Flirting with Death

An amateur comic goes for the big time and (just barely) lives to tell about it

It has all the makings of a classic anxiety dream. I am in a dark comedy club. The tiny stage is adorned with just a microphone and a stool. I recognize friends sipping drinks at a few tables in the crowded club. The emcee is making an introduction: "Give it up for our next performer. You read his column in USA Today. A big hand for Walter Shapiro!"

This is the moment of existential dread. Naked onstage, with no props, no scenery, no place to hide. The audience is rapacious in its demands: loosen our inhibitions; make us laugh. Onstage, life...

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