The Trouble With Tremors
Firsts are always memorable. They may not be great, but you always remember your first kiss, your first time getting drunk, and the first time making the sweet and tender nooky, which, hopefully, were three separate occasions. Stand up comedy is no different. My first time on stage was terrifying. I was afraid of shaking in front of people, I was afraid of not being funny, and I was afraid of looking really stupid. When the time finally came, all three happened on the same occasion.
What I didn’t expect was the adrenaline rush. Doing stand up comedy for the first time is a lot like riding a roller coaster. You close your eyes, take a big gulp, and let out a blood-curdling scream the entire time, but when the ride stops, you want to go back again and again.
There is something about making people laugh that is very addicting. It is attention, affection, and power, all in the same response. When you realize that your words can cause a visceral reaction in other people, it is pretty amazing. It makes you feel that your sense of humor is your life’s calling. It’s like the ending scene of the movie “Boogie Nights” (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the 1997 flick). Dirk Diggler, the porn star played by actor Marky Mark, exposes his enormous penis, and you realize that to him, his huge wiener is the greatest gift he has to offer the world. In the story, Dirk is being used in the worst of ways, by the worst of people, but he sees his giant endowment as something that makes him unique and worthy of love. This scene breaks my heart on a million different levels, but every person who thinks of themselves as funny feels about their humor the way Dirk does about his giant schlong. It is our secret weapon against the world. It is our blessing that makes us stand out from everyone else. It is the essence of what makes us special.
When I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot going for me. My brother Olin—who’s four years older than me—was the smart one. I was a tomboy and had no interest in being a “girly-girl.” After I turned eight, my wavy blond hair turned brown, course, and unruly curly and my complexion began to resemble a large Meat Lover’s Pizza. Needless to say, Mother Nature pretty much concurred that beauty wasn’t going to be my path in life. I was always funny, though. I remember being in second grade and doing an impression of Jimmy Carter during recess. In hindsight, I was actually doing an impression of Dan Akroyd’s Jimmy Carter, but I remember it being a hit. I was high-strung and constantly talking. The television show “Mork and Mindy” was popular at the time. My classmates starting calling me “Mork.” I am not sure if it was meant to be an insult or not, but I took it as the highest of compliments. I even had my Mom buy me rainbow suspenders. In my extremely awkward adolescent years to come, I would wonder why I was never asked out much. This should have been a huge clue.
In addition to all my quirky personality issues, I also have a neurological condition called Essential Tremor. It makes me shake like a leaf on a good day. When my adrenaline gets pumping, I tremble uncontrollably. I can’t remember not shaking, even as a little kid. The doctors told my parents it was hypoglycemia, so for a long time I couldn’t eat any sugar. People—adults and children alike—would always comment on my quivering hands. I remember getting my feelings hurt a few times when kids at school teased me about it. I got good at avoiding games like “Operation,” the egg toss, and “Jenga”, the most heartless of all activities for those with a movement disorder. You may ask how playing a game like “Jenga” could possibly be a stressful activity. That’s easy. It requires players to take turns removing one block at a time from a tower constructed of 54 blocks. Each block removed is then balanced on top of the tower, to create a progressively taller, but less stable, structure. No one ever wanted me to be on their Jenga team at a party, because the shaking of the table by my trembling hands would have toppled the tower before I even took my turn.
I kept hoping my tremors were something that I would outgrow, something from which I could move on. That never happened. I remember getting frustrated and thinking I would never get past the shaking. In some ways, I never have. I still have the tremors. They only seem to get worse with age. I have grown to hate them. I hate my tremors in the same way that I hate my allergies. They are both two internal forces within my body trying to dictate what I can and can’t do. Sometimes I want to rebel against my own anatomy—rough it up in a back alley, let it know that I am charge, demand it stop being a bully. “Fuck you, body…you don’t know me.”
I remember the first time I realized that being funny could be rewarded in school, rather than get me sent to sit in the hallway after being “hilarious” in the classroom. When Olin was in high school, he joined the Forensics and Debate team. He was fantastic. He was the LeBron James of debating. He was a beast at both the pros and the cons, and he could do rebuttals like a champ. He would always win. It was apparent that he was having his Dirk Diggler moment when, ever-formidable in his dark gray JC Penney suit, he destroyed his opponents one by one.
I enjoyed watching Olin, but I thought the actual debating part was boring. I would sometimes watch other people who did Forensics and thought it looked like fun. It was acting with just one person. The Forensics participants recited poetry, prose, and dramatic and humorous monologues. So when I started high school, I joined the Forensics team. I was hoping that this would be the avenue that would validate that I had a real gift. I could prove to the world that I was indeed funny and not just the class clown. My “Boogie Nights dick” was trying to peek out.
I competed in the fables and storytelling division. I found an old Swedish fable about wind and why wind blows from different directions. The winds in the story were personified, and I gave each one its own accent. I made the West wind have a surfer accent, while the South wind had a drawl, the Northern wind was Canadian, and the East coast wind was a wicked awesome Bostonian. I thought it was very clever. Unfortunately, my tremor was still very present. I would always get last place because the judges had seen the shaking and interpreted the tremor as anxiety. On my evaluations, they’d write comments like “Don’t be so nervous” and “She was shaking the whole time.”
Also in my freshman year of high school, the Drama Club decided instead of doing a long play that they would do “An Evening of One Acts.” I tried out for the lead in one of the comedies, called “The Man in the Bowler Hat.” My role was Mary, a frumpy housewife with a boring husband who has to confront and apprehend an intruder in their house. I was worried that my shaking would prevent me from getting the role. I decided to just to go balls to the wall and give it all I had. If I didn’t get the part, at least I would have tried my best. It has been 30 years, and I still remember the huge laughs at the audition. I asked the drama teacher about my shaking. She said as long as I had my lines memorized and my blocking correct, no one could really notice it from the stage. She was right. I got the part. It was a great run for two weekends in my little high school. One of the teachers said that watching me was like watching a young Carol Burnett. What a compliment!
I remember thinking that maybe I had finally found my destiny. I dropped out of Forensics and took Drama class in my sophomore year. The teacher from the year before had quit. A new teacher had taken her place. The new teacher wasn’t very attractive and couldn’t say her “R’s.” She talked like the cartoon character Elmer Fudd. I remember not liking her at all, and I wondered how a person with a noticeable impairment could try to be a performer. The fact that I was a weird-looking teenager with a tremor was lost on me, and the irony that she was kind of like me didn’t occur to me until I got older. I didn’t stick with Drama. I went on to making hanging out with my friends and being the class clown my main priority in high school.
But as the years went by, I found myself still performing in front of people. There was something about being in front of a crowd that kept drawing me in. In my late twenties, I had climbed my way up the corporate ladder by a rung or two. I had a thankless, shitty call center job and managed to get promoted to a trainer position. I learned how to use politically correct language to teach loads of other people how to work a thankless, shitty call center job, but I was being paid to speak in front of people. It wasn’t theater, it wasn’t stand up, but I could still make people laugh.
Initially being a trainer was fun, but it was very stressful. My first class began to notice my shaking. Rather than asking me about it, a bunch of students went in as a group to Human Resources. They wanted to complain that I was trembling. The class had observed it as a sign of weakness. Human Resources went to my boss, who ripped them a new one. She wanted to know why HR hadn’t asked the students if they had approached me about the tremors. Had HR asked me about the tremors? From then on, I was instructed to inform each new class that I had Essential Tremor.
It was humiliating. I didn’t know how to bring it up.“Hey, class full of newly hired employees, I have something wrong with my brain that makes me shake as a reaction to my own adrenaline. Now who wants to hear about their benefits package?” I kept wondering whether, if I were in a wheelchair or had missing limbs, I would be asked to address that before every class of new hires.
I was a trainer for only five years. My life continued to evolve, and I eventually had two children with my husband. I stayed home with the babies initially. My son and daughter are only 19 months apart. I love them with all of my heart and soul, but being at home and devoting myself only to caring for them was slowly driving me crazy. One Sunday afternoon, I was looking through the newspaper and saw a schedule for a local performing arts center. I’d been thinking about a toddler music or dance class for my then-two-year-old son, but suddenly I noticed information about an adult stand up comedy class. Something in my head told me that if I didn’t try it right then, I never would. It was the same little voice I’d been ignoring for years. I could usually shut it up by justifying and procrastinating, but now it was now calling my bluff…. “Come on, you Pussy! Are you ever gonna put your money where your mouth is? You think you are so funny and so special, but you’ve never tried stand up comedy, not even once…it’s now or never. Are you gonna be someone or just someone’s Mom for the rest of your life?” My voice in my head can be a dick sometimes.
I took the class. At first, I didn’t even tell my husband it was a stand up class. He thought it was just another class that I was taking in my endless pursuit to get my Bachelors degree—which I still haven’t earned. I didn’t tell him because I wanted an “escape” clause or one of those “chicken” exits that they have on the roller coaster lines at amusement parks. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that I had the chutzpah to actually go through with it. I performed in class for the first time and confessed to my husband that it was stand up class I was attending on Monday nights. After performing in class, I went to one open mic, then another and another and another. Stand up went from being an escape/hobby to being a calling. I soon began emceeing and then featuring. I even occasionally headline. My tremors have been a constant battle all the while. I noticeably shook when I was a novice. I have tried every approach to deal with it. I’ve held the mic with one hand, held it with two hands. I’ve not held it all and kept it in the stand. I’ve written and performed material about shaking, and other times I’ve gone on stage and never uttered a word about it. I’ve consulted other comics. In the end, I’ve just gotten so comfortable with being on stage now that the tremors lessen. I still deal with them in my daily life, but when I have a mic in my hand and hear the laughter, nothing else seems to matter. It is like the happiness of soul trumps the limitations of my body.
The big picture of my life is pretty amazing. I have a great family, a few people I can call true friends, and a gift for making others laugh. Just as in “Boogie Nights,” my show will go on. I’ll strut my stuff and display my prowess for all the world to see.
Robin Savage Writer’s Biography
Robin Savage is a Mother of two school-aged children by day and a Stand-Up comedian by night. She has been known to mix the two up and offer her kids a two-item minimum while helping a heckler with his homework. Robin has played comedy clubs and festivals across the country. She won a Best Actress award for a comedy short that she co-wrote in the 2014 St. Pete Comedy Film Festival. When Robin isn’t performing comedy, she can be seen, late at night, Googling her own name.
Robin on Twitter is @kwirkybird
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