(Excerpted from Stage Fright: 40 Stars Tell You How They Beat America’s #1 Fear, by Mick Berry and Michael Edelstein, PhD. The book includes interviews with Jason Alexander, Maya Angelous, David Brenner, Olympia Dukakis, Melissa Etheridge, Ron Paul, and over 30 others.)
Larry “Bubbles” Brown is a San Francisco-based comedian. In first grade, while watching clouds at recess, he realized we are all going to die. He then lied in under the swings until the teachers brought him back to class and sent him home with a note.
His stand up career began at the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco in l98l, and he rode the comedy boom of the ‘80s. He explains it crashed because “anything in life you like will be taken away from you.” Brown stayed at it because “you can’t beat working half an hour a night.”
He has appeared on over 25 TV shows (three times on David Letterman), in the movie Kiterunner, in numerous clubs in California and Las Vegas, and frequently opens for Dana Carvey and Dave Attell. He holds the record for the longest gap (over 20 years) between appearances on Letterman.
He hopes to start a vegetarian minimalist pessimist movement. His philosophy of life: “Expect the worst and you will never be disappointed.”
MB: How long have you been performing?
LBB: Since March 3rd, 1981. It was a Tuesday. Absolutely true.
MB: What were the circumstances?
LBB: I always wanted to do stand-up, but I never thought I could. Then I heard about open mikes. So I started to hang out at The Punchline and the Holy City Zoo. I think I watched the open mikes for about a year. Then I finally put a few minutes of material together and I went up on March 3rd. The rest is history. A toboggan of failure.
MB: Tell me about the first time you were anxious or nervous on stage. What were the circumstances?
LBB: I just remember the first few months I did stand-up—I had a day job then—and I remember being so nervous about going on that night that I didn’t eat for the whole day. Then I came home after I did my set and ate like five pounds of food at midnight.
MB: So how did you feel? Can you elaborate on that?
LBB: I just remember feeling anxious until I did the set, then after I did it, it was a real relief.
MB: How anxious?
LBB: Not being able to eat. And I’d be thinking, “I’m going to be doing this for five minutes in twelve hours.” That’s all I could think about the whole day. In fact, I used to walk up to the Holy City Zoo on days I wasn’t performing, and I’d be nervous just being in the area.
MB: So what were you telling yourself? What were your thoughts?
LBB: Just “Please don’t bomb.” That was the big thing.
MB: So what was so bad about bombing? What were you telling yourself about that?
LBB: It’s like it is today. Although the first few times I went on stage I did pretty well. I don’t think I bombed until I got six weeks into it, and I remember how traumatic that was.
MB: What were your thoughts then?
LBB: Well, when you’re standing up in front of a bunch of people who are staring at you in silence, you look like a complete dork. And my humor tends to be somewhat personal, so I take that as a real personal rejection.
MB: How did your nervousness change as you continued to perform?
LBB: It just lessened. The more you do it, the more you get confidence.
MB: What were the circumstances when it lessened?
LBB: I don’t remember. I just remember before the end of the year  I was actually able to have a meal before I went on stage. And keep it down.
MB: So how did you feel then?
LBB: It got to be kind of a good nervous. That was when the comedy boom was starting, so it was an exciting place to be around.
MB: So what were you telling yourself? What were your thoughts then?
LBB: After I started doing well, I thought, “Wow. It’s so cool to get paid to do a gig.” And after three years, I got to where I could quit the day job, and I actually made a living doing comedy.
MB: So were there any thoughts you were telling yourself that made you feel more excited than nauseous?
LBB: No, I think it was just doing it for a few months and getting over that initial horror of going on stage.
MB: Did you feel different?
LBB: When you do well, you feel pretty good. But when you bomb, you hate the world.
MB: So you hated the world. Did you ever get to where you weren’t hating the world?
LBB: No. I still hate the world to this day.
MB: [Laughs] Now come on.
LBB: These days, whether I bomb or kill, I still hate the world.
MB: Do you get nervous when you perform now?
LBB: No, it’s like bombing is just really uncomfortable. You can’t wait to get off stage. But it doesn’t have the same effect it did twenty years ago. Same with killing too.
MB: So rather than being horrible . . .
LBB: It doesn’t mean anything. All you can hope for is to meet a hot chick after the show.
MB: So before it felt horrible?
LBB: Before, it was like a life or death matter. Like, “I gotta kill or die.” Now, it’s just, “I do what I do. If they don’t like me, screw ‘em; if they like me, great.”
MB: What’s different about your attitude now?
LBB: I guess I have the attitude “I don’t care,” which is supposed to be good. If I bomb, I think, “It wasn’t my night.” I forget about it in five minutes. Whereas in the old days, if I bombed I’d think about it for a week.
MB: What’s the worst case of stage fright you’ve ever had?
LBB: When I did Letterman, I was so wired up I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was so nervous, and I had dark rings under my eyes, because I hadn’t slept in thirty-eight hours. And they changed my set around. Fortunately, I got bumped. That may have been the worst. They brought me back a month later. Of course I took a Valium the night before and slept like a log.
MB: So under those circumstances where you didn’t get any sleep, and they rearranged your set, how did you feel then?
LBB: It was awful. I was dead tired, but I was so wired I couldn’t sleep. And I thought about bombing on national TV. It would’ve been horrific.
MB: So what were your thoughts about that?
LBB: Sheer panic.
MB: What were your thoughts connected to the sheer panic?
LBB: [Laughs] That maybe I could fake my way through it.
MB: But if you bombed on national television, what would that have meant to you?
LBB: I would have quit the business at that point; it would’ve been so humiliating. Back then, a lot of comics did bomb on Letterman. They didn’t have the audience miked, and I saw a lot of guys go down hard. I literally would have quit comedy.
MB: When don’t you get nervous now?
LBB: I rarely get nervous now. If there’s an audition for something that’s big, I get a little antsy.
MB: But aside from that you don’t get nervous?
LBB: No. I feel numb. I just go in and do it. I’m like a factory worker. Plop those jokes in and get out.
MB: What are your thoughts around that?
LBB: I just hope I can keep doing this. It’s a tough way to make a living, but I don’t want to do anything else.
MB: In considering your own nervousness, what role do your thoughts, beliefs or attitudes about yourself play in it?
LBB: Hmmm. I don’t know. The only thing that I think about nervousness now—and I’ve thought this ever since I first went on stage—is that I’ve never been able to remember all of my material. And that must come from nerves. I cannot go up and do everything I intend to do. I always go up and leave stuff out. And it’s always been very frustrating.
MB: So what role do you think your thoughts play in that?
LBB: A self-sabotaging role. They say a lot of performers have it [stage fright]. They don’t want success or something. I don’t remember all of my stuff, and I don’t always do the best editing. I’m going down like the Hindenburg.
MB: What advice on stage fright would you have for other performers?
LBB: Take lots of drugs.
MB: [Laughs] And aside from that?
LBB: Just keep doing it. It’ll get better with time. You’ll get used to it. It’s like hitting a baseball—just keep doing it and it won’t be as hard. You just get tougher. The more you do it, the tougher you get. You get rid of the stage nerves. It’s like anything. Like jumping out of a plane. I’m sure it’s terrifying the first time, but after ten times you might get to where you like it.
MB: As people become more seasoned, what do you think they’re thinking that helps them not be as nervous?
LBB: They might realize, “This is a great way to make a living; it’s fun. So why be nervous?” Although I think you need a little nervousness to give you a certain amount of energy.
MB: Is there any last thing you can mention that’s been really helpful to you in dealing with nervousness on stage?
LBB: I remember what Mike Pritchard told me when I was really upset one night. He said, “You’re in a small room. Maybe thirty people in there. Outside of that room, no one knows who you are or what you did. It doesn’t matter.” That made a lot of sense.
MB: What were you thinking to yourself before he told you that?
LBB: I was just thinking, “God, I suck. The world hates me.” And hell, the world hadn’t even seen me.
- Letterman Lets His Guard Down (esquire.com)