His First Time Onstage, This Comedian Killed It. Then He Nearly Died. | KNKX

His First Time Onstage, This Comedian Killed It. Then He Nearly Died.

May 12, 2018

Brad Upton was a fourth grade schoolteacher in Pasco, Wash. who dreamed of becoming a standup comic. On a Tuesday night in 1983 he finally summoned the courage, and made the long drive to Seattle to try his first open mic at the Comedy Underground in Pioneer Square. Just before he was supposed to go onstage, he lost his nerve.

 “I walked out of there and drove home and waited for a year,” Upton says. “I just hated myself that whole year. I’d gotten that close and chickened out.”  When Upton returned to the Comedy Underground a year later, on a trip to retrieve a souped-up Trans Am for his dad’s rental car franchise in Pasco, he was finally able to follow through with his plan. He took the stage, launched into his five-minute set and got big laughs. “To this day I’ve never felt that kind of elation onstage,” he says.

After his set, Laura Crocker, the “godmother of Seattle comedy” in that era, introduced herself and informed him that he had just passed the final night of auditions for the Seattle International Comedy Competition. He was getting called up to the big leagues after his very first set.

“I walked out of there thinking, ‘Ah man, I am the best comic. I am so good. I’ll probably be on Johnny Carson by Thanksgiving,’” he says. “I still couldn’t get my head around what had just happened.” 

Upton was heading home to Pasco in the 1984 Trans Am he had picked up for his dad when he approached the Mount Baker Tunnel, at that time a pair of straight, narrow two-lane tunnels linking Rainier Avenue and the I-90 floating bridge. He remembered his dad once telling him they used to drag race through the tunnels because there was no place for cops to hide out. He decided to stomp the gas and see what the muscle car could do.

He immediately hydroplaned on wet pavement, fishtailing wildly across both lanes and struggling frantically to take control of the vehicle. He was certain he would crash, and uncertain if he'd be able to walk away. But the Trans Am finally hit dry pavement and he was able to straighten out.

“It occurred to me as I was sliding: that was the shortest career in comedy ever,” Upton says. “In 20 minutes I had the highest high of my life and I literally thought I was gonna die.”  Upton didn’t end up winning the Seattle International Comedy Competition—he came in 18th out of 20 in a field of much more experienced comics—but the opportunity set him on a path to becoming a professional comedian. Within two years he quit his teaching job to do standup full time. Over thirty years later, Upton is an internationally touring headliner and a regular opener for pop legend Johnny Mathis. 

That very first night, Upton wrote his set list on an index card, and he’s continued to do so for every performance since, making note of the venue, location, and the jokes he told. He keeps these index cards in a drawer in his closet, a record of every show he’s ever done rubber-banded in increments of 50. This year he’ll hit 6,000.

“If I’d have gone up the first time and ate it, if it would’ve gone awful, that might’ve been the only time. I don’t know if I’d have gotten back up there,” Upton says, “Looking back I realize I just thought I was gonna succeed at it before I ever did it. It never occurred to me I wouldn’t. Maybe that’s dumb luck right there—I just assumed I was gonna succeed at this.”