How stand-up comedy alleviated my stutter

Ryan Cowley
Ryan Cowley

Since I was seven years old, I have had a stutter. I never know what to say when curious minds asked how it started, though.

I was always a sensitive, nervous kid with a tendency to worry about things that never ended up happening. In any case, stuttering has been a cog, if you will, for much of my life. That’s not to say, however, that it defines me.

Pros and cons

As you may imagine, there have been plenty of times when my stuttering has been a detriment to accomplishing routine tasks like ordering off a menu, speaking on the phone or, heck, even striking up a conversation with a potential love interest.

However, there have been times when I was glad to have a stutter. Okay, maybe not in the sense that I was excited about it — but just knowing that something so unique could work to my advantage. Enter my interest in stand-up comedy.

...there have been times when I was glad to have a stutter, knowing that something so unique could work to my advantage

The power of performance

After my oldest brother had performed on stage for a few years, I was excited at the prospect of being up on that stage myself. At the time I was also reading books on fluency given to me in speech therapy. I had read that speaking and performance come from two different parts of the brain, and there is often no stuttering with the latter. This goes for comedians, singers and actors. Carly Simon and James Earl Jones immediately come to mind, and there are more examples of stutterers who thrive while performing. After contemplating my pursuit of stand-up comedy for a couple of years, 2006 came along. I was between jobs at the time. To make matters worse, we were in the middle of a province-wide college strike. With no work and no school, I had nothing to do. So, why not pursue comedy?

Achieving success and confidence

Even if stand-up was just to get out and feel a bit better by being on stage, so be it. If I bombed with some lame jokes, at least I had something to build on. I checked out a show at Yuk Yuk’s in Ottawa, and met the manager. The following Wednesday (amateur night) I was up there, and from what I remember, I did a decent job. A few jokes I lost and a few (like my diabetic girlfriend one) was well-received despite not being the most tasteful joke. Still, it was a success. I kept going back to Yuk Yuk’s, trying out new material and, of course, garnering some confidence as my stutter was, for the most part, nonexistent while I was onstage.

I lost interest in performing after a few years, but just being up on that stage made me feel good. For a few minutes a night, no one knew that I stuttered (not that I cared if people did know). There were definitely some brief moments where I contemplated pursuing stand-up comedy as a career but for the most part, my mission was to get out and feel good. In fact, once I moved to Toronto, I began broaching my stutter, poking a bit of fun at myself. I even joked that I meant to drive to Montreal but, thanks to my stuttering GPS, I wound up in Winnipeg instead.

The benefits

Stuttering remains a prevalent part of my life but in the years since I’ve been on stage, I’ve learned to adapt in different ways. This includes my career as a sportswriter.

The moral of my story is don't treat any disability, shortcoming —whatever you’d like to call it — as an obstacle. Use it to your advantage instead, be patient. If you don’t have the confidence right away, don’t fret as it’ll come to you — sometimes at an unexpected time. 

Take it from me: You’ll be glad you took this approach.

Ryan Cowley is a writer who lives in Toronto who has covered major sporting events for web and print publications. He is a graduate of Humber College’s Comedy Writing & Performance program. He has a website at the Big Salad.


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