My Open Mic Madness
I like making people laugh. I’m not especially good at it, but that doesn’t stop me from trying as regular readers know. Although an introvert by nature, I have always looked for outlets where I could try to get a laugh. These days, I entertain myself and hopefully a few readers here at Le Blog. But back in my pre-internet days, I played to a somewhat smaller audience as an amateur stand-up comedian.
Stand-up comedy wasn’t something I planned to do. In fact, it was really someone else’s idea. In college, a buddy of mine kept talking about doing open mic nights once he had reached the legal age of 21. He fancied himself the next Andrew Dice Clay which is probably tells you everything you need to know about my old friend. We drifted apart, but the idea of performing at a comedy club stuck with me. Mostly, I just wanted to see if I was brave enough to do it.
I had been in some plays in high school and college. Unlike some of my colleagues here, I knew I wasn’t a very good actor. I’m not awful, but I don’t command the stage. Some people are born for that stuff. I suppose some can be taught. My goal was to not suck. And on a good day, I think I achieved a lack of suckitude.
But doing stand-up was very different from performing in a play. In a stage show, you are typically part of an ensemble. Even in a one-man show, there’s a certain security in the fact that you are playing a character. When you’re doing stand-up, you are on the stage all by yourself with a spotlight shining in your eyes and a crowd of strangers who provide immediate feedback in the form of laughter or silence. (Or sometimes worse.)
I set a few guidelines for myself right from the start. One, I wasn’t going to talk about anyone I knew in real life. A lot of family members in particular weren’t thrilled with the idea they might be the subject of a stand-up routine, so I just decided to keep any personal stuff off limits. Two, I wouldn’t do any “bits” outside of the club. Partially, this is because my routine wouldn’t be very funny outside of the comedy club setting. I didn’t tell “joke” jokes. My feeling was that stand-up played best in front of an audience, preferably fueled by alcoholic beverages.
As it turns out, most comedians have no aversion to trying out material on unsuspecting bystanders. This was a pet peeve of mine. The comics would hang out in the back of the club before the show. One minute, you would be having a normal conversation and the next thing you knew, someone was trying out a “bit” on you. Then there’s that awkward moment when you realize they are watching you for a reaction. Unfortunately, most of these bits weren’t remotely funny.
One thing I quickly learned about stand-up is that it is all about efficiency. The idea is to get to the punchline as quickly as possible. If a word doesn’t contribute to the set-up, you need to get rid of it. Anything that doesn’t add to the joke, detracts from it. Coming from a background of writing comedic monologues, I was used to being able to take the long way around to a joke. But what was acceptable in a stage setting was certain death at the comedy club.
The first time I performed, I didn’t tell anybody in case I bombed. As a novice, I think they started me off with something like three minutes which seems like a really short time until you actually get up there and have to fill it. My first open mic night was at the Comedy Off Broadway club in Lexington, KY. I got a few chuckles which was all the encouragement I needed.
After the show, the MC told me I had potential and I should come back for another set. Scott Wilson was the host back then and last I checked he is still performing at the club. He was a really nice guy. Very laid back. If he gave you feedback, even if it was suggestions of ways you could have been better, that was the highest form of flattery. If he thought you sucked, he wouldn’t offer constructive criticism.
Scott’s sidekick was Lee Cruse. Lexington residents probably know Lee from his years in local TV and radio. But back then, Lee was just getting started. He was funnier than the rest of us by a country mile which is how he landed the cohost gig. Like Scott, Lee is still active at Comedy Off Broadway.
I came back to the club as often as I could. They didn’t want the same comics there for open mic night week after week. When I was getting started, they would let me go on about every three weeks or so. It just depended how many other people were asking for spots. Sometimes you would arrive for a show and find out that it had been cancelled due to low attendance. That was a bummer because you would have to wait another three weeks for a chance to do your act. Then again, if you were performing to a crowd of ten, you weren’t going to have a good show anyway.
Eventually, I was good enough that my allotted time increased to five minutes. Then seven which was the most time they would allow for an amateur. Seven minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but obviously it’s more than twice as long as the three minutes I started with.
In the back of the club, there was a traffic light which you could see from the stage. When the yellow light started flashing, it meant it was time to wrap things up. If the light flashed red, it meant “get off the stage, dummy.” If you ignored the red light, you were going to get a warning from Scott later that night. I was never guilty of running over, but I saw comics who desperately wanted to turn things around and refused to yield the spotlight. That never went over well.
If the audience was laughing, that light might not come on at the predetermined time. The girl who operated the lights had watched our acts over and over. She knew about how long they were. If we launched into a familiar bit and the audience was responding, she would let you ride it out. If you tried something new and it wasn’t connecting, that yellow light would tell you it was time to move on and finish strong.
The idea was to use your time to develop material. You’d figure out where the laughs were and more importantly where they weren’t. I started off with three minutes of material which eventually got stripped down to about thirty seconds. As my initial routine shrank, I started adding new material which would also get edited down over time. Through trial and error, you would end up with a solid three minute act. Then they would give you two more minutes to fill.
After a couple of years, I had two or three signature bits that I could rotate into my act. I would try out a few jokes to see what kind of crowd we had and then decide which routines to use based on their reaction. When other comics performed, I would pay attention to the audience to see what they liked and what they didn’t.
There was a big advantage to going on later in the show. The first slot was what we called the “death spot”. The audience wasn’t warmed up yet and they hadn’t had time for alcohol to loosen them up. If you were selected to go first, you weren’t likely to have a good night. But on the other hand, it was good practice. I came to take the death spot as a form of flattery. If Scott put me first, it meant he thought I could handle it. He didn’t want to put someone up first who was going to stink up the place. If he wasn’t sure about you, you’d end up somewhere in the middle of the line-up.
The best of both world was the final act of the night. Obviously, by then the crowd is as into the proceedings as they are going to be. If Scott put you in the final slot, it meant he thought you could end the show on a good note. The first and last positions were the most important. But going last practically guaranteed the crowd would be on your side.
Different venues have their own vibes, but at Comedy Off Broadway the audiences were rarely hostile. There was an understanding that all of us were amateurs. You weren’t going to see professional comics (with rare exceptions) and the cover charge reflected that. It was cheap entertainment on a Tuesday night and most audiences had expectations adjusted accordingly. I never faced a heckler. The people who came to an open mic night generally wanted to see you succeed.
The club had a lot of regulars. You got to know the friends and family members of the other comics. It was fun when someone recognized you from your act. I recall one night hanging out by the bar sipping a complimentary soft drink when one girl asked me if I was the guy who did “the cereal bit.” This was in reference to my routine about breakfast cereal mascots. When I confirmed that I was that guy, she turned to her friend and told her it was going to be a good show that night. That’s the kind of ego reinforcement that drives any stand-up comic.
You also got to know all the other comics. For the most part, they were a good bunch of people. Not all of them were funny. Some were pretty awful, quite frankly. There was an older fellow who was very nice, but all of his material came out of a joke book. He told”dad jokes”. The only thing funny about his act was how not funny he was. Another guy was a psychologist who caught his wife in an affair. His life was falling apart all around him. He coped by getting on stage and telling the filthiest jokes the club would allow.
There were certain lines we amateurs couldn’t cross. F-bombs, for example, were not allowed. There were concerns about violating profanity laws. We were in the bible belt after all. Professionals could say whatever they wanted, but they couldn’t have us amateurs cussing up a blue streak on stage. That was fine by me. Profanity was a cheap way to get a laugh. So I worked relatively clean. No sex jokes in my act. I stuck to pop culture references which will probably come as a surprise to no one reading this.
Most of the other comics liked having me in the audience. I was an easy laugh and laughter is contagious. If they could get me laughing, it might spread to others. Sometimes if I was hanging out in the lobby and a friend was about to go on, they would pull me back into the club, sit me down and tell me to laugh.
I did open mic nights on and off for a few years. Every now and then, I traveled to other comedy clubs at nearby cities for practice. I joined an improv group, but we were terrible. I mean, we were really, really bad. Unfortunately, I don’t think two thirds of the group understood how bad we were. Eventually, I left because I just couldn’t subject myself to that kind of embarrassment.
The highlight of my stand-up career was a competition I participated in one summer. It was the first ever Knock Down, Drag Out, No-Holds-Barred Cage Match Comedy Competition held at Comedy Off Broadway. I was surprised to learn that Scott and Lee still host the competition in Lexington.
The idea behind these kinds of things is that all the comics bring their friends and family to pack the audience. Unfortunately for me, my family was out of town and my friends had all seen my act, so I never could get them all to show up en masse. Every time I would compete, I would narrowly lose out to someone who had brought a bigger crowd. But Scott and Lee kept asking me to come back. The show ended with a final performance by all the individual winners. I never did manage to pull out a victory, but they asked me to come to the final show anyway.
The finale was sold out. I forget how many people the place could hold, but there were no seats left. It was easily the biggest audience I ever played to. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t get any tickets for anyone to come support me. So this audience, the largest I would ever see, was also completely hostile. By this point, I had honed my act pretty well and I knew where the laughs would be. When I hit that first laugh line, there was silence. I realized that since everyone in the audience was there to support a friend or loved one, no one was going to make a peep during my act.
There were one of two ways that night could have gone. I could have just died in a pool of flop sweat. I had done it before when I was first starting out. But instead, I took the lack of audience reaction as a license to cut loose. They weren’t going to laugh no matter what I did, so I just had fun with it. It was probably the best performance I ever gave and it barely elicited any laughter.
After the show was over and a friend of mine was crowned the winner, several people came up to congratulate me. More than one person (including the winner’s sister) told me that I was actually their favorite comic of the night but they couldn’t crack a smile because they were there for someone else. About a week later, I got a note from the owner of the club congratulating me for giving the best set of the summer. So, that was a victory.
I never really decided to stop doing open mic nights. I just kind of drifted away from it slowly. One night I left the club without booking my next show and that was it. It was a lot of fun while it lasted and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I was always aware that while I was pretty good compared to the rest of the open mic crowd, I didn’t have a future in it.