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What The Hell Happened?!

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Published: April 24, 2012
Excerpt from Performing & Telling Your Life



Begin with JUAN sitting at a table.


I turn 20 this year. Looking back on nearly two decades of professionally being myself, one thought persistently dawned on me: I had so much potential.

          (show depressing picture of JUAN)


What the hell happened to me?! My life could be going in a much better direction, at least by conventional standards. I took the liberty of getting in my time machine and asking myselves what my life goals were.

JUAN (AGE 5): I wanna be a businessman and a skiing instructor.

JUAN (AGE 8): I want to become a scientist.

JUAN (AGE 11): I want to be a zoologist.

JUAN (AGE 14): I’m gonna be a respected historian of Japanese language and culture.


Full respect to the confidence, but I don’t like 14-year-old JUAN. Kid’s kind of an asshole.

JUAN (AGE 17): I wanna write and tell jokes for a living.


There! What is that?! One of those things was not like the others! What the hell happened?! I was on the path to attend grad school and become a level-3 smart person. Why did I suddenly want to do comedy for a living? Did television corrupt me in any way? Did anything I see leave a lasting impression on me? This brought me back to middle school — you know, when you decide to stop watching cartoons and flip further into the cable lineup. And where some kids went over to MTV, I started watching Comedy Central. At the time, a lot of the comedy you’d see was about things like racism and politics… very external stuff. I never remembered any of the comedians’ names; stand-up comedy just seemed to fill time. Then this happened:

          (JUAN plays clip from Comedy Central Presents: Demetri Martin)


“I had a great Christmas, this year. I set a personal record on Christmas: I got my shopping done three weeks ahead of time. I had all the presents back in my apartment; I was halfway through wrapping them, and I realized ‘Damn, I used the wrong wrapping paper.’ The paper I used said ‘Happy Birthday.’ I didn’t want to waste it, so I wrote ‘Jesus’ on it.”


My brain spontaneously combusted. Where had this been all my life?! It was like I listened to the Ramones, or Zeppelin for the first time! Who was this person? It was Demetri Martin. I wrote his name down. This guy was different. He was special. No comedy for me, though. Not yet. I still wanted a PhD, at least for a little while longer.




My PhDream ended halfway through high school. Scholarship was still respectable, but the idea of fighting grown men for tenure frightened me.

          (shows picture of professors)


Seriously — these fuckers would tear me apart. These guys are from Appalachian State. It’s prison rules all day, everyday over there. So, I was back to square one — what was I going to do now? It was 2008, my English teacher told the class to write something funny about the election season and to have fun with it. So I wrote down weird thoughts I had, like how John McCain’s so old, his first STD was the plague. She read it aloud in class; it got a decent-sized laugh. And that’s just a thought you have when you’re alone and live inside your head for sixteen years. “Okay, I might be able to do something with this.” Because I was curious, I Googled the average work schedule The Daily Show. (1) Watch news clips. (2) generate ideas at the writers’ table (i.e. make each other laugh) (3) go write (4) submit (5) optional: win a crap-ton of Emmys. This sounded like the greatest job ever! And they get dental! I was on board! A career in comedy was for me. I was committed now. “Funny” wasn’t just a skill at parties anymore, this was a job requirement. My life suddenly depended on it. And not class clown funny, but more like snarky-guy-with-glasses funny. Other people now became my audience, and I desperately needed their approval. Whenever we had groups presentations, I wrote them like sketches, which were crap. But they got a lot of laughs.

Luckily, because I was boring and lame, I got to be the senior valedictorian. You know what that meant? STAGE TIME! I was booked for a six minute set at the Miami-Dade College Auditorium, in front of a “paying” crowd! That was fun, I ripped into the principal a few times. She didn’t seem to like that… I don’t think her brain understands sarcasm. Crappy sketches, a funny speech, but no stand-up yet. That had to wait until I got here, to New York City. I like to listen to comedians talk about comedy, so I have hours upon hours of podcasts and CDs of comics talking shop. One of my favorite bits of info was from the late, great George Carlin, who I think is the greatest stand-up to have ever lived. When asked to give one piece of advice to young stand-ups, he said, “Just go up as many times as you possible can.” So I did stand-up for the very first time at an open-mic in February of last year/2011. I don’t have anything recorded from that evening, but I have an audio sample that serves as a good equivalent of what most of the set was like.



You hear that sound?! Yeah — that’s exactly what it was like! Although, I do remember the first joke. So, if I may:

(JUAN gets up; gets into Stand-up mode.)



“Hey, everybody. I think my grandma’s a Nazi, ’cuz I looked into her medicine cabinet and saw a bottle of Polish remover.” It was a five-minute set; I only managed to write two minutes. It was the first time; I knew it was going to be horrible, but not that horrible. Another comic asked me if that was my first time, and told me not to get discouraged, but the damage was done. 

          (show picture of wounded soldier in Vietnam)


It reminds me a lot like this picture. That’s me on the stretcher. Except it wasn’t Vietnam. It was the corner of 78th and Broadway. And there was nobody to help me. I had to drag my mangled ego back to my apartment. I wanted go back soon, but I just couldn’t. It still wanted to perform comedy, I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and write material. I didn’t touch stand-up for two and a half months, which felt like an eternity. April rolled around; Demetri Martin wrote a book. I found out that he was doing a signing at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. He was one of my “guys” now. He was more than just a comedian I really liked, now he’s probably the biggest influence on how I think about comedy. So I got there three hours early to make sure I got a good seat. This wasn’t gonna be same mistake I made at the Tina Fey signing a month earlier. Eight hundred people were at her signing. I got there two hours early, and I barely got a spot in the horizontal nosebleeds. Fortunately for me, Demetri didn’t draw a crowd that huge. Four hours later, this happened:

          (show picture of JUAN and Demetri)


I wanted to tell him how much of an influence he was in my life, and that seeing him for the first time wracked my brain. What I actually said was, “You… jokes… I… like… write…” Because he’s so much cooler than I am, he translate my dork-speech and asked if I was a comic. I told him about that one open-mic, and that it was as painful and awkward as one could imagine. Without any hesitation, he said “That’s the way to do it! You know, after a while, bombing isn’t really that bad.” Now, I don’t know if it’s possible for a brain to have an erection, but a raging mental hard-on is the only way to describe what that moment felt like. I did an open-mic two weeks later, not feeling like a flaming turd afterward.



          (JUAN gets up)


Stand-up comedy has ruined me for life. As horrible as my first time was, I still can’t imagine not doing it ever again. Stand-up is just something I do now. It’s like brushing my teeth, in that I try to do each thing at least once a week. But I sometimes wondered if I’m doing it for the right reasons. You know, am I a stand-up at heart? Then one day I watched Louis CK talking shop with Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Ricky Gervais. Anyway, Louis said, “When I started out, I never thought about being famous, and I never really cared about being that good. I just wanted to be one of those guys.” To which Seinfeld answered, “That’s a great attitude!” BRAIN BONER! Turns out, I’m not as big of a jackass as I thought I was! I’ve been doing stand-up regularly for the past seven months, and it feels like I’m getting somewhere. But I don’t exactly know where, though. The people there know me. They let me host open-mics from time to time, which is cool. I can tell that to my mom. Moms like clear objectives; she won’t think I’m wasting my time. It’s still a real grind, but I’m starting to have fun now. Am I a good comic? Of course not! Do I have occasional moments of brilliance? Not really. Can I make a group of strangers laugh? That’s debatable. But I don’t mind sucking all that much anymore. I like putting the work in, and I accept anything that comes back with open arms, which is something I’ve never done before, or something schools has ever done for me. So stand-up comedy has ruined me. I turned into “one of those guys.” That’s what the hell happened to me. My name’s Juan Escalante, I’ll be here all week. Remember to tip your waitresses. Enjoy the rest of your night.

          (JUAN exits. End of play.)



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