Falling Onstage

Nothing endears you to an audience quite like that moment when things go horribly wrong. When a microphone quits. A cell phone rings. A podium collapses, or you have a wardrobe malfunction. Each of these things has happened to me. To make matters worse, when you stand before audiences, your forgetter can go into hyperdrive. I once said, “There’s a sign on an Alaska highway that says…” and my mind went blank. My brain was a giant piece of fuzz, fluffy white clouds floating around in there. So I grinned and said, “The sign says…something you would have really laughed about if I could just remember.” The audience was so encouraged by my forgetfulness. They laughed harder than they would have had I remembered the rest of that sign.

Several times I’ve been asked, “What was the worst speaking experience of your life?” I think of the time I was asked by a corporation to entertain their employees, but missed the fact that few of them spoke English. As I started to speak, chairs began to move. An audience of 500 turned their backs on me and visited among themselves. What would you do? I addressed the ones who brought me there for about 15 minutes, then sat down. As a boy, I heard speakers ask mothers to remove crying babies from the building. “This is not the ball room,” one yelled. I heard speakers who made their spouse look silly or an audience member look like a fool. I remember the hollow feeling of doing that when I first started in comedy. Then I encountered Bible verses about our speech. It should always be seasoned with grace. It should minister grace to those who hear. Even when the unexpected jumps out from nowhere.

Not long ago I was privileged to address a crowd representing 72 nations. Suddenly a small child wriggled from the grip of his parents and dashed onto the stage, stealing the show. I thought, It’s okay. Don’t panic. And when that boy wrapped his tiny arms around my leg and wouldn’t let go, I said, “Thank you. I’ve had fruit thrown at me while I’m on stage, but never this.” I discovered later that this boy is a Syrian refugee, that his parents don’t speak much English, still somehow I made them laugh. I tried not to tear up. “God bless this precious little boy,” I prayed.

Sometimes even I get things right, and when I do, I’m astounded and grateful. Sometimes I even remember punchlines. Remember that sign on the Alaska highway? I do now. It says, “Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next 200 miles.”

Phil Callaway

Phil Callaway, the host of Laugh Again, is an award-winning author and speaker, known worldwide for his humorous yet perceptive look at life.

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