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MY CAREER AS A COMEDIENNE


I made my debut as a stand-up comedienne twenty seven years ago shortly after Michael, an actor, and I became friends.

We met at an educational function where we were drawn together by an abundance of energy and our virtually identical senses of humor. We laughed at the same things and were the only two people in the room doing so. Within a short time, we became close, platonic friends.

One evening over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Chelsea, I made a comment that cracked Michael up. “Was that so funny?” I asked.

“It was your delivery,” he told me.

My delivery! That was all I needed to hear. I was occasionally funny in my writing and with my classes. When I wasn’t complaining about men, money, and my thighs, I made my friends and family laugh. I glanced over at Michael. “Let’s be a comedy team.”

Michael put down his fork. His eyes lit up. He saw I was serious. He couldn’t finish his lasagna.

I finished it for him. I finished my veal parmigiana, too, while we planned our future in show business. Some things would change. We’d have second homes: mine would be a beach house. Michael’s would be in France. And some things wouldn’t: I’d never ride to work in a limo. Or perform in sequined dresses. Neither would Michael. We’d never get tan, rich, or stuck-up. And we wouldn’t finish each other’s sentences when we appear on The Tonight Show. Or split up the way Sonny and Cher and Simon and Garfunkel did. We’d be a team. Kelton and Nach. Forever.

“It won’t work,” Michael said. “I have no writing ability.”

“Yes, it will.” I handed him my check. “I have no money.”

I ran home and got to work. At two a.m. I called Michael and read him a sketch between a woman and her therapist. He laughed.

“You’re just laughing to be nice, aren’t you? I asked.

“I don’t have to be nice. I’m your stage shrink. Not your real one.” He had a point.

I wrote another sketch: an awful first date. At three a.m. I was reciting both parts on the phone to Michael, this time getting fewer laughs.

“Is it the humor or the hour?” I asked.

“Neither. It’s the part. I’m too sharp to play a whiny podiatrist from New Jersey.”

“No you’re not. Just practice cutting toenails and whining the word ‘bunion.’ ”

For the next several months, we worked together once a week, rehearsing four sketches, which included a job interview and a subway holdup. Michael became every character from a macho Italian therapist to a pervert on the subway. Whether I was a wacky actress or a suburban housewife, I was Nancy Kelton.

No matter. My enthusiasm and Michael’s talent compensated for my limited range.

The day of reckoning arrived. The first Sunday of the month. First-timers’ night at the Improvisation. Fifteen new comics would each have five minutes to perform between ten regulars. Michael and I were #12. We decided the therapy sketch would go over best. This was New York City. Most of our audience was either getting therapy or giving it.

Upon discovering I would be the only woman performing, I felt heady. Now only would I fulfill my Dorothy Parker fantasy and become the funny lady at the table, I’d also blaze the trail for other female comics who were too afraid to venture forth.

I’m not sure if it was my gender or Michael’s big mouth, but word got around quickly that we were first-timers and soon every aspiring Dangerfield in the place was giving us advice.

“It’s all in the timing,” said someone in a flowered shirt opened to his navel.

“It’s more in your eye contact with the audience,” said a young blond guy who looked more like a fraternity pledge than a comedian.

A little bespectacled fellow, Bob, piped in, “The audience will excite you. Just wait.”

I waited. And I wondered. Why, with such know-how, were these up-and-coming comics performing on newcomers’ night and not warming up audiences for Barry Manilow in Las Vegas? A knot formed in my stomach. The guy in the opened flowered shirt, who claimed it was all in the timing, was on. He had no timing. Or funny material. He got two laughs. I got a gin and tonic. Michael, beside me at the bar, reassured me our material was better, but the knot in my stomach got thicker. I watched the blond kid do his routine. It was very collegiate and only mildly amusing. I wanted to leave.

Numbers 10 and 11 went on. I heard the emcee call our names. I walked up to the stage behind Michael, telling myself that the worst thing that could happen is we bomb.

Within seconds the worst thing began happening. The sea of strange faces staring up at me did not excite me. It terrified me. I heard Michael’s voice and gave him the right response. In a whisper. My lines kept coming out. My voice was inaudible. I had no relationship with the audience. Or with Michael. Or myself. Michael looked puzzled. No. Miffed.

When we finished, I escaped to a table in the back. Within seconds, a double scotch was put before me “The bartender thought you might need this,” said the waitress.

I did. My hands were trembling. Michael sat down beside me. “So where should we go celebrate?” he asked, pretending I had not been to hell and back and taken him along with me.

“Please don’t be angry.” Tears streamed down my cheeks.

“I’m not.” He put his hand on my wrist. “I had no clue what happened to you.”

Me neither. New and frightening situations typically mobilized me. Made the adrenalin flow. On stage, I was numb.

The emcee appeared at our table. “First times are rough,” he said looking more at me than at Michael. “It’ll get easier.”

My disappointment and humiliation had not vanished, but a feeling of pride began to surface. Pride for going into the arena and taking a chance. I turned to Michael. “So it’ll be easier next time.” Oy! Next time?

Michael stared at me. Finally he said, “I’ll call you first thing tomorrow. We’ll discuss it.”

The next morning, Michael didn’t call first thing. Or second. I knew he was furious.

I picked up an essay I’d been writing and read it over. It needed work. I rewrote a new first paragraph, added a few sentences here and there, tightened up parts and fleshed out others.

The phone rang. It was Michael. “How are you doing?”

“Good. And you?”

“Great. Listen. I booked us at Catch a Rising Star for next Friday. Okay?”

How much did I want to get on stage night after night and try to get laughs at an hour when I’d rather be home using dental floss? I picked up my essay. It could still be improved. I wanted to get back to it. I wanted to write.

Whom did I really want to please? A roomful of strangers or myself?

“I’ll have to pass.”

“Good. I was teasing,” Michael said. “I guess we’re not the next Nichols and May.”

“Not Nichols and May, but …”

“Nance, promise me we’ll never go on stage together again.”

“I can’t promise anything. Goodnight, Gracie.”

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