by Brett Harrison
I stuttered when I as a kid. My dad sent me to speech camp. It was fun. My camp got into the Guinness book of World Records that year for the longest ever version of “K-k-k-kumbaya.” Some of us formed a rock band. We only knew three songs. The Who’s “My G-g-g-generation,” Elton John’s “B-b-b-benny and the Jets” and David Bowie’s “Ch-ch-ch-changes.”
If you liked the last paragraph but thought it sounded too much like a standup comedy bit, there’s a reason. Because it is.
Between 1986 and 2000, give or take a year, I wrote and performed my own standup comedy routine. I won’t lie. I never got famous, and I didn’t make a lot of money. I think my total earnings were less than 100 bucks, a jar of pickles and some horseradish. But I did it, which is more than a lot of people can say.
The bit is based on my own life. I really did have a severe stutter as a kid. When I was in 4th grade, my father learned about Camp Shady Trails in Michigan. It was located on Traverse Bay in the Northern part of the Southern Peninsula. It was run by the Kresge Foundation and staffed mostly by speech pathologists trained at the University of Michigan. I went there from 1968 to 1970 and had some great times there. Needless to say, I got some good speech therapy as well.
In the mid-‘80s I took a course in standup comedy at the Learning Annex in Center city. This was smack dab in the middle of the big standup comedy boom, and Philly’s scene was quite lively at that time. The class was run by Traci Skene and Brian McKim, young working comics from Philly who were a couple then but are now married.
Their approach was to assume that if you took a class in comedy, you might have a good idea what’s funny and what’s not. So more energy was put into encouraging us to find our unique voices onstage as opposed to conforming to someone else’s idea of what’s funny. In the last week of the class, we all signed up at a local open mike and got onstage. Sort of a psychological walk on hot coals, if you will.
Although I didn’t kill my first time out, I did well enough to think I might want to try it for a while. The stuttering wasn’t an issue for me because I’d been acting and doing standup since I was a kid. But I couldn’t ignore my stuttering, either, and wrote some lines about my experiences in speech camp. In fact, I vowed to myself to make sure I never became “The Stuttering Comic.”
I had spent years working on my speech. The thought of building an act completely on stuttering was not terribly attractive to me. Still, people are going to think what they think, and there’s nothing you can do. Even though I did well onstage usually, I still stuttered offstage, and I often got the feeling that the powers-that-be were judging me more by my stuttering offstage than by my performance on stage. Of course, I could never prove it, but people I was funnier than were getting more opportunities than I was. Which could be for a lot of reasons.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I stuck with it for a long time. I didn’t get a lot of work, but I didn’t care. I kept going to open mikes and was happy when I did well. It bothered me when other people found success, but I tried not to think about it.
It was fun while it lasted. And when you click with an audience, there’s nothing like it. Although I stayed mostly in Philly, I have performed in New York, Baltimore, L.A., San Francisco and points in between. Along the way I would compete in the usual competition.
The best I ever did was to get to the quarterfinals in a competition run by Salem Cigarettes in 1999. Not primarily a comedy competition, they also had categories for singers, fashion designers and rappers.
Recently, I discovered that Philly has a pretty active comedy scene again, and I’ve been to a few open mikes. I went to a few and got some laughs but decided I’m fine if I never do it again. I’ve come to the conclusion that to do it properly takes a lot more energy than I have right now in my life. But if I do ever get back into it, I know what I’d close my show with.
T-t-t-ip your waitress.
I’m here all w-w-week.
Brett Harrison is a freelance writer who has lived in Philly for more than 30 years. At various times he has written film reviews, humorous pieces and light journalism. He is currently working on a loosely autobiographical play. He was a finalist in Philly Pitch in 2006, where he got to pitch his screenplay, “Mark of the Loser,” to a panel of industry pros.