'When You Stop Laughing, You Stop Living'

This stand-up comedian has dodged paper airplanes, thrown drinks, and a heckler pulling the fire alarm to get her off the stage

Bonnie Burton performs comedy on stage at w00tstock San Francisco in 2010.
Bonnie Burton performs comedy on stage at w00tstock San Francisco.

Everyone I’ve ever met tells me the same thing when I tell them I’m a stand-up comedian: “You are so brave, I could never tell jokes on stage in front of strangers. I’d feel like a fool.”

But that’s the whole point. If you don’t feel like a fool, you’re probably not a comedian. And there’s a lot more to doing stand-up than telling a rip-roaring joke or mastering the perfect celebrity impression. It’s all about connecting with an unpredictable audience. And forgiving yourself when you bomb.

I’m actually just starting my foray into stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. I’ve been a journalist and author for decades. But as I try to get my foot in the door as a TV writer specializing in sitcoms, I knew I needed to hone my comedy skills. The best way to do that seemed to be to go onstage, try out material, get a few laughs, bomb, try again, get more laughs, bomb, try again and so on. Rinse. Repeat.

“It’s really all about just doing it,” Los Angeles-based comedian and actor Melinda Hill told me.

Bonnie Burton on stage with The Doubleclicks band at w00tstock San Diego.
Bonnie Burton on stage with The Doubleclicks band at w00tstock San Diego.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, my comedian friend Joseph Scrimshaw invited me to perform in his geek cabaret “Game Night: A Variety Show.” I did my best stand-up bits about being a Goth kid growing up in the rural Midwest — think “Beetlejuice” meets “Little House on the Prairie.” I recounted how I stopped getting bullied by my high school classmates by pretending to use a Ouija board to get homework help. I told stories about how farm kids who know how to breed livestock are ideal creature creators for Dungeons & Dragons games.

It actually went over pretty well. Nights like that don’t always happen for comedians, but when they do, they’re magical.

 “More and more, comedy is about being unique; about sharing your perspective,” Scrimshaw told me when I asked for stand-up advice. “Thanks to the internet and social media, we’re exposed to hundreds of jokes. There’s the quickly aging joke of saying ‘Too soon?’ after making a joke about a historical event. At this point, the risk is ‘Too late?’ Every straightforward take on the news of the day is being told by multiple people five minutes after it happens. That’s why I think comedy is moving more and more to the personal and the unique. If your comedy is about you, your comedy will be different.”

To hone my craft, I do comedy wherever I can: at laundromats, in line at the post office, at the hair salon or my personal favorite — during long commutes via Lyft and Uber. In fact, the last Lyft driver I managed to impress was another stand-up comedian who said I shouldn’t do too many dot-com tech jokes in my act because Los Angeles audiences are sick of “San Francisco tech bros who think they’re Patton Oswalt.”

Comedy is also about how you handle failure. Yes, I’ve bombed, and I continue to bomb regularly. A sane human would have probably given up after the 30th heckler said, “Get off the stage, you’re makin’ my ears bleed!” I’ve had audience members throw everything from drinks to paper airplanes at me. I’ve done comedy while the entire audience was live-tweeting anything but what I was saying. I’ve even had an audience member set off the fire alarm because I wouldn’t leave the stage.

Bonnie Burton talks about making bizarre Star Wars crafts on stage at w00tstock San Francisco in 2010.
Bonnie Burton talks about making bizarre Star Wars crafts on stage at w00tstock San Francisco.

But I wasn’t fazed. I’ve gone to a variety of L.A. comedy clubs to see what kind of acts are in demand. I’ve watched comedy shows on YouTube and listened to countless humor podcasts. I knew that if I consumed as much comedy as possible, I would eventually learn what worked and what didn’t.

“See everything you can possibly see — all stand-up specials, and go out to clubs to see stand-up,” original “Saturday Night Live” cast member and Groundlings co-founder Laraine Newman told me. “This is common sense, along with watching as many comedy movies and TV shows — not to imitate but to see if your own voice offers anything different.”

Putting yourself on a stage every night takes guts, but no one is going to laugh if you’re not genuinely dedicated to being funny.

“To be funnier, you gotta be hooked liked you’re on drugs,” legendary stand-up comedian George Wallace once told me. “Eat it, sleep it, drink it, dream it, write it, wear it, and know it when you see it. To be funnier is an ongoing task. When you stop laughing, you stop living.”

Author and journalist Bonnie Burton writes about pop culture and entertainment.
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