How a comic overcame stage fright and how science can help

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Tara Hernon performs at Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia (Tara Hernon Youtube)

Tara Hernon performs at Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia (Tara Hernon Youtube)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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There’s a famous Jerry Seinfeld bit about a study that showed the top two human fears were public speaking and death. 

The punchline being that somehow death got second place.

“Death is number two!” Joked Seinfeld. “This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Philadelphia comedian Tara Hernon knows this fear quite well. She’s always wanted to be a comic, and stage fright has always stood in her way. 

She’s felt this absolute terror come over her before any performance, no matter how small the audience, even in theatre class. 

“Like reading a monologue,” she said. “I ran offstage and then the teacher was like, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that,’ And she made me get back on stage.”

Hernon started doing stand up by going to open mics, performing in bars in the middle of the night. The stakes couldn’t have been lower, but still, there was this fear, the jittery nerves.“I had this weird, crazy thing where I had to put Chapstick on like the second before I walked onstage or else,” she said. 

But the more she performed, the more comfortable she felt on stage. She got calmer and eventually she started getting good.

“I was getting booked pretty regularly. Like, I was doing two or three shows a week. I got booked at Punchline,” she said. 

Punchline is a 300-seat comedy club in Philadelphia. It’s about as big as they get before they’re more accurately called theaters. On top of the bookings, Hernon had also won a charity comedy competition.

She was on the come up, but then, the pandemic hit. Comedians used to performing multiple sets a night were stuck at home with the rest of us. 

Hernon didn’t perform at all until the summer of 2020, as cases ebbed. The show was outdoors, on the steps outside a bar,  instead of on stage. 

Normally when a comic looks out into the crowd, they see only the bright stage lights and darkness, here Hernon saw the audience, their eyes, all looking right at her.

“I was just looking around at the people, and I was like, I don’t know any of these people, like, we’re on the street,” she said. “And then I just said into the microphone, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me, you guys, I gotta go.’ I just f***ing ran.”

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At first, Hernon didn’t think this was a real threat to her comedy career. She’d been stressed by the pandemic — by just plain life. She thought she just had a rough night. 

More than anything, she felt embarrassed by all the concern her friends and fellow comedians showed her. Everyone just kept asking if she was okay. They couldn’t understand what was happening to her — this performer they were so used to watching in complete command of the stage.  

She had another show the following week. It was another outdoor gig, some kind of hippie music festival as Hernon describes it.

“A couple of minutes before I was about to go up the host was like, ‘Oh, you’re next.’ And I was just pacing back and forth,” she said. “And I was drunk too. So, I thought that would help.”

She feared another panic attack would happen if she tried to go back on stage and here it was — she could feel it coming on. 

“My arms tingle and then I get dizzy and I feel like I’m in a tunnel. And I get a really bad headache, and I can’t see outside of the tunnel that I’m in,” she said. “And then I shake uncontrollably, you know? And then I run.”

Hernon  could hear the crowd— a big one.They were rowdy. The comic before her was wrapping and she was running out of time. She went to the host and simply told him, ‘Whatever you do — do not call my name.’”

“If you call my name, I’ll start f***ing crying. Do not call my name. I’m not going on stage,” she recalled saying. “And then I cried anyway.”

The host simply called the next comic instead. The show, as it must, went on. But Hernon was stuck. 

“I still was like, ‘I didn’t quit comedy. I haven’t. I’ll do it tomorrow.  Don’t make me do it today. I’ll do it tomorrow,’” she said.  

Quitting comedy was inconceivable for Hernon. She worked as a bartender at a comedy club and at a big comedy open mic.

Most of her friends were comics. Night after night she’d watch them, between pouring drinks, as  they went on stage, and crushed or bombed. She’d watch new comics go up for the first time, their voices cracking, sweating.

She signed up to perform herself each night and always backed out at the last minute. Until finally, she stopped singing up. 

As time went on fewer people saw Hernon as, “Coming to the stage your next  comedian is Tara …” And instead as, “Tara, behind the bar, give it up for her doing a great job taking care of us tonight.”

Little white pills

Around the same time stage fright was effectively ending Hernon’s comedy career, a rapidly growing startup in California was starting to offer a cure for this problem.  One that came in the form of a pill.

The founder, a tech entrepreneur named Justin Ip, had been dealing with a very Silicon Valley type of performance anxiety himself — a paralyzing sense of panic during pitch meetings. 

“We were asking for $2 million. The full partnership was there, and some pretty famous people in Silicon Valley in the room,” he said. “At least two billionaires that I know of.” 

It was one of those make-or-break meetings. Does your idea get the money it needs to become the next big thing – the real world Shark Tank.

“I remember just sitting in the room talking to these guys and there was just this massive dead weight in my stomach. I was completely hunched over the table,” he said.  “It felt really hard to breathe. I remember my legs were just crossed under the table and my legs were shaking and I was just trying to control the shaking.”

That deal fell through.  

When the next pitch came around for Ip’s venture, which is called Kick Health, Ip did the pitch with the help of the very product they would sell: little, white pills called beta blockers. He popped some before the meeting.

“It’s kind of this weird feeling where your mind is like, ‘I feel like I should be more nervous than my body feels right now. Like, last time I was more nervous.’” Ipsaid. “It’s hard to say that you feel different. You just kind of feel like yourself and you feel like there’s nothing kind of getting in the way of of you being yourself and putting on the best show that you can.”

Beta blockers are not a new drug, they’ve been prescribed for decades to treat high blood pressure.  They work by slowing down the heart. 

For those with stage fright, that means that in the moment right before you go on stage or make your big pitch your heart rate stays put and that’s supposed to help keep you calm.

The drug has been prescribed off-label to all manner of performers basically since the 1970s. Classical musicians, TV presenters, and people working at elite levels of public performance knew about these drugs but most other people did not.

“I heard about [it], and I was like, ‘How come nobody knows about this?’ This is amazing. Like, all the top performers talk about this and use it,”  he said. “And then … I have some theories why. This has been a cheap generic drug for six years, right? So, you know, it’s hard for big pharma to put a ton of marketing dollars behind it.”

Ip says most of his customers are not performing artists.  He’s got lawyers with big cases, sales people with big meetings, and students with presentations and exams coming up. He says we all have these make-or-break moments where we need to perform.

Even though Ip’s venture is growing, using beta blockers in this way does have its opponents.

A truly live performance

One of them is Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology and director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University.

He says stage fright or performance anxiety is a type of social anxiety. 

The reason things like public speaking and stand-up comedy can be so scary is because, with so many eyes just on you, there’s a lot of social risk.

“We know that evolutionarily we want to be part of a group and we don’t want to be expelled from our group. In our society, if somebody breaks a law, we send them to prison. We break off social contact,” he said. “Being sort of the center of attention is for that reason threatening because you might be excluded from the social group.”

Instead of drugs, he advocates for cognitive behavioral therapy changing the way you think about socially frightening situations. He calls beta blockers a kind of pharmacological avoidance. That those who perform using them never actually confront their performance anxiety.

“Taking a beta blocker, from a vantage point of a psychotherapist who is treating social anxiety, is a typical way of avoiding your fear and your anxiety,” he said. “People need to feel fearful and anxious in order to overcome their fear and anxiety in the long term. Blockers don’t allow you to do that.”

He’s also not convinced they can work, not that well, anyway.

“Anxiety is a complex construct that includes the way you think, the way you feel, and the way you behave,” he said.

Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School, also advocates for therapy over the drugs. She recommends graded exposure therapy, basically, doing the thing that scares you.

“What happens is it’s not that we stop having an adrenaline surge right before we perform, but we have a more muted adrenaline surge. And also we don’t become anxious in the face of that adrenaline surge,” she said. 

She says if you don’t learn how to adapt to that adrenaline surge you also don’t learn how to use it to your advantage.

“What do people look for in a live performance? They want someone who’s alive, right? So the flipside of anxiety is energy, right?” she said. “So, it’s a way of figuring out how to take anxiety and flip it. Essentially, turn it into a positive.”

If the experience is less intense for a performer, Lembke says, it’s almost certainly less intense for the audience. 

Audiences will mirror a performer, feel what they feel.  

In stand-up it’s a common trick for the comedian to laugh at their own jokes. Even though they already know the punchline, even though they’ve told it a hundred times. It signals, hey, this is funny, we’re having fun.

“We absolutely have this incredible ability to tune into each other’s emotions,” she said. “And there’s a very powerful effect when a performer can make that kind of emotional connection with an audience.”

‘Will I return to stand up?’

As for Hernon she didn’t end up using beta blockers or graded exposure therapy. She used a Magic 8 Ball. 

She consulted this Magic 8 Ball when she was hanging out with a comic friend. Would she return to doing stand up? The 8 Ball said yes, and she decided to obey.  

She and that comic friend drove to a small town about an hour away from Philadelphia. Hernon signed her name on the open mic list at the bar and waited. 

“I even tried to  back out that day up until the last second,” she said. “Literally, I went up to the host when I was next and I was like, ‘Don’t call me up. I’m not going up,” she said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, you can’t.”

Turns out her friend warned the host that Hernon would try and back out. He said not to let her. 

“So he called my name up and I had to go up, and once I got up there I was shaking and I was scared and I hated it,” she said.  “And I’m pretty sure you could hear my voice how nervous I was. But also the second I got up there, I remembered what it felt like to do stand up. And I was like, Oh yeah.”

 It felt good. After a two year hiatus she was on stage talking into a mic getting strangers to laugh.

“Hell, yeah. I’m so cool,” she said, mimicking her internal monologue. “These people think I’m so hot and funny. I could see it in their eyes. They think I’m hot and funny.”

It was terrible. It was awesome. But she was back.

The next night there was another open mic, this time back in Philadelphia — at that big open mic where Hernon bartends — in front of all her friends and fellow comics.

She went up last in the line up, around 1 a.m. When her name was called, the room exploded.

“It was a surprise for everyone. And the amount of screams and cheers that I got, I was like, ‘this is never going to happen again,’” she said. “No one is ever going to f***ing cheer for me like this, ever the f***ing again.”

‘Tara behind the bar” got out from behind that bar, and took the stage. 

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