Friday, December 3, 2010


My brother called me. He was doing a show, a fifteen-minute monologue on the local “Synagogue Circuit.”
He told me he was nervous.
My brother doesn’t perform a lot, but when he does, he’s spectacularly successful. He’s a natural entertainer; the audience almost chemically taking to him. Generating immediate good will, his material easily hits its target, often, with explosive results.
My brother gets nervous because, between performances, he forgets how well he was received the last time. That’s just how it is, the Curse of the Part-Time Comedian.
It’s a funny thing when your older brother calls you for a pep talk. Funny as in, “Role Reversal.” My mind goes back to Camp Ogama, where we were both performing in the Pageant; me, nine years old, my brother, twelve or thirteen.
(His birthday’s in August.)
The Pageant was generally some “over our heads” diatribe on the evils of war. Sometimes, they’d switch things up, and offer a diatribe on the evils of intolerance, or economic inequity. But it was always about the evils of something.
The “evildoers” were inevitably us. And by “us”, I don’t specifically mean the campers. The culprits were more generally the Human Race. According to the Pageants’ writers, they were pretty much stinking up the planet.
The Pageant was my first performing experience of any kind. The camp’s social work-trained upper staff had been furiously searching for something I wasn’t atrocious at, in an effort to provide me with an infusion of badly needed self-worth. Picking up a greased watermelon and passing it to the next person on my relay team had turned out not to be my forte. They were hoping I’d do better with the acting.
From my perspective, it was simply a new arena for humiliation. I agreed to do it…no. I think they made me. Though I offered minimal resistance. At least it didn’t involve pulling on waterlogged pajamas and running to the dock.
Objectively, there was no reason for concern. But who lives their lives objectively? Especially when you’re nine.
My role did not even require me to be onstage. I’d be reading some lines from an adjacent sound booth, which would be transmitted to the audience over a Public Address system. I no longer recall what those lines were, but they most likely involved some harrowing statistics about how many people we annihilated in Nagasaki
What I remember is my immobilizing nervousness. There was a pulsating brick in my stomach. My legs were jelly. My mouth was sandpaper dry, requiring multiple lubrications at the Pump House water fountain, which inevitably led to multiple visits to the bathroom.
I was a mess, on the verge of throwing in the towel. Acting would now be added to my litany of failures, along with never once hitting the target in archery, and tracking fly balls in the outfield without tripping over my feet.
My brother calmed me down enough to get me through the performance. I can’t tell you how he did it. I can’t even approximate what he said. My writing range is embarrassingly limited. I do “me” great. I can fake stick-figure archetypes. But delineating “originals” who act in no way like the way I naturally think, feel and respond, I’m simply not that kind of writer. Which I believe in some circles would be called a good writer.
My brother said all the right things. But the main thing was it was my brother.
Though there was another component as well. My brother is blessed with the gift of soothing persuasion – a reassuring presence, a comforting tone, accompanying a message that’s “exactly what you needed to hear.” My brother says, “It’ll be all right”, and you believe him. It’s just how it is.
Flip the calendar. He’s nervous about a show. And he’s calling me.
What can I tell him? The residue of personal experience, and what I believe to be true. It feels grossly inferior to what he gave me, but it’s all I’ve got.
I tell my brother that being nervous is a signal. A signal he is lucky to receive.
Being nervous means “This is important. This matters. I’m excited to be doing this, and I care how it turns out.”
Think about all the times our lives are simply “on automatic”, the passing years mundane and barely noticed. I remember once telling someone I had this dream where, “I sat down to watch a ballgame, and when I got up, I was eighty.”
“Nervous” jolts you into the moment, as in, “This is happening! This is now!”
“Nervous” is the rollercoaster at its crest, ready to swoop down and extract your equilibrium.
It’s a gift to be nervous, especially at an age when such opportunities are increasingly rare. The “nervous” are lucky. The opposite of “nervous” is a nap.
I didn’t say all of that to my brother. My advice was less structured, and more “If the content is unhelpful, I hope you find something between the lines.” I wanted to repay him, but I’m not sure I did.
Mostly, I was just happy that he’d called.
NOTE: I realize there are other types of “nervous”; for one, the nervousness stemming from medical uncertainty. I have nothing constructive to say about these situations. That stuff continues to eat me up.
P.S. – My brother’s show, as expected, turned out great.


Anonymous said...

Is or will that performance be on YouTube?

PG said...

He was a riot!!!!
If you wanted to find the audience, it was in the palm of his hand.
Book him in Vegas!

Mac said...

Good for him! Comedians who get nervous keep upping their game. The ones who think they can walk it just get repetitive.
It's a hell of a job; you've got to be confident enough to believe it'll work, nervous enough to keep checking your quality control. I admire anyone who has the balls to have a go at it.