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
I was probably 11 years old when my first band got a gig. We were gonna play the talent show at our short-lived hangout, The Teen Lounge. The place was pretty abysmal, but a decent alternative to the mall. We needed a name to sign ourselves up, and we landed on “The Illusion” (again, we were 11). There were four of us—three guitars and one drummer. We thought it would be epic to begin our set by running down the staircase that descended to the stage (and by “stage” I mean the cleared-out corner of the TV room.) Maybe 10 other acts signed up, and we tied for winner with a group of older kids that did magic tricks.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
As dumb as the whole thing was, I still remember feeling a very real strength in loud noise, of our team facing people we were used to seeing every day, screaming in their faces with deafening sound. It was a way to release frustrations and fantasies at a time we were all becoming painfully self-aware.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
Don’t overthink it, and be aware of when doubt and insecurity keep you from doing what you need to do. Performing is a really strange and unique opportunity to be as weird as you want in front of other people. It’s at once disconnected from you as a person and intensely connected to a side of yourself people rarely or never see. That side of you is probably kind of fucked up, and that’s OK. Better to give Mr. Hyde a stage than free reign over the rest of your life.


6. Brian Rosenworcel (Guster)

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
My high school band, Toejamb, played an open mic night at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
We broke a guitar string about 10 seconds into the first song, nobody could hear one another, and I thought it was a trainwreck. The five people in the audience clapped anyway.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
The more you do it, the better you get at it, so just get the first one out of the way and keep at it. Fail, fail, and fail again… that’s the best way to succeed.


7. Jay Mohr

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
My first time performing I was 16, and the comedy club a town over from me had an open mic night for teenagers. On a Sunday. At noon. I just tried to do it. I felt that maybe stand-up was something I could slide into. Nothing ever made sense to me before. The idea of stand-up made me want to try it as a career.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
What I remember most was the absolute stoppage of time and space. Depth perception was completely gone. Sound was all one giant doppler effect and time..what the heck was time anyway… how long have I been standing here…? What am I even saying? Did I say that already? What time is it in real life? Now how long have I been up here? I can’t see anything… How long have I been up here?

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
If you want to do stand-up… GO DO STAND-UP. DO IT AGAIN AND THEN DO IT EVERY NIGHT YOU CAN FOREVER.

8. Doug Benson

How’d you end up at your first performance?
I had no intention to become a stand-up. I had moved from San Diego to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor. Mere months after arriving, two friends suggested I try comedy. They said they would go to the Comedy Store and sign up on Pot Luck Night as well. One friend showed up too late to sign up and the other didn’t show up at all. I am still a stand-up to this day and I have no idea what those guys are doing.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
I used props. But I grew out of the prop thing four or five years into my career. OK, maybe eight or 10. I am not a prop act, dammit! But when I started, there were lots of comics using props, people like Pee Wee Herman, Howie Mandel and Joel Hodgson. These days I can’t think of any. Other than Carrot Top. He’s cornered the market. You gotta give him props for that.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
To paraphrase Nike, Just Fucking Do It.


9. Jimmy Pardo

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
I had just turned 21 and my co-workers at the record store said “OK, it’s time.” So, I went to the closest open mic that weekend. Quick side-note: It was also the day I became “Jimmy Pardo.” I signed up under the name “Jim Pardo” and my friends said, “But WE call you ‘Jimmy’” and I changed it… the rest is almost history.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
It actually went pretty well considering I went through what I thought was 15 minutes of material in about five! Carla Filisha, who is now a writer on Mike And Molly, was one of the paid performers complimented my set and gave me phone numbers for other club owners in the area. We remain friends to this day.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
Just do it. It’s going to be a bumpy road when you first start. Sometimes it will be great… others, the worst. But, if it’s in your bones, you owe it to yourself to do it. Maybe it won’t be for you, but at least you tried.

andy-kindler.jpg
10. Andy Kindler

How’d you end up performing for the first time?
I was a salesman at a stereo store. That last sentence was designed to confuse young people. I was at a company picnic goofing around and my friend Bill asked me if I had ever done stand-up. He convinced me to start by teaming up with him.

What do you remember most about that first performance?
I was cushioned from crushing shame and disappointment by having someone else to share it with. My first performance on my own two years later was horrifying. I remember telling the crowd it wasn’t going well. They knew that already. I will admit to quietly sobbing in the car on the way home. I couldn’t imagine it ever getting better. That’s how many people currently react to my act.

What advice can you give people who want to perform but have never done it before?
You have to jump in the pool, even if it’s at the shallow end and the water is cold. Maybe metaphors and analogies are not my thing. The point is that you can’t wait until you feel confident and have no fear to start. Everybody is terrified when they begin, unless there is something wrong with them. Just try to be nice to yourself. When in doubt, blame the crowd.

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