PORTLAND, Maine -- Butterflies were partying in my stomach harder than Bode Miller on a Saturday night. I could have paced a mile in the upstairs waiting room, listening to laughter and applause ringing from the monitors.
Others were connecting with the audience, could I?
My mind was racing, going over my material. Would they like it? Would they laugh? What if I bombed?
Watch Marty Basch's stand-up routine at explorenewengland.com.
It is light-years from telling a joke at the watercooler or dining room table to doing stand-up comedy, alone on a stage, blinded by lights, as strangers are transformed into a panel of judges. As with the downward turn of an emperor's thumb or a snide comment from Simon Cowell, the feedback -- whether laughs, guffaws, claps, or dreaded silence -- is immediate.
During a seven-week workshop at the Comedy Connection, the idea was to demystify stand-up comedy and create levels of comfort and support. The goal was to deliver a five-minute set during the ''graduation show" at the workshop's end, when the empty chairs would be filled with an invited, paying audience of family, friends, and colleagues.
At the start of the workshop, the most basic challenge was to become familiar -- and hopefully at ease -- with the brick-walled stage, its solitary microphone and lone stool. The tools of the trade included a pen, notebook, and videotape. Over the course of the sessions, each set came to life through a rough outline that was refined with stage time recorded on tape.
There was homework. Watch that tape. Work on delivery in front of your bedroom mirror or in the shower. Carry that notebook everywhere, and when inspiration strikes, write it down. Don't share homework with loved ones. Keep it to yourself. Let them be surprised.
''I didn't have to look far for material. Not with a name like Marty Basch. I mean, I always envied my sister, who could change her name when she got married. She did, when she married Joe Fink."
Tim Ferrell, 50, the club's talent coordinator, dispensed the comedic wisdom. Among his credits are teaching at New York University and the Juilliard School and working at Comedy Central. He has been conducting the Portland workshop for three years.
The class, limited to 14 students, attracted comedic wannabes of all ages and walks of life -- from the under-21 waitress to the fiftysomething convenience store owner. In between were a pilates instructor, computer graphics designer, school lunch lady, a wreath-making business owner, moms, dads, people who were divorced, and singles.
According to Ferrell, two types of people take the workshop: the curious who want to cross stand-up comedy off life's to-do list, and those who are serious about pursuing it as a career. They are the class clowns, office jesters, and quiet one-line punsters who at least seem funny to friends and family. And themselves.
The class wasn't two months of hand buzzers and whoopee cushions. In between the times of levity were nervous moments, hard work, and constant editing because turning a funny story into a killer joke takes sweat, perseverance, rewriting, and hand-holding.
Comedy, it turns out, is serious business. It is about life's minutiae and exaggeration, finding a voice and selling it to the audience. Potential is everywhere: family, work, the news, politics, religion, medicine, dating, TV, driving, friends. For those with that proverbial chip on their shoulder, it's the ultimate payback.
There were those who took the stage and showed a certain sparkle, which was honed with each passing week. Then there were those who at least got up there and will have a tape of the graduation show to play for the grandchildren.
''One night a fellow comic-in-training noted that my nearly shaved head, featuring a retreating hairline, was growing back nicely. In response, I volunteered: 'My hair warranty expired. I should have gotten the extended plan.' "
The routine was repeated each session, with each person firing material. There was laughter and silence, bull's-eyes and bombs. Ferrell followed each set with a critique. Tighten here, throw out there. Fellow participants made suggestions. Sharp knives and rapier wit were applied to superfluous narratives in hopes of carving out a real punch line.
The jokes ranged from wholesome to blue. Sex (a radio announcer put in a compromising position while delivering the weather), single motherhood (''I love being a stay-at-home mom, I'm just missing that go-to-work dad"), drugs (illegal to prescription), and other topics tumbled out as the weeks passed. Some of us became more relaxed. Others did not. One week one marginally funny man was so nervous that he brought a harmonica to play onstage to settle his nerves.
We discovered that comedy can get pretty mundane, if not downright boring. Jokes aren't songs. The third time you hear the same one-liner, the punch line loses its pop. But it was fascinating to watch confidence replace jitters.
''I have a girlfriend. She tells me we've been together 12 years. But she doesn't introduce me as her boyfriend. It's: 'Meet Marty, my mortgage mate and lover.' Nice to know where I stand in the relationship. First I pay, and then I get a chance to play."
As show time neared, Ferrell scheduled one-on-one time with students to further firm up routines. He had encouraged everyone to take in a comedy show at the club over the course of the workshop (passes were provided) to get a sense of the potential rewards of our labor. During the sessions, working comedians stopped in to deliver a quick set, sort of like seniors performing for freshmen.
At graduation, the audience filled the club for a 5 p.m. Saturday show. With stomachs aflutter, we found plenty of room to pace in the green room. The performance order was posted. Everyone carried water to combat dry mouth. Cheat sheets were readied, just in case.
The place was packed when Ferrell took the stage to get the crowd jazzed up.
''Five minutes each," he said. ''It sounds like an eternity when you first start out."
But the vibe was good. An emcee took over from Ferrell. She introduced each comic to raucous applause. The longest seconds were those between introduction and the first laugh. Once that hit, the adrenaline kicked in.
Everyone did their five minutes and more. It was a rush, making a public metamorphosis from comedic wannabe to the king of one-liners. Sort of. At least no one bombed.
Marty Basch can be reached at email@example.com.