Stage Fright, Fear, and Doing It Anyway

Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out that in surveys, people consistently list “public speaking” as one of their biggest fears. In fact, it usually ranks higher than “fear of death”. Mr. Seinfeld points out that this means for most people, if they are at a funeral, they would rather be the one in the box than the one giving the eulogy.

This is certainly true for myself, which always surprises people who know me, and some of the things I’ve done in my life. For example, I have:

  • Been a guest on radio talk shows, and worked as a radio DJ
  • Been interviewed for regional TV
  • Been a guest on a live local talk show on TV
  • Performed with a band on a cable station
  • Performed with a band in regional contests
  • Played in bands in a variety of bars, and the “Animal Circuit” (Lions, Eagles, Moose, Elk)
  • Rented myself out for kid’s parties, singing and greetings the children in a Barney costume (long story)
  • Lip-synced a song dressed as Alice Cooper as the “Guest Creature” on DC Channel 20’s “Creature Feature” starring Count Gore Dival (even longer story)
  • Given speeches to business groups
  • Done stand-up comedy on two occasions at Open Mics

During all of these things, I have suffered through different degrees of stage fright. The easiest for me was the radio DJ work. I mean, you’re just sitting in a little room by yourself, playing CDs and pre-recorded announcements, and talking into a mic. The worst? It’s a tie between doing stand-up comedy, and the live local talk show. Now after a long break from any of these public performances, I find myself getting ready to give a presentation in Quito in front of 300 or so people.

And dreading it.

Fear is an interesting beast, and going out to do something in spite of that fear is an incredibly rewarding experience. But only after it is over. The time leading up to it is not very pleasant at all.

For example, the live TV talk show I mentioned. I was living in Charles Town, West Virginia at the time. I had been working at WXVA on the radio for a while, played in some bands, and had been interviewed for local TV before, all no big deal. I had started a children’s clothing consignment store in the downtown area, so when the local Hagerstown MD TV station asked me to come in to their studio with a few examples of what we offered, and talk to the hosts of their version of a “Good Morning” type of live show, I said sure, why not?

Well, because the thought of being on live TV is pretty freakin’ terrifying, that is why not. The closer we got to the scheduled show, the more nervous I became. Actually, “nervous” isn’t quite the word. “Bat-shit crazy with fear” is a little closer, but missing the fine edge of panic that also began creeping in.

But I continued in spite of the fear.

The morning of the show, I dressed carefully, painfully aware that my fat ass was going to be on public display to anyone in the quad-state area with nothing better to do than watch this morning talk show. Somehow, moving a step at a time, I managed to get myself into the van and started driving to the studio.

On the way, panic continued to build. I soon felt almost detached from myself, like I was sitting a foot or so behind my head and watching everything. When I came to the entrance for the studio, I drove past. Couldn’t make myself turn in. I started plotting wild escape fantasies. I would call and tell them I had a flat tire, or some emergency came up, and I just couldn’t make it. Of course this was pre-cell phone days, so I would have to find a phone to call in. I turned around, and drove past the entrance one more time, meaning to go ahead and weasel out.

Unfortunately, the rusty, creaky thing I use in place of a conscience reared it’s ugly head. I decided that what I should do is go ahead to the studio, and admit to them in person that I just could not go on live TV. Sorry and all that, but although the show must go on, it must go on without me.

I felt better for my decision, so on the third pass I was able to turn down the driveway, park, and enter the studio. I walked bravely up to the reception desk, ready to face the music and back out like the brave little bitch I am.

Just as I was about to speak, one of the co-hosts came around the corner. “There you are!”, she said, grabbing my arm and leading me down a hallway. “We’re so glad you could make it, let me get you in the make-up chair and we’ll have you on the set in no time!”

“Yeah, about that” , I managed to get out, but she had already spun away and turned me over to people who were pushing me into a chair, putting a paper bib on me, and then discussing what powders to add to my face like I was a corpse they were preparing for a viewing. Which is what I felt like, and the panic came back full force.

I’m only vaguely aware of the next few minutes. I know I tried to protest several times, and tried to get the attention of the male co-host, but no one was paying any attention to me. I was just a pice of meat being processed through the system at this point. Somewhere in this haze I must have given someone my van keys, because I did see a stage hand walk by with the clothing I had brought, and he began arranging them on the set.

The set! Right over there, is the set! That’s where their going to put me and turn on the lights and cameras! I watched all of this happening around me, feeling the same kind of fear a man must feel looking at the gallows he knows he soon must mount.

The next thing I know, I’m being guided to a couch and sat down between the two robot-like co-hosts, with their perfect hair and TV smiles, while every light in the world suddenly comes on. I squint ahead and see a two huge TV cameras, with a guy in the middle saying helpful things like “OK, we are live in 5, 4, 3 …”

“You know,” I remember saying casually as I started to go numb all over, “I’m not sure if I’m about to pass out, puke, or both.” The hosts both chuckled at my wit, oblivious to the fact that I was giving them a cold, honest assessment and a chance to duck out of the way.

The rest was a blur, except that I realized at some point later that it was over, we were in a commercial break, and they were thanking me and hurrying me off the stage.

Later when I was safely home, I watched the video (I had set the VCR to record) and was amazed. I seemed calm and relaxed. I answered their questions in complete sentences, made a few joking comments, and in general seemed like a rational human being rather than someone who is about to project fluids and semi-solids out of every orifice.

So the important lesson in all of this, is no matter the fear, you can persevere if you just go ahead and do it. At least, so far. Because no matter how I tell myself I’ve done this before, it’s no big deal, you can do it again, I can still feel the first cold fingers of panic playfully running up and down my spine. I know as it gets closer, I will just feel more and more fear and panic, culminating in a huge breaking wave just as I walk out on the stage and take the mic and slide clicker.

And hopefully, I won’t pass out, or puke, or both. But you never know, do you? That’s what keeps it interesting.

I’d like to close with the words of another comedian, whose words of wisdom got me out on the stage for the other winner of The Most Frightening Event award, walking out on stage to do stand up. There is something inherently terrifying about walking out onstage in front of a crowd, and trying to make them laugh. If you gave me the choice between standing in front of 500 people telling jokes, or standing in front to them buck naked, I’d have to think it over. I’d certainly get more laughs naked.

But anyway, just before I walked out to do my 10 minute routine, I recalled what comedian Dennis Miller said he tells himself to get out under the lights. “Well, at least I’m not jumping out of a chopper in ‘Nam.”

Yes, fear is an interesting beast.