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my foray into stand-up comedy

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Last night, I visited the Mellwood Tavern to participate in their open mic comedy. This is only one man’s experience at one open mic– and my data point (err…anecdote) may not be accurate. So, take all of this with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

Not surprisingly, it was only partially what I expected. I had asked knowledgeable folks about what to anticipate. Our HSM leader Caleb was the catalyst for me to do this; our discussion on a Bible/Beach bus made it seem more concrete, moving me from just thinking about to doing it. Beyond that, I benefited from friend Chad and IUS colleague Casey who have a lot of experience in “the business”.  But they mostly told me about being in a comedy show rather than an open mic– and there are some big differences. 

I’m guessing this is typical for open mics, but the audience was mostly comedians. (Maybe an open mic at a restaurant would be a broader audience?) There were a few other people there too: for support or to hang out. (Tonia and Bryan came along to support me. Thanks!)

Ironically, there wasn’t much laughter. It was mostly crickets– often, painfully so. For one thing, the comedians weren’t all that funny. (I fit comfortably in the middle of not funny at all and somewhat funny.) Or if they were capable of being funny, the jokes/stories they tried weren’t that good.

But I think the bigger thing is that few in the audience were there to be entertained: most were there to practice their jokes; scratch a personal itch; or support a friend. (Interestingly, I’d say that Tonia, Bryan and I laughed at the comedians more than the other audience members combined– likely, because we were aiming to be entertained.) So, there wasn’t an atmosphere of humor or laughter. (It reminded me of watching a sit-com without a laugh track in the background.)

The lack of funny was not a function of inexperience. I was the only rookie and most everyone had done it dozens or hundreds of times. It was difficult to imagine a few of them ever being funny to anyone. There were others who I could see being funny to some people, depending on preferences. But it’s difficult to know, because it was mostly a lab for people to try out new jokes.

Talking with the comedians beforehand, three of them compared the setting to a gym. And that’s an apt analogy. It was a place to “work out” jokes among other gym-goers who aren’t particularly interested in what you’re doing. And akin to being in a gym, you see both “gym rats” and those who approach it causally. Most people used notes– and many hadn’t prepped much beyond scratching some ideas in a notebook.

The “gym” did serve its purpose in that way. I left with a better sense of what was funny– maybe generally, but at least on the material I tried. I had tweaked and edited my material quite a bit, but I still didn’t have a great sense of what would work. Even with a ton of experience, I suspect there’s an unbridgeable gap between imagining what will be funny and what is actually funny to an audience. That said, funny at a comedy show is still a guessing game (at least for me), because the open mic has such a different feel. 

Most of the laughter was generated by an appointed heckler (interestingly, the only female performer). I wasn’t sure if the heckler was for our benefit (giving us practice with interruptions) and/or to add some humor. In any case, the heckler had an easier job, especially since the jokes weren’t that good and the context of the jokes provided a quick mind with ops to interject. I found the heckler to be very disruptive, especially when simply shouting out random comments. The heckling was helpful if this is a common occurrence in a comedy club, but it also hurt the ability to see if jokes worked.

I only got through 3.5 to 4 of my planned 5 minutes. I had practiced quite a bit, even allowing space for laughs, for the audience to think, etc. But the heckling slowed things down quite a bit. And with the lack of audience feedback, it felt like they weren’t with me, so I added phrases to ask if they knew what I was talking about. The spotlights weren’t too bad, but you couldn’t see the audience easily either, leading to more uncertainty.

It was a shorter evening than I expected. You’re supposed to show up at 7:30. (It seemed like you could roll in late and be fine.) And we were done by 9:15. There were more religious references than I anticipated– some friendly; some neutral; others negative and/or strange. There was less cussing than I had imagined. (I thought cussing would be used as a cheap substitute for creativity.) But it was surprisingly crass and sexually vulgar, including a highly-disproportionate emphasis on non-hetero. At times, the vulgarity seemed to be for its own sake, rather than for getting laughs. In addition to the lack of laughter, this wasn’t a joyful context or even a happy place. 

The setting is tough– and from the on-stage comments, it seemed like a tougher night than normal.  There was a sense of community. (This was something that Chad and Caleb had mentioned.) But I can’t describe it confidently. Everyone was friendly enough in terms of greeting and chatting. But I would have expected more evident “support” of each other in the area of common interest: humor. 
I have a rookie slot (3 minutes) at Comedy Caravan on April 29. I plan to give that the old college try, as well– and will report back on the experience. At this point, I can’t imagine “doing comedy” beyond that: it’s a lot of work and time– both to prepare and to perform; it’s a tough setting, where you’d need to steel yourself against various temptations (ranging from substances to cynicism); and it seems like it would require a ton of time to form relationships and do effective ministry.

Bottom line: I can’t exactly recommend doing the open mic. But I can’t recommend against it either– if you want to give comedy a shot. (I certainly can’t recommend attending an open mic at a bar as a spectator!) The open mic serves a variety of purposes– and is probably a “necessary evil” for the practice and the profession. But be warned that it’s rough business. 


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