Laughing and Learning

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Karen McClintock meets Homer Simpson in SF during Stand Up Comedy School

My stand-up comedy teacher said, “Even when you’re not funny, you’re interesting.” I might have that quote carved on my gravestone. He said this to me the week before our final exam for the class – a ten-minute stand-up routine at the famous San Francisco venue, The Purple Onion, in the wood paneled cramped basement of Kell’s Irish Restaurant and Bar. He’d put me on first.  I was, of course, terrified, and exhilarated at the same time. After all, some very famous comics and musicians had been on that stage before me, greats like Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, and Maya Angelou. During the class he had asked me to name comics I wanted to be like, and I mentioned Phyllis and Minnie Pearl.

I was the oldest student in the class by decades. A diverse mix of twenty and thirty somethings scratched their heads and had never heard of the comics I aspired to be like. The teacher said, “Minnie Pearl, was she the lady with the tags on her hats?” He had that right, but he knew nothing of her decent self-deprecating humor. Each week as I practiced in front of the class, the teacher dared me to “get raunchier.” I’d be briefly offended and give it another try. After all, he knew who he was getting when he gave me the clergy discount on my tuition.

Stand-up comedy school was on my very short bucket list. When a colleague offered me a job at her parish in the summer or 2021, to cover her Sabbatical, I found a class in the heart of Chinatown. I happily spent every Wednesday catching the ferry from Sausalito to San Francisco to learn the craft of stand-up. On Friday nights I dropped into a local bar with an open mic and taught the crowd some things they didn’t know about sex. They learned it while they were laughing.

The Purple Onion was packed on the August night of the final. My husband and a few friends were in the crowd. I stepped up to that mic like I had done this my whole life. And I couldn’t have done it until that moment when the shame I’d carried for decades was behind me, and I was truly free to laugh at myself with other broken and redeemed humans. And I opened with, “What kind of sex did you have during your summer vacations?” They were temporarily stunned silent. But, not for long–I had a decent set of jokes to follow. And they laughed, blessedly, they laughed. I was funny and interesting. And now, when I want to surprise people with a secret about my life I say, “Covid-19 ended my stand-up career.” And like every good joke, it’s mostly true.

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