Saturday, June 18, 2016

Get Up, Stand Up: The Night I Tried Open Mic

Cross doing stand-up off the bucket list!

First, the back story.

I've always had a secret desire to try stand-up. I thought about how for every good stand-up comic, there are about 1,400 crappy ones and I would never want to be on that list. When I thought about what it would feel like to try it, my stomach would twist into knots and I would almost feel nauseous. For a long time, I figured that if something made you feel that way, you should avoid it. But there's something about being in your 40's that changes your perception about so many things in life, so I changed my view and decided that if something makes you nervous, unless it's trying heroin or jumping off a building without a rope, maybe that's exactly the thing you should do.

It didn't hurt that fate got in the way to give me the extra push I needed to make it happen. Several months ago, Tim was working outside when he found an employee badge in the street by our house. Most people would see it and either leave it there or throw it away, but Tim is not most people. He took the badge inside, looked up the name of the employee, investigated his email address, and reached out to reunite the badge with the proper badge holder, a guy named Manish.

Manish happens to live a few houses away, so Tim connected with him to return the badge, and during the course of the conversation, learned that he's a Ph.D. candidate living temporarily in Austin. He just so happens to be a Ph.D. candidate who does stand-up on the side.

One of Tim's many gifts is that he loves connecting people, so he told Manish that I wanted to do stand-up, and introduced us. The first time I met Manish, he was walking behind Tim, coming in from the back yard, and the scene in itself was just hilarious. Tim's a big guy in every sense of the word. He's 6'2', balding, super loud, and has a laugh you can hear 15 miles away. Manish, on the other hand, is under 5 feet tall, has a ton of hair, is seemingly serious, and rather quiet. I've always said I wanted a "little man" to be around to help me with things I don't feel like doing. When Tim came in the back door with Manish, I honestly thought he was just making my dream come true.

Manish goes by a few names - Manni, Manish, and in the comedy world, "Big Manni." Born in India, Manish has a keen sense of the world around him and his writing is really funny as a result. He strikes a great balance of being self-deprecating about his height, but to me, his most hilarious stuff is his keen observational humor.

I think the mere fact that Tim found Manni's employee badge and was so thoughtful to return it to its owner, Manni felt he owed Tim a favor back. Without realizing what he was getting into, Manni became my official comedy coach.

Manni will not let me call him my comedy coach, but I do it anyway. I'm bigger than he is so he just has to deal with it. From the first time we met, I grew an instant appreciation for how very hard comedy actually is. When your comedy coach is a Ph.D candidate, you get the added bonus of some deep analysis. I won't give away his secret sauce but there's a lot going on behind the scenes to make it work. It's a LOT of work. Manni is out there several nights a week hustling his material at Austin stand-ups. It's exhausting. I tagged along to a few shows and felt nervous for everyone going on stage and putting their material out there. The first time Tim and I went to see Manni at Capital City Comedy Club's open mic, he warned us ahead of time, "There will be a lot of dick jokes." He wasn't kidding. Every open mic I've gone to, I've tallied up the penis jokes. There are a LOT of them. For that reason alone, I wrote a vagina joke just to balance things out a little.

Through this process, I have started to envision a pie chart of comedy. It's not just walking up to a mic and talking. It's creating good material. It's timing. It's a hell of a lot of preparation. It's stage presence. It's confidence. It's not easy, and it's a LOT of work.

Manni patiently worked with me as I read him my material. I was so nervous I would have to leave our house and meet Manni at a coffee shop for fear of my family hearing me and telling me I was awful at it. After several months of writing material, crossing out entire bits and starting over, Manni got pushy.

"You have to do this," he said. "If you don't get up and just do it, this is never going to happen."

He was right. I was finding excuse after excuse not to just give it a go. Every single time I thought about approaching an open mic, I would feel nauseous.

So we set a date. June 17. 17 is my lucky number, and since Manni will be returning back to San Diego by the fall,  I needed him to be my safety net.

I've always been big about imagining what a moment will be like. That can be good and bad, because the vision of a future moment is often much better than what actually happens. When I imagined what it would be like to try stand-up for the first time, I was going to be on a dark stage indoors at a small comedy club. There would be more than 12 people present, and I wouldn't be perfect, but there would be enough laughs so that I would survive it, and it would be fun.

This entire time, I've been telling Manni and anyone who knew I was going to do this that I wasn't going to do it more than once. One time. One and done. I wasn't posting an announcement to invite friends, and the only other person who would be invited was Tim because Tim has the biggest laugh on the planet and that's a really good asset when you're going up for the first time.

So last night, I did it.

The venue was a cute East side restaurant/coffee shop called Cenote. Manni had warned me ahead of time that Friday night open mics in Austin are pretty bad, and that there would probably only be about 6 people there. There were 29 (not that I counted). We were outside, and the sound equipment was pretty terrible, but there was a mic and a speaker and a really fun guy announcing people who made it feel legit. I was #12 on the list. There was a giant piece of yard art in the form of a frog, and I decided he was going to help me get through it.

The open mic rules are pretty simple: You get a 4 minute set with a flashing light warning at 3 minutes. I knew going into it that if I dawdled, I would be over 4 minutes. Anyone who knows me wouldn't be surprised. I'm not exactly short-winded.

Manni went before me, which was great for calming my nerves because he has a really funny bit about a fat stripper in Vegas, and I needed the laughs.

When they called my name, I thought I might faint. I grabbed the mic and immediately wanted to smack myself for taking my note card up there with me, but it's a good thing I did because I think without it, I might have forgotten everything I practiced no less than 80 times over the past week.

I did my thing, and I heard laughter. Never mind that the laughter I heard the most was Tim's. I looked out into the faces of the people watching, and some people were laughing. A few people were on their phones, which I found to be pretty rude given that I paid 100% attention to everyone before me, but with millennials, you kind of have to expect that. Those whippersnappers!

4 minutes flew by, and it was over. The woman behind me who later got up and did a hilarious bit about peeing in front of her two sons said, "You did great!" I loved her.

I'd asked Tim to take a picture, but bless his sweet heart, he was too busy being my Main Laugh, he forgot. Manni did the honors. There is no video. You're welcome!

Okay, enough about me because wow, I just spent a LOT of time writing about myself. If you've gotten this far, I want you to ask yourself what you're afraid of and why. What makes you feel like you're going to vomit with fear, but it's also a mix of excitement? Think about when you're a little kid and you pull up to Six Flags or whatever nearby amusement park, and you are so excited to ride the roller coaster that your body fills with adrenaline. Again, if this feeling is associated with heroin or unprotected sex with a rock star or joining the Trump revolution, just run the other way.

Otherwise, think of that thing that you're afraid/excited about and go figure out how to make that happen. I want to hear about it! Tell me in the comments section what you want to do, and if I can help encourage you, I will.

As for me, I haven't decided if I will keep it up, but the feeling of fear and adrenaline is still there when I think about trying it again, so perhaps I'll let that be my guide. Manni is very bossy and insists that I'll go again next week. We'll see.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Circus Wedding and the MOH Toast

My sister is married! The wedding was a literal circus - a vintage-themed circus where so many guests dressed up and made the night unforgettable. There were fire dancers and circus games. One little girl put her hand in ice for something like 17 minutes to win a huge stuffed bear. It was a wedding like no other wedding, and it was awesome.
Several people have asked me to share my toast because some people missed it and a few people threw back a few too many mint juleps before the toasts began.  Also, please note that since this wedding was anything but traditional, I am bucking tradition and would like to be referred to as a maid, not a matron. It's very fitting as I am extremely youthful and maid-like.

I practiced this baby a jillion times, using advice from my comedy coach to record myself. I have lots of videos of myself in a robe, towel on my head, working on timing. I will not share these videos as they only work to disprove that I am youthful and maid-like.  

When the moment came, I was a ball of nerves. Nobody believes me when I say I struggle with public speaking. I REALLY struggle, as social and extroverted as I am. So in the end, I took a little note card up on stage to calm my nerves, and I did my best. I flubbed some of the jokes and left out a few humdingers that I'm sad about, but hopefully the meaning wasn't lost on the bride and the groom, because in the end, this was all about them.

To Mr. and Mrs. Montez, I am so happy for you both! What a magical wedding for a magical couple.

I’m Amy Arndt, Emily’s sister. I know about 25% of you and I have no clue in hell who the rest of you are, but I look forward to meeting you at some point tonight.

Most of us don’t know over 450 people they like, much less love enough to invite to their wedding. But Rocky and Emily are not your average people, and that is part of why we’re all here. Still, I’m keeping an eye out, expecting a clown car to pull up and piling out of it will be 16 of the failed Republican presidential hopefuls.  

If anyone spots Ted Cruz in the hot dog line, he was absolutely not invited. Please let Rocky's mom Elvia or his sister Celeste know and they’ll take care of it right away.

As you can see by this fantastic place and the transformation from a working film studio to a magical vintage circus, a lot of work went into this labor of love. Just last weekend, I watched as this gorgeous bride hovered over a some kind of a saw with a nail file thingy on it that my dad and stepmom gave her as a pre-wedding gift. As I watched in awe, Emily painstakingly cut out the elephants you see behind us. I didn’t offer to help because Em is the handy sister, and I like having fingers.
Last weekend, I was sitting at a coffee shop when I noticed a dad with a stroller with a baby in it. Standing beside the stroller was a little girl who was around 4. She looked up at me with a serious expression on her face.

“This is my baby sister,” she said, pointing to the baby. “I take care of her.”

The age difference between the two girls was just the same as us, and I instantly knew what the older sister was talking about. I also instantly burst into tears, scaring the kid, her father, the infant and very likely the manager of the coffee shop.

For most of Emily’s life, in my head, I was her caretaker.  We had four terrific parents, but I was her constant as we moved back and forth between houses. She was very sweet, very cute, and pretty easy to boss around. We’ve been more than sisters, we’ve been the greatest of friends. Through the years, Emily has been my default dance partner, always offering to be the boy. At our mom’s 60th birthday, we hopped on stage and sang the harmonies to “Sisters." We share a secret language based loosely on the critically acclaimed movie, Ladies Man.

She may be the younger sister, but Emily’s been taking care of me just as long as I’ve taken care of her. If you are lucky enough to have Emily in your life, she’s taken care of you at some point, too. In this room are countless recipients of her grace, love and unending generosity.  

Some examples:

  1. She singlehandedly outfitted Cella Blue for at least 27 White Ghost Shivers Halloweens. One of those dresses was made out of NEWSPAPER.
  2. When my mom had foot surgery, Emily handled all of the things I was super dramatic about, like reading basic medication instructions, and finding the wine opener when we needed it most.
  3. I can’t count the number of handmade costumes she made for her namesake Emily Rose, including a hand-cut acrylic guitar, a suede and rhinestone cowgirl outfit, and a Mad Hatter hat so detailed and gorgeous I almost didn’t let ER wear it for Halloween.  
  4. Emily helped me get motherhood off the ground when I had a rough start. Then she moved from LA to Austin and got to see my kids grow up, and she helped us raise them. She even helped me raise Tim.
  5. And, lest you think she wasn’t already a superstar, she did most of these things while simultaneously holding Max and Maya, Todd and Michelle’s dogs.

It’s probably no secret that of everyone in this room, I’ve been the most guarded about letting my sister go. But what does that mean, “letting her go?” I looked up a quote about it, and I found one from Emily’s favorite philosopher, Jack Handey:

If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let' em go, because, man, they're gone.

But a wedding isn’t about letting go, it’s about letting more people in. So tonight, our family gets the honor of welcoming a huge new family, and the love expands.

In that new family, the anchor is Rocky.

Now, Rocky, I love you to death but I am not going to refer to you as my brother, because if you’re married to my sister, and we’re brother and sister, this really is a circus.

Rocky, here’s a little secret about Emily that I’ve never shared. The very first time Emily told me about you, it was clear you were the one. You make her laugh harder than anyone has ever made her laugh - her most important criteria for a good relationship. You embrace her obsession with Elvis. You make her bacon on the grill and pour her a sip of whiskey. You can dance her socks off. Together, the two of you know more show tune lyrics than any two heterosexual people have the nerve to know.

Rocky, I know you will care for Emily when she’s so tired she falls asleep standing up. Because she is Emily, she will care for you in return, and you will have a beautiful life together.  So tonight, I raise a glass to Mr. and Mrs. Montez. I love you both.  Cheers.