Comedy is an unforgiving art form. It’s just you and the spot light and the microphone and a crowd of strangers. For introverted people, it is the stuff of nightmares. But for some reason, every night somebody somewhere goes up on stage for the first time. And after that they are never the same. Everyone remembers their first time. But what makes someone keep standing up?
I posed this question to local comedian Chesney Goodson. Chesney is a laid-back, well-dressed, bald young black dude with a well-trimmed beard. He has been doing comedy for five years in Charlotte and has also performed in New York and LA. Recently, he opened for Damon Wayans at the Charlotte Comedy Zone. His energetic stage presence and goofy laugh endears him to audiences everywhere. Chesney is one of those guys who is just as likely to get a laugh with his silly observations on Power Rangers as he is with the story of his attempted suicide. Nothing is off-limits, and everything is side-splittingly funny.
Chesney makes it look easy on stage, but even he had to start somewhere.
“My first time doing comedy was at Skandalos, which was just a Mexican restaurant that every week Tone-X turned into a comedy club,” Chesney said, taking a drag from his cigarette as the birds chirped on his backporch, “I’ll never forget it.”
“I had to go up first because it was my first time. I had just been fired that morning,” he said, “I was confident it would go well, I thought you just go up and be funny and look nice.”
“But I got booed off stage,” Chesney said.
“Because the joke I was doing was already a D.L. Hughley joke. But I never watched comedy so I didn’t know that,” he said, “I was talking about being fired, and how black people fire you different than white people.”
“But later I would come to find out that in black rooms it’s okay to do similar material, ‘cause that’s what everybody else do. I just didn’t sell it properly,” he laughed, “I wasn’t confident in my stealing!”
“How did it feel getting booed?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s just like Chapelle said: ‘oh this ain’t that bad’” Chesney chuckled, “I was like ‘Oh okay, so this is what getting booed feels like!”
“I remember watching Apollo and seeing niggas get booed all the time and I’d be like ‘Damn, that’s so embarrassing. I’d kill myself afterward.’” Chesney said, “But I remember walking off stage and being that nigga that said, ‘Yo I’m not gonna kill myself but…that sucked!’”
“I’ve never been booed before,” I said, “I bet it feels terrible.”
“You know, not really, cause what ended up happening was, I looked around at the motherfuckers booing me and I’m like, ‘Someone need to boo you niggas!’”
“So that’s what I did. I started dissing the audience like ‘Boo you with the picnic table sweater on’. And they started laughing. I started bringing them back. But one guy kept booing me. He said, ‘How many times I got to boo you before you get the point??!’”
“That’s how long they were booing me,” Chesney points out with a chuckle.
“And I said, ‘As many payments as you took up to Eastland mall for that fake-ass Jesus piece you got on!”
By now I was cracking up. “You said that to him?!” I asked.
“Yeah!” Chesney said, “That’s when Tone-X lit the light for me to get off stage…”
I lost it.
“And Tone-X… old scary-ass nigga that he was,” Chesney continued, “When I got off, instead of saying ‘hey this was first time on stage you guys are assholes,’ he said, ‘THAT’S GOD! WHEN YOU GET BOOED THAT MANY TIMES, THAT’S GOD TELLING YOU THAT YOU SUCK!!!’”
I couldn’t believe it! “Who does that?!” I exclaimed.
“Tone-X, this forty year old dude with braces,” Chesney said, “He actually invoked God to tell me how much I sucked.”
“But getting booed was a blessing in disguise,” Chesney added, “Because I could have picked up bad habits that night.”
“After I got off stage there was a guy there, I think it was Corey Manning. He was travelling, and he was like, ‘Yo man, you got some funny stuff. But it just wasn’t right for this room. Don’t just stick to black rooms. You should try mainstream rooms.’ And I remembered I responded like ‘Oh! Okay! Yup! Yup!’ like I knew what he was talking about.”
“But I didn’t know. I had no idea, because I didn’t know anything about comedy,” Chesney said, “I didn’t know anything about the process – or that there even was a process to comedy. That there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.”
“One thing I learned is when I was getting booed the first thing I thought was, ‘oh yeah, they just don’t like me,” Chesney said, “And I’m not going to go out of my way to make you like me.”
“Which is a good trait…and also a bad trait!” Chesney laughed.
People who know Chesney will realize that this statement could sum up his entire career in Charlotte to this point.
“Yeah, I remember my first time on stage man,” I said, “I didn’t get booed but it kinda felt like I did. I describe it like that dream where you go up in front of the class in your underwear.”
“Yeah, Comedy is just going to work in your underwear,” Chesney related, “I think Jerry Seinfeld said that.
I asked Chesney, “So, after all that, what made you come back to comedy? Why did you go up the second time?”
“Because I realized I wasn’t going to make it as a rapper!” he said, “I wish I believed in myself more, because I’d probably be richer now. I would have sold my soul a long time ago. Like, ‘Fuck it man let’s pop molly!’”
“But I like the feeling. I like being comfortable, and when I’m on stage I feel comfortable,” Chesney said, “I feel like you can say stuff that you couldn’t normally. People listen to you more.”
“I love relating to strangers,” Chesney explained, “That says a lot. Especially when a black person can go into a room full of different ethnicities and essentially we all come out laughing about the same thing.”
“The joke may be about me, but they can relate to feelings. That’s what I like more than just a funny joke. You related to how I felt, you know what I mean?” Chesney asked, “That’s more powerful than simply putting on a good show because that’s somebody that you remember. Someone you felt like you built something with on stage.”
That pretty much describes how I felt the first time I saw Chesney on stage. He performed the very first night I ever went on stage. I remember hearing him share very personal anecdotes – really touching stuff that you would normally only tell to your closest confidant. I remember thinking that this is what comedy could be. And I realized how far I had yet to go until I was brave enough to do that myself.
Many open-mic comedians joke that stand up comedy is just free group therapy, and they’re not too far off. There’s something addicting about communal confession, not to mention the adrenaline rush of that first laugh.
But fortune favors the brave, and only those who survive that first time on stage can go on to make rooms full of strangers giggle and guffaw.
Stand-Up Comedy is no joke.