Memories of the Chevalier
I remember the moment when we found out the big news. It was a muggy August day in Maryland, with the sun shining so brightly that the whole day was spent squinting. Gazing out my window, I looked towards my phone and read a text from club president Erika Chen that said that we, the Tufts Stand-Up Comedy Collective, whose Zoom performances that year garnered no more than 40 people (including the 13 performers), were going to perform at the Chevalier Theatre in Medford for the stand-up comedy orientation show, a show historically done at the weirdly named and horrendously lit Hotung Cafe.
Typically, the Chevalier Theater (or rather Theatre), whose name sounds more like a Cleveland NBA team than a historic performing center (or shall I say centre) would be a location completely unknown to me. But I knew exactly what and where this was—two weeks before that moment, I had bought tickets to see Hasan Minhaj perform at this very same theatre in October. When I bought the tickets, I was excited to see the person who inspired me to try out comedy in person. It was Hasan, performing bits on the Daily Show and later his comedy special Homecoming King, that first put the idea of trying comedy in my head. Little did I know that I would share that same stage just a few weeks before him.
What followed in the weeks after we found out was disorienting and blurry. There were questions, dread, excitement, and ignorance. Like some sort of impending doom, it lingered in the back of my mind, haunting me at the most random moments; it felt like the Mayan calendar situation of 2012 all over again. But there was also an immense feeling of gratitude, an understanding that very, very few people have this type of opportunity.
Days before the performance, there was a slight moment of panic on my end when we found out how long the set was supposed to be—a whopping 10 minutes. I had yet to write a single word. In my experience of writing jokes for stand-up, it has never been a formal process—I usually just think of the jokes in moments where I stare off into space. The issue was that when I was falling into my world, a headspace filled with different roads of topics and punchlines, there always was a fork, a massive split in what I could talk about. I could take the easy route and talk about Tufts and its issues. Or I could also go more personal, deeper, and more vulnerable—things I had barely come to understand myself. Issues of life, death, identity, and whether identity even matters—to share them with the audience, an audience that was likely to be filled with Tufts freshmen, felt bizarre. We played a part in their first introductions to Tufts, and to joke about things that may only relate to me felt selfish. I desired relatability, laughter, and appeal, and out of fear I decided against vulnerability and honesty. For better or worse, I lazily ended up going with a bit about Brown University rejects and the Tufts Green Line station.
That Sunday, much like every other day, had 1,140 minutes, but it was those 10 on stage that my mind was wrapped around. Everything seemed to move slowly, and to pass the time I would rehearse in my room repeatedly, using a Tufts water bottle as my fake microphone. As the time of the performance got closer, everything seemed to move much faster—like a Nascar driver on a racetrack, the small hand of my clock suddenly was speeding towards 7:00 p.m. Almost out of thin air, I was suddenly in Erika’s car on the way to the theatre. Once we arrived, everything became nauseating. The theatre was tall and inside it felt like the seats went on forever. There were oppressively bright lights backstage and greenroom areas contrasting the near pitch-black darkness of the auditorium. Perhaps the most nauseating moment of them all was when someone mentioned that over 950 people had gotten tickets to the show, sparking simultaneous horror and awe.
The moments from then on were a blur as I saw the busses of Tufts students pulling in. The five of us waited backstage as each of us went up to perform. I was scheduled to go fourth, giving my nerves time to grow even more and swallow me entirely before I went up. Before my performance, I distinctly remember my worst moment of the night: my legs could not move. They felt like titanium lead, an anchor to my ship of doubt, concern, fear, and shock. But once my name was called, my legs felt free. I walked on stage, utterly blinded by the lights above, and looked out towards a massive black void. I could not see one person from that stage. In the spirit of orientation, I opened with a joke about FOCUS being a cult, and from then on I felt like I was flying. I was walking with gusto across the stage, my legs moving with a freedom that should not exist with skinny jeans. I remember telling myself internally that I needed to calm down; my Jordans kept squeaking against the floor whenever I abruptly turned around. The crowd was one of the nicest you could ever have; they were laughing at everything. I remember a moment when I made a comment about the administration’s relationship with Students for Justice in Palestine, and I heard a piercing cacophony of laughter, surprise, and fear. I finished as I typically do, with some cheesy comment about being kind to one another, and my adrenaline came crashing down to earth. I watched our Vice President AJ Pandina before moving to the audience, closing my eyes on perhaps the craziest experience of my time at Tufts.
I returned to the Chevalier with my girlfriend just a few weeks later for the Hasan Minhaj show again as a member of the audience. As he came out from the same green room, used the same microphones, and walked the same stage, I couldn’t believe that I was watching it with my own eyes. It was more than the person, it was the fact that the very reason I was able to go up on that same stage was physically in front of me. I watched in awe of the mastery he had over some of the most personal material—miscarriage, infertility, marriage problems, traumatic high school experiences—all in the form of comedy. It was exactly the type of material that I was too scared to try. Everything that was done on stage that night was done a step further; the jokes were deeper and more vulnerable. Whereas I wrote with fear, Hasan wrote with confidence and courage. Problems that would have been blasphemous to bring up at the dinner table became things he decided to share with the world. Life’s craziest and most vulnerable moments, shared with the world in laughter, smiles, and joy.
It is perhaps this connection that will always remain with me whenever I think about my memories of the Chevalier. The connection between my own whirlwind experience and that of Hasan will leave an imprint on my own aspirations and hopes. To see the person who initiated the journey that led me to the Chevalier perform on that same stage left me with a belief that what was once a pipe dream of making people smile and laugh as some type of career, is somehow an attainable reality. It’s the proximity to your own story that makes what was a complete fantasy somehow more attainable. Even more than the possibility of a dream, what will always define my memory of the Chevalier was the contrast in expression between my own performance and the one I witnessed. There is a regret that always lingers that I should have been more personal and honest with my material. What makes comedy so meaningful is our own connection with it, an ability to process and understand our own stories through smile and laughter. In some ways my own performance was done out of fear, for reasons more to do with the audience than myself. Watching Hasan on that same stage reminded me that comedy, and life as a whole, must start with yourself; the most fulfilling comedy comes from self expression. Self expression is not simply singular; one’s own story has elements that can always relate to the larger audience. While Hasan’s own Homecoming King story may be singular to him, it touched all of us. To sacrifice vulnerability for relatability is meaningless because at its core, the two go hand in hand. Whether I seriously pursue a life in comedy is unknown (unlikely, really), but the more I perform, the more personal I hope to be. Ultimately, the only constant in stand-up comedy is you, the performer. Your relationship with the audience is temporary, but your relationship with yourself is forever.