I had a friend on the Kerry campaign who was much older than me. He asked me if I’d ever been in a threesome. I told him I hadn’t. “You gotta try it,” he said. “You’ll see — it’s strangely dissatisfying. But you gotta try it.”
Well, last week I finally tried stand-up for the first time at a comedy club open mic, and I think “strangely dissatisfying” describes how I feel about the experience.
First of all, open mic comedy is a soul suck. The room plays horrible, canned Top 40 music and contains about 20 people who, at a glance, clearly aren’t doing well. After a few minutes’ wait, they close the door, sealing everyone into this tiny black box and creating the overwhelming sense that something horrible is about to happen, and then it does: the participants start going up.
And now you’re in it: a churning river of racism, homophobia and misogyny. There’s a poor restaurant worker screaming about his black girlfriend. Next is a big bald white guy, shouting himself hoarse about how he hates old Asian women. A short kid who looks like a white Skee-Lo offers advice on how to eat a banana without looking gay. Hilarious! Here the emcee makes himself useful, ripping into people who have so little to say that they have to scream about minorities.
Some of the people aren’t racist; they just suck. One kid — a regular, apparently — bombs so hard that on two separate occasions in five minutes, he actually taps the mic and says, “is this thing on?” Another regular (short, squat, glasses, pants with an elastic waistband, change jingling in her pockets) opens with “I’ll try to speak into the mic this time,” then spends her five minutes gesturing with the mic like a drunk waving a beer bottle, reciting the news — Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Kim Kardashian — and giggling at the parts she thinks are funny until the emcee chases her off.
In fairness, a couple of kids were really good. I don’t want to publish other people’s material, but there were a few authentic laughs. Still, over all, it was pretty brutal.
After waiting twenty-something years to try stand-up, I sat in this little box getting bombarded with hackery until I wasn’t even nervous anymore. By the time they called my name, I just wanted to get it over with, and what was left of the audience basically felt the same way.
On stage, the lights are so bright that it feels like a dream. You’re alone, but not quite — there are these spooky, spectral presences all around you. You can’t see them, or touch them, but occasionally they will make noises (or not). Regardless, they’re across a huge void, so inside this sealed black box, you’re not just alone on stage, you’re alone in the universe. To which my attitude was, “Alright — screw it.”
Once I started speaking I immediately realized that there’s a weird symbiosis between the audience and the performer that I didn’t understand before. You want something from them and they want something from you. It’s a lot like sex, except that with sex, it’s much easier to imagine a scenario where one side comes away happy and the other doesn’t. In comedy, you sink or swim together, and it’s not that people don’t want to laugh (although there’s a pretty competitive vibe in a room full of would-be comics), it’s just that there’s an urge to give up that both sides have to fight. And the performer has a much stronger reason to fight it than the audience. Usually. Hopefully.
So, I did my five minutes. I didn’t bomb. I didn’t kill. I got a couple of laughs. At some point, I could tell I lost the audience, and I didn’t care. I just kept going. I didn’t rush. I didn’t stand there and wait for the laugh that wasn’t coming. I didn’t apologize to the audience or criticize them for not laughing. I just recited my shtick and got off.
And afterwards, I felt strangely dissatisfied.
But here’s what I learned:
- If you try it for your friends, and they say it’s not funny, they’re probably right.
- Everyone’s miserable and everyone’s Jewish. You need more.
- Bigotry isn’t funny, it’s bigotry. If you’re a bigot, go home.
- Open strong. My first line was, “Two years ago, my father died,” and I was totally unprepared for how that would completely suck the air out of the room. I thought oxygen masks would fall out of the ceiling. Not trying that again. That’s why Carlin used to open HBO specials with, “You ever notice that people who are opposed to abortion are people you wouldn’t fuck in the first place?”
- Lift people up or give them an escape. Don’t be part of the soul suck.
On to the next five minutes.