A microphone, a crowd and me

Andrew Paulsen

Reporter experiences what it takes to be a stand-up comedian

I’m on the edge of my seat in a booth at the Rathskeller on Thursday night – a paper cup of water in one shaky hand and a small memo pad in the other.

I’m nervous.

I take a slow, deep breath to try and calm myself.

My friends sit across the aisle from me, wishing me good luck.

The emcee for the evening, Chad Zumock, finishes up a routine full of self-deprecating humor about wearing sweater vests and getting punched in the face at a comedy club, then begins to introduce the opening act for the night.

“Without further ado, we’re gonna bring him on stage now. It’s his first time doing stand-up comedy – he’s breaking his cherry, ladies and gentlemen. How about a warm round of applause for Andrew Paulsen? Give it up!”

The crowd of 40-some people claps and welcomes me as I walk toward the stage.

I’m not exactly ready for this, so I glance at the words and notes I have written and bookmarked in my memo pad.

This is the part where if someone were making a movie about me, I would have a flashback and reflect about my whole life leading up to this moment – but this isn’t a movie.

It’s a microphone, a crowd and me.

This is Stand-Up Comedy Night in the Rathskeller.

Stand-Up Comedy Night began as a joint effort between Zumock, Kent State graduate and comedian, and Mike Szabo, director of programming for Undergraduate Student Government.

After Zumock opened for comedian Nick Swardson at the M.A.C. Center last spring, Szabo contacted him to see if he’d be interested in putting together comedy shows for students at Kent State. Zumock liked the idea, and Stand-Up Comedy Night was born.

Right now, Zumock is in charge of booking talent from all over the country while Donna Carlton, director of the Center for Student Involvement, organizes and manages the event. Carlton says the shows have been a success so far and that anywhere between 40 and 70 people show up each Thursday night to see comedians perform.

Comedians who have appeared in the Rathskeller so far include Kent State graduates Mike Polk (creator of the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism” Youtube video) and Ryan Dalton (frequent guest on The Maxwell Show and seen on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham”) and national touring acts Rob O’Reilly and Bill Squire.

As a part of the Thursday night comedy initiative, there is also a “Funniest Person at KSU” competition. Any Kent State student interested in performing comedy can get on-stage experience and then get critiqued by the crowd and comedians. At the end of the semester, a winner is chosen based on critique scores.

I decided to partake in this competition, but in my case, this was more than competition against other comedians – it was a competition against myself to see if I had what it takes.

My comedy adventure began the Thursday prior to my first time walking up on the stage. I contacted Zumock earlier in the week to see if I could interview him about the “Funniest Person at KSU” competition and asked for advice on how to compose material for my routine. He told me to come down to the show, watch the acts and said we could talk afterward.

When I showed up at the Rathskeller, I heard a mixture of different comedians like Bill Boronkay, Nickey Winkelman and Kent State sophomore Adam Mercer. Mercer put together his first stand-up routine for the Funniest Person competition, and I spoke to him after the show. He told me he had fun being on stage, but it was hard to find his own unique twist on comedy.

Mercer told me he watched a broad spectrum of pro and amateur comedians online to prepare for that night and then assembled his material just from his everyday life stories.

I congratulated him on his performance and then sat down in a booth with Zumock, Boronkay and Winkelman to hear what I needed to do to be funny and get material. All three of the stand-up comics have a wealth of experience. Zumock has been doing stand-up for five years, Boronkay for nearly four years and Winkelman for five.

Following their advice, I used my cell phone to keep track of any funny thoughts that came to mind during the week and wrote them down as key points in an outline on a memo pad.

I tried to think about the best way to deliver my material and my timing and worked slowly at memorizing everything I had written down. Altogether I had at least five minutes worth of material covering jokes about being tall, my Halloween costume, “RENT,” PETA, Kent State muggings and crazy friends.

Once I got on stage, however, I drew a blank on some of my material and had to improvise a few of my talking points, and well, to put it lightly – I kind of tanked.

The audience was receptive to me at first, laughing at my jokes about being tall, but after that, the laugh-out-loud moments were few and far between.

It was pretty rough, and I felt kind of crappy till I finally got off the stage.

My friends congratulated me as I sat down.

I talked to the feature and headlining acts after the show, Joe Howard and Ryan Dalton respectively, and they shared insight about getting on stage for the first time.

“You have to hate yourself – it’s the honest truth,” Howard shared with me. He said you have to take your failed moments on stage that you hated, and keep working to improve.

“It takes a long, long time. It’s a longer process,” Howard said.

Dalton shared similar advice: “You have to do gigs and just get on stage a lot, and you’ll learn.”

He added that the first time on stage is always brutal, and if you can find ways to do comedy and keep plugging away, it’ll figure itself out.

“Just keep getting on stage,” Dalton said.

It was then that I realized I didn’t really care that nobody laughed at most of my jokes. I was happy I had pulled together my act in less than a week and that I had gone up on the microphone for a good seven minutes and tried to get some laughs.

Stand-Up Comedy Nights take place each Thursday night at 8 p.m. in the Rathskeller throughout the rest of the semester and will resume again in Spring 2010. If you’re interested in performing in the Funniest Person competition, e-mail

[email protected]

Contact features reporter Andrew Paulsen at [email protected]