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Stand-up is my hustle but I ain’t laughin’ to the bank yet

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Artwork by Drew Shannon

“Hi, my name is Hart Shouldice and I am immensely proud of my heritage. Of course, by “my heritage” I mean that I come from a long line of Dodge Caravan owners.

A few polite laughs.

“I own a third generation Dodge Caravan. Sometimes I back my trailer into a spot without using the backup camera because I think it’s important to honor the customs of my ancestors.

This one did a little better.

“The van is a good vehicle for me because I’ve been middle-aged since I was born. For example: In high school, I didn’t need a curfew because my parents knew I had a burning desire to get home in time to watch The National. I was going to run for the door and they were yelling at me, ‘Wait a second! Who’s gonna get you home safely? »

“Peter Mansbridge! »

And we leave. So begins another night in the quirky world of small stand-up comedy.

Tonight’s show is at a restaurant in Ottawa. It’s a Tuesday and I’m one of a handful of local comedians who do 10 minutes outside the restaurant while ambivalent pedestrians and cocooned motorists pass the picture window that serves as a backdrop. The crowd occupies a few tables in the middle of the room, while empty booths line the sides. An elderly man sits alone and heads for the door after the show’s host engages him in banter that gets a little too personal. The microphone looks more like an accessory than a necessity.

I’ve been doing stand-up in earnest for a little over two years. In addition to comedy clubs, there have been shows at arcades and dive bars and anywhere else that has chairs and a liquor license. I’ll wear a suit for Saturday nights in fancy places and flannel for Monday nights in basements. I’ve done sets in Toronto and Montreal and resorted to Zoom broadcasts when it was the only option. I’m jealous of comedians who never had to ask the audience to unmute.

The age-old way to perfect your chops is to sit behind a mic several nights a week. After all, the conventional wisdom is that the comic doesn’t decide what’s funny, the audience does. And the only way to find out what the audience finds funny is to stand up in front of it over and over and over again. Stand-up is different from other creative endeavors in that feedback from a live audience is an integral part of the craft, and that feedback is the one surefire tool with which we can refine our material.

The problem for me is that going out four nights a week isn’t doable, at least not every week. With two young children and a job that requires frequent after-hours attention, I’m at a different stage in life than most people when they start to stand. Doing sets on consecutive nights is an infrequent indulgence. So when I can’t go out to see shows, I focus on writing, doodling in notebooks on a living room desk long after the rest of my house has fallen asleep. Alternatively, I’ll stay up after bedtime studying stand-up specials like I’m an undergrad prepping for finals, trying to figure out the structure and timing of each joke and the rhythm of the sets. longer. I record all my own sets, listen back with a critical ear, and solicit feedback from a few text threads. My wife has been a patient and thoughtful sounding board, and I crack jokes on solo skis and bike rides.

Back at the restaurant, I settle into a true story about my dog ​​eating my neighbor’s jazz cabbage, and feeling the effects a lot. “She was stoned for three days,” I explain. “She’s fully recovered now, except she’s going do not stop trying to talk to me about Joe Rogan. This one lands, but the sound of laughter has to rival the hum of a jet engine from an industrial mixer behind the bar.

Because my stage time is limited compared to that of my peers, I have to treat each set as it counts. While other newcomers may “write from the stage”, work things out in real time, and refer to notes as they go – all totally acceptable parts of the process – my practice is to provide an organized set each time I go up there. I hope that makes me feel like I know what I’m doing, but I also know that sometimes a neat set isn’t what the show demands, and performing in front of a crowd of three like I’m giving myself thoroughly The show tonight made me feel like I can’t read a play. I surfed big laughs to sold-out venues, but I also bombed. Hard.

Yet, I have established a modest foothold in our local scene. Producers and bookers have become more generous knowing me. Stains are happening more regularly now and I’m enjoying increased paid work, which feels good even though my day job is safe at the moment. My gear pool has also grown, with new jokes being worked on among older vigils and each item being in a constant state of evolution based on instructions from the night-to-night crowd. Good sets get me pumped and hard ones keep me hungry.

I punctuate my 10 minutes at the restaurant with a reliable reminder of previous material regarding my van. It doesn’t tear down the house, but it does make me laugh tonight.

“Thank you so much! I’m Hart Shouldice, enjoy the rest of the show.

Someone coughs as I leave the stage.

Hart Shouldice lives in Ottawa.

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