Linda Belt now headlines shows at casinos, but in her early days as a professional comedian, her kids came to one of her performances and joked about her having a "gig."
"I overheard my daughter say, 'Can you believe people pay to see mom?'" Belt says, laughing.
The West Hartford stand-up, whose two children are now in college, sometimes can't believe it herself. She started just seven years ago and, by comedians' terms, has ascended quickly through the ranks in a male-dominated business.
It all started at the Prospect Cafe in West Hartford, when Belt — who was a stay-at-home mom and a licensed massage therapist — joined a comedian friend to watch a show. There were five men and one woman, and the woman, Belt says, was awful.
"So I said to my friend, 'On the worst day of my life, I'm funnier than this," she says. "So I told her, 'I'd like to try it.'"
Her first open mike was at a coffee house in Southington where she was supposed to do three-to-five minutes but did 20 instead. A friend from West Hartford who had come to support her told her after the show that she was a natural.
"She said, 'I think from this night on your life could change,'" Belt says, and she turned out to be right.
After that night in Southington, Belt spent several years driving around the region to try out material at open mike nights.
"I liked it and I wanted to get better," she said. "You'd find yourself driving two hours roundtrip for seven minutes of stage time."
Eventually, Belt started to get booked by other comedians at paying gigs. She also started booking her own shows because she saw a clear bias against female comedians.
"Because there are so few women, it can either work for you or against you," Belt says. "I started going after the gigs where they might specifically want a woman. ... And eventually your work speaks for itself."
A few years ago, Belt had her first headlining gig at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY, where she is also scheduled to appear on April 27. She has also performed as a headliner at the Tropicana in Atlantic City.
Belt says it's sometimes hard for people to understand the work that goes into a 30-minute set at a major club or event — the travel, the preparation, the booking arrangements, the networking. Comedy is also one of those rare forms of entertainment, she says, where there is no distance between the art and the reaction to it.
"Your art is being judged constantly, and it's immediate," she says. "I have people in front of me, and either they're laughing or they're not."
So what does Belt talk about in her act?
"Most of my stuff is absolutely based on real life," she said. "By the end of my act, you know I'm from New Jersey, I have two college-aged kids ... there's a realness to it as opposed to just a joke. That's what people remember. You're revealing who you are."
Belt says she also plans to incorporate some jokes about the process of ending a 23-year marriage, even though it's painful.
"There's humor even in the sadness of that marriage ending," she says. "You're telling the truth. Fifty percent of marriages are going to end in divorce."
With two kids in college, Belt says, she has plenty of incentive to keep refining her act and producing more shows.
"I remind them that some of those jokes about them pay the bills," Belt says.
For more information about Linda Belt, to get a schedule of her upcoming shows, or to watch a YouTube video of her performing, visit her website at www.lindabelt.com.