A Comic’s First Open Mike in NYC

by

11/18/2008

Greenwich Village, 10012

Neighborhood: West Village

Some people take their High School Senior Superlatives a bit too seriously. No, I’m not talking about Mary, my class’s “Worst Driver,” devoting her life to turning over a new leaf as a professional chauffer. I’m talking about my very own “Class Clown” award spurring my standup comedy career.

Ever since my first time performing comedy at age 18–shortly after I received my class clown superlative–my plan was to move to New York after college and become a famous comedian. However, as I got closer to graduating from the University of Maryland I had some realizations that made me a bit anxious. No, the instability/fakeness of the career didn’t unhinge me. I had much simpler concerns. I had never been to New York. In fact, as a Bethesda, Maryland native, I had never lived further than 30 minutes from my childhood home.

So, I took a trial run. The summer before my senior year at Maryland I enrolled in a temporary student program at NYU, which would allow me to take classes in comedy writing. But I decided there was more than one reason to go to New York: the added bonus of getting a chance to try out my standup in the big city.

I was given a double room to live in alone. While the loneliness hit me each and every morning when I woke up, I knew it was something I had to get past. I put my dreams ahead of my apprehension, and leapt into the big, busy, urine-scented city that turns young class clowns into legends.

One of my standup jokes is about the futility and frustration of Googling my own name. I don’t come up because of some 1911 actress also named Clara Morris. Despite the fact that, according to the Google search, she was “neither a great beauty nor a great actress” you have to click “next” like twelve times before you can see a school newspaper article I once wrote. I had the secret hope that this trip could tell me whether or not I had the potential to drop the real Clara Morris (as I like to refer to myself) down a few “next” clicks.

*

With sleep still hanging off me, I pushed myself out of bed. The clock read 9:00 am, pretty early for the summer, especially for me. If I had my way, I’d sleep until at least until mid-afternoon. But this New York summer was not about killing time.

Two weeks into the trip, I hadn’t done any standup. There are a few things that are hard to do when you’re sad and lonely. One is laugh. One is make other people laugh. Another is pay money to talk on stage so that your personality can be judged by strangers. Standup comedy creates a rather harsh environment.

So, it’s easy to make excuses and it’s hard to do standup. For two weeks, I’d used my newness to the City as an excuse. I’d whine to myself, “I don’t know which neighborhoods are safe, I don’t know which clubs have supportive crowds and which have raucous hecklers.” I must admit, these were somewhat fair apprehensions. As a tiny, young, scared girl, it was probably a good idea to know where tiny, young, scared girls should not go.

However, there were ways around my concerns. Most open mike for new comics are during daylight hours. Some start as early as 3pm. This is because bars and clubs know they aren’t going to draw a crowd, let alone a paying crowd, to see a show of new, and therefore potentially awful, comics. So, they shove us into the afternoon when nobody would come in anyways, and make us pay a cover. Glamorous.

Before I had gone to bed the previous evening, I had come to the decision that I would be safe at a 3pm open mike in Greenwich Village. Very brave, I know. Thus this lonely morning, I would not let myself sleep past nine.

The worst thing for a comedian to receive in reply to a joke is silence. Or in the lingo of my trade, to “bomb.” I’d rather be booed. But bombing has a whole new, different, horrible, nightmare-inducing definition in New York City. New York Magazine’s Adam Sternbergh explains that “Bombing is unlike simply not getting laughs, which is the norm at open mikes. The room becomes silent and airless.” I probably shouldn’t have read anything before attempting to perform in New York. It didn’t do much to inspire confidence.

That morning I wasn’t so worried about completely bombing. I had resolved to only perform old, time-tested jokes that absolutely always went over well. I had written my favorite, and possibly best, joke as a freshman in college. In the joke I question why freshness-preserving silicone packets labeled “do not eat” are put in shoe boxes. The labeling seems somewhat unnecessary.

I started off my rehearsal with that comfortable old joke. Clutching my digital voice recorder with shaky, sweaty palms, I offered my mirror a possible explanation for the labeling, “Well, I know the very first thing I do when I get new shoes is search the box for things I can put in my mouth!” I pantomimed searching and triumphantly finding the silicone packet. “What’s this small poisonous looking packet!? Why, it must be edible treats!” I then pretended to shove the imaginary packet down my throat with enthusiasm. I caught my eye in the mirror as I acted. I chuckled a bit. That old joke could still make me smile.

Despite years of confidence behind my set, I was still frightened. The key to understanding my trepidation stems from Sternbergh’s underlying notion that the norm is no laughter. That is terrifying. No laughter will make anybody want to quit and go home. In fact, just the possibility of no laughter will make anybody want to quit, go home, apply to graduate school, get an office job, and sit in traffic for the rest of her life.

I stared hard into the mirror, trying to fend off my fear. I began another old trusted joke. I had originally written this one at age 18, but I had been tweaking it to perfection all these years. This joke focuses on the plight of having to grow up long before I was ready. I center the joke on three main injustices: 1. No longer being able to eat for free at Fuddruckers. (Under 12 only, apparently); 2. The social inappropriateness of young adults playing Legos. (No matter how good one is at Legos now); and 3. Being barred from McDonald’s indoor play places. (Why don’t they want older kids in there? I’m older and smarter now. I’m not going to pee in the ball pit. Guaranteed.)

At times like these, the empty dormitory paid off. It’s not easy to rehearse with a roommate–especially the screaming parts. I’ve been known to get quite heated on the subject of McDonald’s indoor play places.

After I recorded each joke, I listened, and then started rehearsing again. I kept this pattern up for hours. Fixing, changing, recording and listening. Unfixing, changing back, rerecording and listening. I practiced until my throat got sore enough to make me worry about my ability to perform come 3 o’clock. So I drank tea and went over my set silently in my head for the remaining hours.

I walked through Washington Square Park on my way to the open mike, going over my set in my head. It was a bright sunny day, pleasant weather, maybe low 70s, ideal for relaxing—for everyone but me, of course. I blocked out all distractions, however pleasant. There were little kids playing in the fountain, homeless people sleeping on benches, crazy people yelling at ghosts, dogs having the time of their lives in the dog run, the low call of “smoke? smoke? smoke? smoke?” being offered in my ear as I passed. But I was not distracted. I had a mission. I pressed on.

As I walked I realized I was gesturing slightly and reciting my jokes not just in my head, but, very quietly, out loud. I couldn’t help but smirk to myself. I fit pretty well into the city park scene.

I stood paralyzed outside the bar that would hold my first New York City open mike. There it was, a never-been-washed green awning held the bar’s name: The Village Lantern. Sounds sort of homey, cozy and old-fashioned. But there didn’t seem to be anything too different about this Greenwich Village bar.

The door was propped open, however I didn’t quite feel invited in. A chalkboard easel told me food and drink specials, but mentioned nothing about the open mike. My heart raced, as did my excuses. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything going on in there.” I peered through the doorway into the dark, relatively empty bar from the safety of the sidewalk. The room was rectangular shaped, long and skinny. “They don’t even have space, where are they gonna put the comics? Nah, I bet they aren’t even having the open mike anymore.”

I walked around the block. Back in front, I looked in again. This time, anger washed over me. Biting my lower lip, I said to myself, “Clara, come on, now or never. You don’t know anybody in there. If it goes badly, just leave and forget and it’s over.” Loneliness has its perks. I entered.

The lack of customers made it easy to get the bartender’s attention. “Uh, hey. Are you guys having an open mike this afternoon?”

“Downstairs,” she answered flatly. It wasn’t the reception I needed, or wanted. I would have preferred something along the lines of … “Why, yes we are, you adorable and probably hilarious little girl. I bet you’re the funniest person alive, I can’t wait to see you perform. By the way, you’re really brave for even coming in here. ” Yeah, that would have been better.

As I turned to follow her directions she called after me in a somewhat aggressive tone, “You know there’s a $7 minimum for the comics, right?”

I bought a $7 Miller Lite from her and headed downstairs.

Open mikes are a profitable business in this city of dreams. Open mikes here usually allow each comic an average of five minutes of stage time. This number ranges from as little as two minutes to as much as seven. Despite time fluctuations, $5-7 (or a similarly overpriced drink) is the fairly consistent fee to test your ability and bravery. Seems fair, doesn’t it? I didn’t even want a beer. I didn’t need alcohol affecting my already delicate state.

The Village Lantern was even darker downstairs. The room smelled wet and moldy like a grandparents’ basement. There were several small tables facing the stage. Most were occupied by men in their late 20s or early 30s. There were two men much older than that. There was one other girl. Everyone was engrossed in spiral notebooks, memo pads, composition books, scraps of paper, one guy even had a laptop. The dim light did not affect their reading. It was instantly obvious everyone in the “audience” was a comic. Feet tapped, nails were bitten, fingers drummed. Nervousness was in the air.

In his article Sternbergh asks: “Who goes to an open mike show at four in the afternoon? It’s the same people, it turns out, who go to pretty much every open-mike show: wannabe stand-ups.” And I’d attest that an audience of all fellow amateur comics (as we prefer to be called) is the reason for the standard lack of laughter at open mikes. We may share a hobby, we may share a career, we may be a small group of people who collectively, at the same time and place, go through the same exact emotions; but we are not friends. We are competitors, and therefore enemies. We aren’t going to laugh at each other’s jokes.

As I watched fruit flies circle my untouched beer, the show began. I tried to tune everyone’s performance out and just keep silently reciting my routine. It was difficult. One guy made a joke about masturbation, a different guy made a joke about living with his parents, a third guy asked us to shout out our favorite Spice Girls song. See? I’m not so unfriendly, comics don’t always deserve laughter.

I wrote out a set list for my routine on a scrap of paper, jotting down only key words to help my memory if I went blank on stage. It has never happened to me, but there’s nothing wrong with caution.

My fingers impulsively fidgeted with the edges of the paper. My knee bounced. I bit my lip. A tall, young guy with Ashton Kutcher style shaggy hair and broad shoulders got up and began his routine: “There are two kinds of men in this world: men who hate women standups, and men who just hate women.” That joke got the most laughs of the night thus far. Awesome.

After a few more masturbation jokes (a staple in the amateur scene) it was my turn. I glided to the stage with artificial, practiced poise. With shaky, sweaty palms I clutched the microphone and turned toward the crowd. The bright spotlight hit my eyes and shielded my fragile state. I couldn’t see anything or anyone. I could convince myself I was alone. And I used that brief half second before I had to start talking to try and do so. I don’t know if it worked, it happened kinda fast. People are impressed with a comic’s ability to go up in front of an audience, but it’s really not that hard with a blinding light protecting you.

I opened with my joke about growing up as I almost always do. It gives the audience a taste of my personality and childlike mindset, and gives them some background for the rest of my jokes. As I spoke, I heard myself doing my routine. I wasn’t consciously thinking “and then say this sentence, and then this sentence, and then the next.” Doing standup is like an out of body experience. I sort of became an audience member, and listened to myself go. As I continued, my mind did keep moving, I wasn’t a zombie out there. My thoughts raced in an unsure critique. “Slow down! Don’t forget to walk around! Did they like that joke?! Am I holding the microphone close enough? How much time’s left?”

I started one of my favorite jokes. It considers what the Tooth Fairy actually teaches children. Imitating a kind and high-pitched Tooth Fairy voice, I asked the audience: “Do you need some money?” I flashed them a creepily sweet smile. I held the smile for a silent second to let the creepiness set in. Then I started up again, “Well, why not just… rip off a body part?!” I pretended to rip out one of my teeth. “Problem solved!” I called out, holding up the imaginary tooth with triumph.

That joke is delicate to deliver. It takes perfect timing and pitch in imitation of the Tooth Fairy’s voice. Not to mention that joke invokes a second of silence. Silence! The audience doesn’t feel uncomfortable, it’s just part of the performance for them, but that is the most difficult second of my standup routine. That’s the second where I’m back in my body, back in my head, just looking out into the audience. It’s the second where I realize that I can actually see some of the crowd at the edges of the circle of light. And they can see me. It’s the second where I can hear and feel my heart pounding away, threatening to burst. But it’s also a second where I can make people laugh.

Despite the challenge, despite my nerves, despite the big city, despite the $7 minimum, despite the loneliness, I nailed the Tooth Fairy joke. I did it perfectly. And people laughed. My competitors—my enemies—laughed. Not a lot, there were no knees slapped, to say the least. But there were chuckles. And never before in my life had I been so pleased to get so little in response.

I was on a roll now. I hit them with my shoe box joke. More laughs. I closed with my Googling myself joke. I hadn’t been sure if I was actually going to do that joke. It’s a little bit pretentious, a little bit of tooting my own horn. Though there is a self-deprecating element, underneath that I’m saying I’m good enough to be recognized. So, going into my first New York City open mike, I had not been sure I would actually do this joke, or just step down before my time was up. But that was four minutes ago. The audience of my enemy-peers was with me now, and my mind was made up. I told the joke. Laughter!

I stepped off the stage weak in the knees. Not from nerves, but from euphoria. I could have fallen over right there. I survived my first open mike in New York. I could barely believe it. I was good! I was good at comedy!

How could I let a new city, being far from family and friends, loving sleeping in, or fearing failure stop me now?

None of those things mattered to me as I collapsed into my seat at my tiny table. I felt drained. Had I been holding my breath for the past five minutes? I put my arms on the table and propped myself up. It was all I could do to stay upright. I tried to hide my ear to ear smile from my fellow comedians, but I couldn’t. For the first time since high school basketball tryouts, I had a life ambition. I am going to become a standup comedian.

 

 

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