5 Things You Never Want to See at an Open Mic
I'm going to be co-hosting my own comedy show in Los Angeles, and Dan O'Brien and Michael Swaim are going to perform at the first show, along with a bunch of other great guests, and you can buy tickets right here (buy one get one free if you use promo code CRACKED)!
Don't you hate it when people spend 2,500 words being coy about the fact that they're selling you something? Far be it from me to do that. I will tell you right now, that first sentence up there is the entire purpose of this column. That's not to say you should stop reading. I'm a professional -- this is going to feel really good, trust me. But still, I'd love it if you'd check out that show I just mentioned!
To give you some background, I've been doing stand-up comedy, albeit sporadically, for about a year now. After six years of writing jokes on the Internet, it seemed like a reasonable thing to try. Like anyone else hoping to get into stand-up, my first time onstage was at an open mic night. If you've never heard the term, it's exactly what it sounds like. There's a microphone on a stage, and just about anyone is invited to perform. Sometimes it's only comedy, sometimes it's only music, sometimes it's an awkward mix of both, with a few prose-spouting hippies thrown in for bad measure.
No matter the format, it's almost always an awful time, and if you want to be a comic, it's an awful time you have to force yourself to have over and over and over again if you ever hope to spend enough time onstage to not be terrible. Open mics are the AA meetings of comedy, basically. And just like a gathering of "reformed" alcoholics teetering on the brink, if you hang around open mics long enough, you're going to see some truly awful things. For example ...
"Funny" Homeless People
This isn't even something you have to hang around a long time to spot. If you're at an open mic and didn't pay to get in, someone around you is homeless. The only question is whether they're going to remain a spectator or pay respect to the silly dream that got them living on the beach in the first place by getting onstage and slurring a few jokes. And it's the latter that's actually the best case scenario, because homeless people make fantastic hecklers. In fact, the very first time I ever tried stand-up, I was heckled by a man who I swear to this day had to be a hobo. Granted, he was wearing a North Face jacket or something, but whatever, rich people give clothes to charity, too; this bitch was homeless. And he had the nerve to heckle me. Here's video evidence:
Right, that video is damn near 12 minutes long; I don't blame you for not watching. I promise you the exchange in question is there somewhere, but that's also video of the very first time I tried stand-up and watching it hurts my head, so I can't tell you exactly where. I was supposed to do three minutes, but having no idea what the laser pointer the old man was shooting at my face was all about, I just kind of rambled for as long as they'd have me. I'm better now, I promise. Don't let this video keep you from buying tickets.
As for that heckler, he's in that video. I made a joke about 50 Cent, and he yelled out, "I got 50 cents right here!" or something to that effect. I told him it looked like that was probably half his rent and that he should keep it. It got a good laugh. I felt kind of bad about the joke for approximately as long as it took me to remember that homeless people don't have feelings.
I also think they might be at least partially responsible for the next thing you don't want to see at an open mic.
A Cover Charge
Don't get me wrong, there is definitely some leeway here, and I've formed my own theory that it is at least in part because of those aforementioned homeless interlopers that some open mics charge a cover. For example, there's an open mic near my apartment that charges a $1 cover. No drink minimums or any of that fun stuff, just $1. Because it's located where homeless people love to be (Santa Monica), I've always assumed that it was meant to keep them at bay. Maybe it's for something else, I don't know, it's a dollar.
But that's also about as much as I'd be willing to spend for nothing more than the chance to maybe tell a few jokes. Once you get up into the $5 neighborhood, you'd better get a drink with that or something, because there are legitimately great comedy shows that cost way less, and most open mics are absolutely free. If an open mic is generating a ton of cash, it's probably because someone is getting robbed.
On the bright side, that someone is probably just one of your friends. The open mic has an ugly cousin called the "bringer show" where comics are promised stage time provided they bring a certain number of people with them. All of those people, of course, have to pay the ridiculous cover and are subject to the two-drink minimums that you'd get at a regular comedy show.
"They're mostly water!"
The difference here is that most of the "entertainment" is invited because they know a handful of friends who were willing to attend the show, not necessarily because they're funny or talented. That said, if you really want to do stand-up and you live in some tiny town where the one open mic that charges a $15 cover is your only option, then by all means, go tell jokes there and see if you're any good at it. If you are, move.
You may recall that, for a few months last year, I lived in San Francisco. It was my intention to start really hitting the open mics regularly once I moved there. I was used to living in places that had one (or sometimes no) comedy club, so my opportunities to do that kind of thing had been limited. I knew it would not be that way in San Francisco, and I fully intended to take advantage of it. But like I told you before, San Francisco is a strange place. So I shouldn't have been surprised when my first attempt at taking in an open mic landed me at a place where people wash their clothes.
Granted, it was a laundromat slash cafe slash bar slash comedy club, but still, it was mostly laundromat. There were kids doing homework while their parents washed clothes and such.
Not as much dancing as the stock image sites would have you believe, though.
The place is called BrainWash, if for some reason you think I'm lying, and it's actually kind of popular. There's nothing more popular with me than hating big crowds in small places, though, so I never actually told any jokes at BrainWash, instead choosing to spend most of my time hating that there was nowhere to sit. I regret that now, because who knows when I'll be able to say that I told jokes at a laundromat again unless I just walk into a fucking laundromat and start telling jokes, which I suppose isn't the craziest dream.
But it was too much dream for my comedy "debut" in San Francisco, so after one jokeless visit to BrainWash, I never went back. But I did check out another open mic in San Francisco a few weeks later. The results were ... San Francisco.
I've never told a joke at a coffee shop. I'm not saying that to sound like some kind of cool guy; I don't know if a person would ever say a thing like that in an effort to sound cool. What I mean is quite the opposite. I've never been brave enough to tell a joke at a coffee shop.
Here's the thing: It's not that I've never considered it. I did go to an open mic at a coffee shop, again, in San Francisco. I arrived with plans to rock the mic, but was immediately put off when I walked in to find that someone was doing just that, except for real. It was a rapper, with dreadlocks and an Army jacket and everything, just like the ones who took over Detroit in the action classic 8 Mile.
Unfortunately, they lost.
This would have marked the third time I'd ever done comedy in my life. At the time, the heart of my material was based on my articles about unintentionally gay rap lyrics. It was a confidence-rattling start to the night.
Things momentarily got less intense when the kid who was rocking back and forth in his seat (wearing the exact same Army jacket as the rapper, because strange is a branch of the military in San Francisco) jumped up in response to a name being called and headed for the microphone. Up to that point, I'd assumed he was planning to detonate a bomb vest of some sort. Fortunately, the only bombs he brought were in the form of the nonsensical phrases he'd strung together in the name of "poetry." If I remember correctly, it somehow involved him being born a crab, and I am not fucking making that up.
I was sure I'd seen the worst live performance of all time when, much to my dismay, the next four or five people to take the stage did the exact same thing. Johnny Crabcakes wasn't even the worst of the lot. At least his ramblings seemed like the result of a drug problem. Everyone else was just probably into poetry for the sake of it, and that's scarier than any drug issue by a wide margin.
Dear God, does she even own a television?
While I'm being an asshole about it, as the terms of my contract say I must, I will admit that it was kind of a cool thing. There was a lot of acceptance in that room. I just couldn't imagine that what I do would be accepted in that room (or any room like it). I don't know if I'm even able to write a joke that's not offensive to someone in some way. That's not a brag -- that's a glaring deficiency in my joke-writing process. So much so that I was sure my stuff would not go over in a room like the one with the rapper and the superficially menacing poet, so I never even bothered trying.
I should have, though. I haven't been doing stand-up long enough to give much in the way of advice to anyone, but if forced to come up with something, I'd say try your jokes in places where laughs are hard to come by. If something hits there, keep after it.
My only other advice is to make sure you're less funny than me, even if people tell you it's not possible.
Your Exhausted Co-Workers
I invited my co-workers to an open mic once. Four of them, to be precise. Dan O'Brien, Soren Bowie, Kristi Harrison, and Robert Brockway. Well, I invited all of them, I'm no asshole (citation needed). That just happened to be the configuration that was available to accompany me at the time. I knew it was a risky proposition in that this open mic determined the order of the lineup by randomly drawing names from a bucket. Every time I'd been there, my name was pulled in a reasonable amount of time, but there are always a lot of names to get through, usually 20 at least. Each of those people gets five minutes on stage. If your name is drawn at or near the end, it can make for an excruciatingly long night.
Naturally, my name was drawn at or near the end. Third to last, to be exact. When we arrived, there were maybe 50 people in the club. By the time I took the stage, the only people left were the people who worked there, two comics, my girlfriend, and three of the previously mentioned four co-workers. Brockway left at the approximate point where "Old Time Rock and Roll" would have been played if we were at a Seger concert (meaning he stayed for a long damn time) because his motorcycle gets harder to see as it gets darker out, and what's the point of riding a motorcycle if people can't see it? I understood, while also wondering to myself why he didn't like me anymore.
Pictured: The list of possible reasons.
The other three stuck it out, though, and Kristi was even nice enough to laugh at every single thing every comic said the entire night even if it was the opposite of funny. I was equal parts grateful and horrified. On the one hand, it was super nice of them to even consider showing up at all, and I'd like to thank all four of them for that again right now. On the other, holy shit it was like 1 a.m. before we got out of there and my friends and co-workers had to sit through a whole lot of bad comedy in the name of listening to me tell jokes. I never want supporting my dreams to involve supporting others also. I resent it, in fact.
Don't worry, I repaid their patience and kindness by absolutely killing it that night. I was really great, you guys. Seriously. Unfortunately, I don't have video to prove it, you'll just have to take my word for it.
Or, you could come see me try to recreate that magic in person! Starting March 5 (that's Tuesday!), I'll be co-hosting a stand-up show at Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. This time, my fellow Cracked workers Dan O'Brien and Michael Swaim will be performing too, along with people way more talented than us, like Blaine Capatch and Laurie Kilmartin. It will be a rocking good time, and tickets are only $5. But they're only $2.50 if you use the promo code CRACKED. You may remember all of this from the opening paragraph.
And just so the last impression you have isn't that video of my very first open mic, this is me doing a marginally better set at a club called The Stand in NYC (order the tater tot nachos and tell Cris to answer my goddamn emails if you see him) over Christmas.
I'm the one telling jokes behind the giant woman in the stocking cap. I hope I see you this Tuesday!