News & Politics

My First Time . . . Doing Standup Comedy

Erin Jackson shares her tale of a career first.

Erin Jackson has appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Photograph by Roy Cox

As told to Michael Gaynor

I saw an ad for a new comedy school at DC Improv. Something like “all you need to know about standup in one afternoon.”

I was dating a guy at the time who suggested I try it. He asked, “If you could do anything in your life, what would it be?” I said I’d like to try standup, but it wasn’t an actual goal of mine.

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It sounded stupid to even talk about it. I’d gone to college, I had a job in marketing, I knew what I was doing. Or at least I thought I knew. It took someone saying, “Hey, that’s not outrageous. You can try it.”

The class was great. I happened to be sitting next to two guys, and afterwards we formed a little comedy study group with another girl. We’d write jokes during the week and get together on weekends to prepare for whenever it was we decided to get onstage. After a month and a half, one of them finally said, “All right, we have to do this.”

We found this little sushi bar called Cafe Japone in Dupont. Every Tuesday night, they had open mike.

I can’t even say it was my first time “onstage.” I was standing right next to a guy making sushi—I’m standing there with a microphone, and he’s cutting fish. Meanwhile, the “audience” was 10 or 15 people at tables eating sushi. We were interrupting their dinner.

I was so nervous. Everybody was supposed to get five minutes, but I was probably only up there for three. I had maybe four jokes. And they weren’t good jokes: They were easy, obvious things that people who aren’t comedians would say. The punch lines were telegraphed—you knew what was coming.

But the audience was laughing. It was going well, until right in the middle of the set I forgot my joke. I tried to remember how it went, and suddenly everything got quiet. All I could think was “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” I probably said “Oh, my God” out loud.

The crowd encouraged me. “Come on, you can do it!” one guy said. They let me recover and finish. By the time I got off the stage, I was on such a high. On the ride home, I asked, “Are we coming back next week?”

But it didn’t cross my mind that this would be a career. I’ve always been a planner; everything I do has to be on a spreadsheet. A couple of years down the road, I’m on The Ellen DeGeneres Show thinking, should I quit my job now? Ellen even asked me, “You’re still working?” I finally went into standup full-time in 2009, five years after my show at Cafe Japone.

That first time encouraged me to give things in life a chance. You never know what you might be great at. I say that to people all the time.

Erin Jackson has appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and was a semifinalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” She lives in DC.

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