The Comedian

A vignette

She’s on in five, but Sage Troolin has a stomach ache.

Illustrator: Ruby Guthrie

Sage is no stranger to being in front of a crowd, but years of performing haven’t immunized her to stage fright. It’s generally downright terrifying speaking in front of a crowd, especially a crowd that’s there to laugh. For most, anything else is more appealing than having the room’s attention. For Sage, her desire for that undivided attention is the only thing silencing that nagging instinct to flee.

That, of course, and the rush.

Sage is a willowy young woman with ivory hair. She’s neither short nor tall. Her 20-year-old voice carries a midlife temperament, and she has a lively laugh that never overstays its welcome. In class, she’s reserved and witty; on stage, deadpan and blunt. She discovered she could be funny in the 6th grade at a church open mic. Her material was innocent; animal fun facts were sufficient to get a rise out of the crowd. When she finished, she’d loosely tie it to Jesus and saunter off the stage, intoxicated by the attention she’d been lent.

She hops in front of the crowd armed with a handful of jokes she wrote the night before. The rush of adrenaline silences her stomach. She looks out amidst a dark swell of anticipation, clenching the mic stand and leaning against it as if bracing for rough seas. She begins her monthly therapy at The Comedy Corner Underground, a dingy, subterranean venue on West Bank, with the one about the poor girl who kissed her at a party, ignorant of Sage’s obsessive tendencies. Hopefully she isn’t in the audience tonight.

Watching Sage’s standup is an intimate experience. You’ll learn about her two ex-stepdads, her anxiety, her mess of a mother. Her set has come a long way from Wednesday night youth group.

Then again, so has Sage. She has no problem airing her dirty laundry in front of a crowd. “When you tell the audience something you wouldn’t say to your friend, it’s special,” she says.

Sage accumulates junk. She has an ornamental cheetah with googly eyes named after Lana Del Rey and an absurd number of plastic dinosaurs. Her room is full of repurposed treasures. Her jokes are much the same, little gems plucked from the mundanity of daily life.

Once Sage has a read on the audience, she starts to probe with her new material, but some crowds are harder to read than others. This one is particularly difficult. Many of them enjoyed the jokes but they weren’t the laughing sort. In an art form where laughter is the only metric for quality, these ostensibly harmless patrons have left Sage on thin ice. She goes with a classic, the bit about wanting to be skinnier—a safe one; it had at least six or seven solid punchlines honed over the years. The audience seems to agree.

A comedian watches comedy differently. When Sage is in the audience, she listens for the story behind the punchline.

As vice president of Comedy Club, she’s developed a keen ear for unhealthy humor. After a particularly emotionally fraught performance, Sage might approach the performer and ask if they’re okay. They are, they’ll tell her, and then maybe joke it off, as comedians are wont to do. But Sage knows better, she’s been down the same road. The right to be funny has to be earned.

“The second-best comedian is someone who has been through a lot of hard stuff and hasn’t necessarily dealt with it,” she said. “The first best comedian has been through a lot of hard stuff but also has dealt with it.

The spotlight found Sage unsure whether she’s the former or the later tonight. The last five punchlines had them rolling, and with only a minute left, she slips in one of her new jokes. Lately her material has taken a turn towards societal observation. She segues from Victoria’s Secret models to her theological musings, completes the setup, drops the punchline.

Rapturous laughter—the rush is unparalleled. “That’s the best feeling in the world.”