This is the first in a series of multiple posts. How many will there be? Who knows. When will Chapter Two appear? Also a mystery. Surprises are good for you.
Conor paused for a second, considering how best to phrase his question. He settled back a little into his seat as the subway car began to move, his girlfriend nodding off on his shoulder.
“What exactly do you get out of doing that?”
I loosened the tie I had on and unbuttoned my collar, trying to think of how best to answer him. It’s a great question. It was almost one in the morning, and the three of us had just left an open mic at Toronto’s famous Comedy Bar. I’d been there to get some stage time; Conor and Karla were generous enough to tag along.
In retrospect, I should have warned them about what they were getting into.
The show had officially kicked off at ten; by the time I got onstage, it was well past midnight. Inside the cramped Cabaret Room, the smaller of Comedy Bar’s two stage spaces, the air was heavy, humid and boozy. From the lobby you could hear clinking glasses and roaring laughter, even with the doors closed. I was sitting beside Conor and Karla, the chairs arranged into rows so tight that my knees were all but touching the seat in front of me. One after another, myself and the other wannabe-comics took our turn in the spotlight, pitching jokes into a rapidly-hemorrhaging audience. Getting a laugh was to scrap for it, every time—and the humiliation of silence stings, I can tell you.
If you, like most people, have never been to an amateur open mic before, there is little that will prepare you for the experience—and, like Conor, you’ll probably come away wondering what in heaven’s name would posses a person to perform at one. To the untrained eye, it may look like a voluntary torture; a public emotional water-boarding that a person (for some unfathomable reason) signs themselves up for. But to the those of with experience, well—yeah, that’s more or less exactly what it is.
Five minutes. As a rule, that’s what you’re given.
Your name is called; you step up onto the stage and shake the host’s hand, grab the microphone from the stand. Squint into the spotlights. You can’t see the crowd very well, given the glare, but you know they’re there—when your set goes well, the crowd is a billowing cloud of laughter and applause that swirls around your punchlines; when it doesn’t, they’re a pit, swallowing your jokes and giving you nothing but the thud of pint glasses being set on tables and the creaking noise of chairs being moved. Five minutes isn’t a long time—or at least that’s what you’ll tell yourself until your set starts going poorly.
All those people out there who list “public speaking” as their number one fear, above snakes, spiders, drowning, or early-onset male pattern baldness? I guarantee you that the feeling you experience when a joke flops in front of a roomful of strangers and nobody laughs is the exact same feeling that those people are deathly afraid of. It’s like getting punched squarely in the testes of your self-confidence. And open mics are full of people discovering that awful atom-bomb of a feeling for the first time, before your very eyes.
My dad likes to tell a story from the early days of his relationship with my mother. In their younger years, they were at a party, and there was a group of their friends standing around, having a few drinks and trading jokes. When the circle came around to my mother, a highly accomplished and startlingly intelligent PhD in social work who is nonetheless not exactly renowned for her sense of humour, she excitedly told a joke she’d heard a few days prior:
Q: Did you hear about the man who was paralyzed on his left side?
[Audience: no we haven’t, do tell us, etcetera.]
A: He’s all right now.
[Cue hysterical laughter.]
It’s a good joke—and a perfect party gag. Concise and clever, with the kind of punchline that is funnier for the brief moment it takes to appreciate. (If you don’t get it, read it out loud. If you still don’t get it, go lie down.) Unfortunately, the way my mother told it wasn’t quite the way it was meant to be presented:
Q: Did you hear about the man who was paralyzed on his left side?
[Audience: no we haven’t, do tell us, etcetera.]
A: He’s okay now.
[Cue hysterical laughter from only my mother, and confused stares from everyone else.]
I’m sure that almost everybody can relate to that in at least some small way. Maybe you’re on a first date. Maybe it’s Christmas morning with your family. Maybe you’re out at the bar. Regardless, you’ve got the floor. You tell everyone a joke, or a funny story, and wait for people to laugh.
They don’t. Not even a chuckle.
Instead, you get to sit in that awkward pause for a few seconds, the one that sits like a pothole in the conversational flow. At its most benign, it’s a little bit funny, sparking nervous laughter. At worst, it’s humiliating. In comedy, flubbing a set is usually called “bombing” or “dying,” and it’s that same humiliation multiplied by a factor of fifty. And there’s no shuffling off into another room to freshen up your drink, either. You have to stand in a literal spotlight, enduring a silence so profound and charged that you will believe that you can actually hear people thinking about how much you suck.
If anything, that’s the element of stand-up comedy that I think is criminally under-talked about: mental toughness. Even if you’ve never played football, for example, you’ve probably heard someone talk about the concept of a “fourth-quarter team.” A fourth-quarter team is a team that plays right through to the end of the final thirty seconds of the game just as fiercely as they did in the opening quarter. Physical endurance plays a big part, but mental endurance is just as important. You need to execute your patterns, push yourself, and stop yourself from getting sloppy right until the game ends, whether you’re winning or losing—it’s the kind of intangible element that separates good teams from great teams. The best word for it might be “tenacity.”
In comedy, you’re not pushing yourself physically the way you do in sports (unless you know something I don’t), but having the tenacity to push through a disengaged audience, a bad set, or a flubbed punchline and keep getting up onstage, night after night, is not easy. Oftentimes when you start out in stand-up, you need to be either committed beyond all shadow of doubt, or just purely masochistic to succeed.
When I think about how badly my own very first public comedy performance went, almost ten years ago now, I never fail to find myself cringing. It was a disaster. Two people in the front row walked out about five minutes in, and I still see their backs in my mind sometimes. I was eighteen and had decided to put on a show—I rented a theatre and wrote sketches that I was going to have my friends act in. To call it a train wreck would have been polite. I charged friends and strangers alike something like ten dollars a head to watch me giggle nervously at my own jokes while my friends acted like any of it was a good idea. None of the scripts survived, which is for the best, and mercifully, it took place just before camera phones with video-capture capabilities were the norm, so no footage of the show exists (that I know of). If you wanted to get state secrets out of me, tying me up and forcing me to re-watch that night would be thirty times more efficient than any physical torture you could devise.
It would have been easy to give up after that first night onstage. I was humiliated, like “legal name change”-tier embarrassed. In moments like that, as a performer, you realize how vulnerable you are—that audiences aren’t there to make you feel good about yourself, and that unlike your friends, they don’t have any idea “how funny you are” until you make them laugh. It’s a savage meritocracy, and audiences often don’t have any problem letting you know if they don’t like your stuff.
I take solace in the fact that all comics have bombed. Everyone. From Carlin to C.K., from Chappelle to Hedberg, everybody bombs at some point. And they all kept at it. You have to—nobody picks up stand-up on their first try. Stand-up has its own language, one that has to be learned through doing it, whether that’s by nailing your set or getting nailed to the cross of audience disapproval.
And just in case you start thinking that that doesn’t sound quite difficult enough, here’s where it gets really painful: say you’re a first-time comic. Say you want to feel out the scene, decide if it’s for you. You’ve seen some Russell Peters specials; you’ve been writing your own material in your room and practicing it in your mirror and on the bus when you’re going to work. You figure you’ve got a pretty decent handle on how things go. You search up some open-mic listings and you Google-maps the address. It’s go time.
You’re going to hit couple of hurdles right off the bat. First, good stage time is difficult to come by. Open mics are all over the place, but in my experience, they don’t always make for the best learning space. Because you know who makes up the lion’s share of the audience at your average stand-up open mic? Other amateur comics. They’re as nervous as you are, they’re distracted, since they’re rehearsing their material in their head, they’re at the show alone. Plus, they tend to leave as soon as their own set is over.
Second, all that can be exacerbated by the fact that many open mics will give as many comics slots as they can. It’s a nice gesture. The logic, I think, is that the shows are trying to be inclusive—comics need to start somewhere, so everyone who shows up gets a set. It makes for a big audience when the show starts, but it quickly dwindles as things go on and people perform their material, then take off. Not so bad if you’re first on the list, but not easy if you’re near the bottom.
The worst shows I’ve ever had have been at open mics like that. I went to an open mic on Toronto’s west end once upon a time, arriving about twenty minutes late for sign-up, thinking that it wouldn’t start exactly at eight o’clock. The show was listed as ending at two or three in the morning, which I assumed was just when the bar was closing, not when the show actually ended. I was wrong. The experienced comics knew that sign-up opened at eight, and you’d better damn well get there early. After signing up so late in the game, by the time my slot came around it was past one in the morning, and the only people left in the audience were the host and the other three comics that hadn’t performed yet. I’ll never forget one of the guys looking me dead in the eyes without laughing, and saying very earnestly “that’s funny, man” in response to one of my jokes. It was a bit of a bust.
So, if it’s your first time in front of a crowd, and that’s how your show goes? You’re going to need that tenacity we talked about.
At the Comedy Bar open mic, the one Conor and Karla came to see me at, there was a little bit of everything. Some obvious first-timers, new to the scene and finding their legs. Some open-mic vets, the people who haven’t broken through to the big leagues just yet, but who had clearly done the song and dance before. We watched people bomb, and we watched others have a pretty damn decent time. One young guy, I think his name was Anthony, got to talking with me in the crowd. It was his inaugural set. He nailed it. He’s got a long way to go before he sells out the Apollo, but he’ll be back. Another guy, whose name I won’t bother publishing, got up onstage and told jokes that were both tired and racist. (“The other day, a man asked me if I was Chinese. I said no. I asked him why he thought that. He said it was because I hit his car.”) I’ll be surprised if I run into him again, based on the black hole of silence he was met with. My own set didn’t go so badly—but you’re not going to see my name on a marquee anytime soon either. There’s always next week.
To those of you starting out in stand-up: stick with it. Nobody who makes you laugh got there in a day. Some of your favourite comics languished in poverty and obscurity for years before you ever heard of them. It’s an unforgiving career, sure. But it’s a hell of a good time when you get it right.