My Catalyst to Comedy and Finding My Lady Balls

Black Sheep Comedy is run by two women who have survived their 20s and 30s pretty much intact. One of us has even navigated through her (gasp) 40s!  We LOVE our new venture, Black Sheep Comedy, and we LOVE getting feedback from audience members. That said, many of the women will say things that we don’t love so much. For example, during a two-minute conversation, we hear some variation of: “I wish I had the nerve… Oh no, I couldn’t… Not at my age… No one wants to hear jokes from an old lady.”
Here’s the thing. Even if we are old (which we’re totally not), a lot people DO want to hear jokes from an old lady! Our audiences do not exclusively consist of 20 somethings, and neither do our lineups. Black Sheep Comedy is built on a foundation of diversity and inclusion, including age! So, over the next month, we’re publishing a series of guest articles from women who waited to get into comedy. Please join us as they cover topics such as their personal catalyst or experiences that drove them to comedy, tips for getting started, and other helpful advice…

My Catalyst to Comedy and Finding My Lady Balls by Kelly Zemnickis

I’m often asked how I got started in comedy, what made me take the mic and start performing stand-up at the age of 37.

Well, it’s a bit complicated.

I was NEVER the class clown in school, but when I was younger I cannot tell you the number of nights I’d stay up late to watch A&E’s An Evening at the Improv or Johnny Carson or Letterman. I once brought Erma Bombeck’s If Life Is A Bowl of Cherries- What Am I Doing In The Pits? To class when I was in 6th grade. 6th Grade.  What kid is bragging to her friends about Erma Bombeck on the playground? This kid.  This kid also adored Bob Hope. And Joan Rivers.  And Mel Brooks.  And Rita Rudner.  And Mike McDonald. But I had a passion for writing and I loved laughing, but putting those two things together? Nope. I never even thought I could do that. For all the things I wrote that made someone laugh, or all the public speaking I did, or begging someone to drive me to Yuk Yuks to watch a show? That was never encouraged, pursuing comedy. Not because my parents were disapproving, it’s just that no one thought about it.

My comedy career though did finally get going in 1996, when I started volunteering at a comedy club on Queen Street West in Toronto called Big City Improv. My job for the weekend shows? CLEANING THE BATHROOMS FOR FREE. FOR FREE. Why do this? Because I got to be around comics. But it still didn’t click in. I eventually became a Lighting Tech at the club and various venues in Toronto. My nights weren’t spent at the mall, but at the Rivoli watching stand ups and sketch troupes from the tech booth and coming home to Etobicoke smelling like a pack of smokes. I was 17, 18 years old. And I loved it. I eventually started improvising myself, and it was fun but I took comfort in behind in the tech booth or producing shows (I created the long-running sketch/improv show Inside the Out of Work Actors Studio alongside Kerry Griffin & Paul Koster). And then I started working on the CBC series Royal Canadian Air Farce. So I was in the room, soaking up the comedy, but I still didn’t know my voice and how I could use it. But I was always paying attention.

My life changed though when at the original location of Toronto’s Second City, I met a man named James. The troupe I stage managed for was playing a midnight show, and I met him in the green room a few floors below. When I recognized him from a tv show that was on at the time, I recall him turning around in what seemed like slow motion and I fell in love that instant. James would eventually become the love of my life, my friend and my mentor.  And he’s the reason I started stand-up comedy.

This is where it gets complicated.

About three years before I started stand-up, I quit my job in TV Production and started waitressing. I was 34 and had never served in my life. But I was desperate for a change, and when the opportunity opened to help friends at their diner, I took it as my “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I sold my home. I literally started my life over, but that job changed my life. I started to discover my voice. Learning that I had something to say in my mid-30s?! It was a very caterpillar to butterfly kind of thing. And it was about then that I kept hearing this voice inside my head, whispering “You should try stand-up… you really should try stand-up.” But I pushed it away, why the fuck would I ever do that?! That looked SO HARD. I didn’t have the lady balls to do stand-up!!

And then in 2015 James learned he had Cancer, in his liver and in his lungs.

Early into 2016, in what ended up being our final conversation, everything got laid out on the table. We told each other how much we loved each other and made a plan to talk again. And as I ended the call, I recall looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself that I had the ability to do anything in the world that I wanted to do. James couldn’t. I should go try something and risk failing just because I could.

And that next week, I did my very first open mic.

With my youngest brother by my side, and a couple of friends, I went up and did the thing. I had never thought my heart could beat that quickly without resulting in cardiac arrest. But people laughed, and that was enough… I got off the stage and my brother looked at me in amazement and I whispered “I want to do that again!!!” I felt at home on stage.

James passed away a couple months later. He never got to see me perform, but I never would have gotten on that stage without his final push. But that was James, he knew I had the potential before I did. I’ve always loved comedy, but I didn’t believe it was my place to be on stage until I was 37 years old. And now I’m performing everywhere from Toronto to NYC to Montreal to Kamloops! What magical life am I living?! The signs pointing me to where I am now were always there, I just never paid attention to them.

But I am SO grateful that I started when I did, because I’m bringing stuff to the table that I couldn’t have at 18… I have a perspective now that mirrors the women I watched as a teenager. My voice and my perspective matters. And I can’t tell you what it means when someone tells me after a show that they could relate, that they were grateful to hear someone talking about x, y or z. What do I have my sights on next? Writing for a late-night talk show. What seemed impossible a few years ago, is now more of a “why not?” perspective.

It took a really REALLY long time, and a very hard lesson, but I finally gave myself permission to go after what makes me happy. Now I get to tell jokes and every single time I get to a gig, I need to pinch myself.

It’s just pure joy, I truly feel ridiculously lucky that I get to do this.

… now if you’ll excuse me, I need a tissue. I never said this was a funny story.  🙂

Women in ComedyKelly Zemnickis is a writer/producer, comic & unabashed food fan. She is co-producer on the upcoming 9/11 first responders doc ‘No Responders Left Behind’ (Paradox Pictures). Kelly will be performing at the 2019 Kamloops Komedy Festival this August.

Leave a Reply