I finally did it: I took the stage at a comedy open mic. I don’t mean to assign more importance to that action than it warrants, but it has been a very long time coming. Ever since I first watched David Letterman do a monologue, I knew that I wanted to do stand-up. I don’t know if that meant a career doing comedy (in fact, I doubt it did), but it was at least something I wanted to try.
I suppose there’s a little narcissism inherent in taking the stage at any kind of open mic, but this is especially clear for stand-up, where people are mostly just talking about themselves, as well as asserting that their observations are funny (let alone worth listening to). That narcissism may have contributed to my having avoided trying my hand at stand up all of these years, but more than anything, I was afraid of making an ass of myself. If I got up there and wasn’t funny, it wouldn’t have just been because I didn’t have good material or was inexperienced; it would be because I’m out-of-touch with what is funny. I could stand not nailing a punchline, or not having a punchline, but to stand on stage with material I only thought was good would be devastating.
But this post isn’t about back-story (which I’ve already amply supplied elsewhere), or about my neuroses (though aren’t they all?), it’s about my actual experience at my first open mic. I wish I had video to post, but none was taken (not that I really mind), so instead I’ll just have to describe it.
My brother and I got to the bar a little later than we intended, so our options of time slots were limited to either the very beginning or the very end. My brother’s advice was that earlier was always better, so we signed up for the first two slots. We ordered a couple beers and sat down at a table, waiting for the show to start.
The host was a very amicable fellow with either a very quick wit or a wealth of jokes at the ready for any possible situation (probably both), and he warmed up the audience fairly well before he invited my brother up to the stage. My brother had actually hit a couple of open mics in New York before he came out to Boston, but he warned me he was pretty rusty. He got going with some solid bits I had seen him do before, but the audience wasn’t responding particularly well. This made me a little nervous, since I know he had spent a fair amount of time sharpening these bits; if these gems weren’t sticking, what of my hastily-conceived, never-written-down jokes? He wrapped up, and the host took the opportunity to warm the crowd up a bit more.
When my name was called, I immediately went into performance mode, which is a phenomenon I’ve only experienced a few other times in my life. Basically, I feel like I no longer have conscious control of my actions, and am more or less just along for the ride. Generally, this only kicks in when I’m super confident of my capabilities (usually through rigorous practice), where it can be exhilarating, but it’s absolutely terrifying when you feel like you’re barely remembering the precise wordings necessary to land a joke. This fear led me to talk a lot and very quickly throughout my set. I’m sure that’s a common problem for beginners, but it only served to make me more nervous as my rushed punchlines didn’t have time to compute before I stammered onto the next line.
I opened with a bit about snuggies and how I now feel trashy using sleeveless blankets. That punchline got a reaction, but my lead-up was a little marred because people were having trouble hearing me. In short, I have terrible microphone skills. In my hand, the microphone veers wildly from millimeters from my mouth to however far away too far away is. Words were missed, and it made me look like a total n00b. After I sat down, I watched how other comics were handling the mic, and saw one guy — clearly with a lot of experience, using this open mic as an opportunity to work up new bits — just plant the microphone on his face next to his mouth. I realized I had seen that before, but never realized why. It’s a great, simple solution to a problem that otherwise might require conscious thought to resolve. I don’t know if that’s a strategy I’ll ever use, but it was neat to have new insight to a behavior I had seen many times before.
My next solid punchline was about how I don’t want kids because they’re so expensive — it’s really not a buyers market out there. That joke landed just fine, but where I took it after that was where things got interesting. I launched into a bit about how I can’t relate to kids anymore because I can no longer tell whether or not a kid is retarded. I got appropriate groans from the audience, which I guess I should have expected, but it kind of threw me off, causing me to scuff a line about how all kids are too friendly, dress like dorks, and talk too loud. I rush-mumbled through the rest of that bit, and felt like I had only been up there for 30 seconds, so I started to scramble for other material.
I had worked up a bit about eggnog in preparation for my envisioned Christmas open-mic that never materialized. By “worked up,” I of course mean “roughly sketched over a month ago and then never thought about again.” It was rough, and hinged mostly on a back-and-forth between two characters that I did nothing with. It’s not my kind of joke, and I didn’t deliver it well. What’s worse, I couched the telling of that joke by explaining that this was my first open mic, so I’m just trying whatever material I had. That is a terribly unprofessional move that would bother me if I heard anyone else say it. It’s cowardly and totally unnecessary, but I did it anyway.
As the night wore on, I saw others (some with much more experience) offer similar preemptive apologies for new material they were trying out. This gave me some comfort. Also comforting; the modest laughs I got were far from the worst reaction of the night. I fared well enough to not scare me off, and the experience left me with enough to consider to make any future endeavors much stronger. The area I should focus on first are the moments between big punchlines. I either need to get better at riffing or just stop trying; right now, I’m just blowing the goodwill I earn on those few decent jokes. It’s also going to mean tightening up my transitions and set-ups, which definitely made me the most uncomfortable up there.
This makes it sound like I intend to try my hand again, but I’m not actually sure I will. The rush of performing is enjoyable, and I had an all-around good time, but I don’t know if I need to do it. I was a little put-off by the kind of insular sub-culture of open-mic regulars, a group that I think would take a long time to warm up to a newcomer, which is really not what my poseurphobia needs. On the other hand, striking out on my own and meeting new people may just be the best thing for me. In the end, I just enjoy coming up with jokes, so I’ll probably try this again sometime, so it’s more a question of when.