"This was such a stupid idea. I'm not funny…I suck," he says as he fumbles with his rum and coke. He tips the tumbler back to his face. Empty, just the crackle of the ice readjusting to the gravity shift and a cocktail napkin, glued with condensation to the bottom of the glass. He brings the glass back down to the bar. He wanted a hard drink but is now settling for the cold crunch of ice that he maneuvers from left to right in his mouth.
Sitting next to him, I pivot on the bar stool, turning my attention from the stage to size the boy up. I've never seen him before. "He" looks about 21 years old, a little overweight, and hair a little too messy, tumbling across the precipice of stylish-messy down the crevasse to homeless-messy. My new friend here just took his first crack at stand-up comedy and had a terrible set; at least that's what he thinks just happened. I say, "No man, you did alright."
He simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses the condolence with a headshake: "When I told my parents I wanted to be a comedian they said, ‘You're not even the funny one. Your sister is the funny one!" I push my lower lip out and give a nod of concurrence. "Well maybe you could bring her on stage with you next time, like a prop. Work a Vegas gig like Carrot Top…or that Southern guy with the puppet."
Once your greatest comedy fear is realized and you don't actually die of shame, well that is an extraordinarily liberating moment. He ignores me, uninterested in exploring the conversation any further. He pushes the glass to his face one more time, tilting it way back. Ice turned cold tap water is all he is rewarded with. He resigns, "No, there won't be a next time." He stands up and grabs his coat from the back of the bar stool. "Alright man, I'm out of here. Good luck up there." I raise my club soda to salute. He pushes out the front door into the Chicago winter before he begins putting his coat on.
On the bus ride back east to my apartment I started thinking about what he had said. I think about what I said and what I should have said. This is an open letter to the open mic guy:
I just wanted to tell you a couple things because I was less than articulate on our last encounter. I was also sort of a dick when you were just looking for some positive feedback. You were very candid and open with me and I didn't reciprocate so I apologize.
I'm not an expert by any means but there are a few things you should know:
1. No one kills his or her first time at bat.
The first time I did stand-up sober, I forgot everything, and I mean everything. I stared straight out, breathing into the microphone for a minute or two, then tried to walk off stage, but was heckled back on stage. Can you believe that! My peers wouldn't let me give up, not because they wanted me to triumph over my fear and conquer my inhibitions, but because they wanted to see me burn to the ground, like kids who set ants on fire. But I said fuck them, went back up and dug my way out of the worst rut possible. I got a couple laughs, walked off stage and wanted to cry. You, on the other hand, actually used your big boy words to form coherent sentences, so congrats on your sterling performance.
2. Open mic'ers rarely laugh at other open mic'ers.
It's December; these guys work jobs all day then commute to some shit bar in some shit neighborhood on a shit weekday and listen to other people try out new material for three hours so they can hastily mutter out five minutes of material that may or may not get a laugh or two.
So don't be offended when they don't laugh at your airport security joke. I know the thing about the security guard needing to take you to dinner first is funny. So were the 1,000 other derivations of that joke I've heard.
Imagine putting a bookshelf together for your girlfriend; she may be really impressed and turned on at the way you wield a hammer and nail. Perhaps she's watching you put it together wearing a thong and nipple tassels. Who knows, maybe she makes some sort of come-nail-this sexual innuendo as she heads to the bedroom. I'm just brainstorming here. Anyway, if you build a bookshelf in front of 30 carpenters, they aren't going to pat you on the back and tell you how fucking great you are bedecked in man-thongs and nipple tassels, although that would make "Extreme Home Makeover: Home Addition" a much more watchable show.
3. Your parents. Is your dad Larry David? Is your mom Gilda Radner? No? Then fuck them; they don't know what funny is.
If your 60-year-old mom thinks your sister is funny, than your sister is either Lucille Ball or unfathomably boring. Sounds to me like your sister probably went to law school and runs marathons in exotic places. She's probably been to Portugal and has obnoxious Facebook statuses like, "Santa got me my North Face jacket! lol!" Because of this, your parents probably love her a little more than you. As sad as that is, you'll show them when you put together 40 minutes of material about your family, get a sitcom, and start making 350K an episode to have Jerry Stiller play your beleaguered, incontinent father.
4. Regarding being, or not being funny, what does that have to do with stand-up comedy?
Again, I'm not an expert but I've found that being funny has about as much to do with stand-up as being a great parallel parker has to do with racing NASCAR. If you drive NASCAR you can absolutely parallel park. If you can't parallel park, you will probably have a very hard time driving NASCAR. And anyone who ever suggests that they want to be a NASCAR driver, regardless of driving ability, is roundly criticized and mocked because it's a bat shit crazy thing to suggest. Such is stand-up. It has a lot more to do with dedication, ambition, practice, and anomalous super-narcissism. Having a shitty childhood helps too.
5. Bombing is healthy.
You learn something about yourself when you perform poorly on stage. It's a moment of honesty in its purist manifestation when you say words that are in your brain—your ideas, the truest form of you—and no one laughs. It's like telling a crowd of people you're in love with them and having one of them tell you, "I don't even like you as a person." It's crushing and frightening but once it happens, once your greatest comedy fear is realized and you don't actually die of shame, well that is an extraordinarily liberating moment.
And now that you haven't died of shame, in a week or so, you'll work all day, make your way to some shit bar in some shit neighborhood on some shit weekday and wander back onto an improvised stage with a 20-dollar microphone and hastily mutter out 5 minutes of new material, and I think that says it all. If you find yourself on a stage with a microphone in your hand, chances are you should probably be on a stage with a microphone in your hand…or in the microphone stand, but you really need to decide on one or the other, because that's something else altogether.