Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Free comedy is worth what you paid for it

There’s a guy I know who has hosted stand-up comedy open mike nights on and off for the past five years or so. He has done this at various bars/clubs around Chicago. I’ve attended quite a few of them, though my attendance has become more sporadic of late. This isn’t the host’s fault; he’s pretty funny. In fact, there are nights when he’s the only funny person on display. And that’s the problem.

You might wonder whether I’ve ever put my name in and taken the stage at one of these events. The answer is mostly “no” and a little bit “yes.” There was one night when the host was being very insistent that I go up there, so I compromised with him. “Introduce me,” I told him, “but announce that I’m only going up there to tell a single joke.” He did as instructed and I in turn delivered as promised. I told a joke I’d concocted many years earlier, but it’s kind of involved so I won’t attempt to tell it here. If you’re really curious, you’ll have to actually track me down and ask me to tell it to you live. Actually, you might not want to bother, since the joke didn’t get a single titter that night at the open mike, so maybe you’re not missing anything.

That’s part of the problem with these open mike nights – getting laughter is pretty tough. You have to understand that most of the audience is comprised of A) the other comics, and B) the other comics’ friends. A lot of them will be talking amongst themselves quite loudly all night long, except when their buddy is up there doing his set. So I have to respect anyone who can go up there in such a climate and generate major laughter.

My main problem with these events is a pretty bottom-line issue: they’re just not all that entertaining most of the time. At their worst, they’re absolutely brutal. First of all, understand that the gender breakdown is around 95% male comics and 5% female comics. This frankly gives those few women a great edge – they’re standing up in a room full of guys, offering them something most of them crave – attention from a female. I say this based on the material most of the guy comics trade in at these things. It’s mostly guy after guy going up there and telling jokes about how they can’t get laid. Or telling every dick joke they’ve ever heard. I’m not exaggerating; it’s that bad. The few female comics one sees, to their credit, do not tend to tell a lot of dick jokes (with a few exceptions).

So why have I gone to so many of these? Well, for pretty much the same reason I go to see regular theater – most of it is pretty unimpressive and misguided, but every once in a while, somebody comes along who does it so well that they make me forget all the pain that has gone before. At stand-up open mike nights, a performer doesn’t even necessarily need to be funny for me to enjoy them if they can show me some imagination and originality. For example, at the last one I attended, I sought out and shook the hand of one of the comics after he was finished simply because his entire act was original. It included about a three-minute riff on what he considered to be the wasted talent of John Mayer. A bit of an arcane topic for a comic riff? Maybe, but it was utterly original and well thought-out, and I appreciated hearing something that actually made me switch on my brain.

There was another fellow I saw at several open mike nights who also stands out in my memory. His act never varied – it was the same 10 minutes of material every time out, but it was a solid 10 minutes. It centered around his crappy job at a restaurant at Navy Pier and his pet cat, Jack Ryan. It was a tight, funny set that you could have put on TV with no problem. As far as I could tell, though, it was his only 10 minutes of material so he’s got a ways to go before he can take his shot at the big time.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to amuse people, and I’ve tried more than once to put together a stand-up act, but with no success, so I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can put together a legitimate act. I think a big part of the reason is that much of my humor comes out of reacting to other people dynamically. I think a stand-up act for me would have to be either A) semi-improvisational with a lot of talking to the audience, or B) part of a comedy team.

I also wanted to pass along a little trick of the trade when it comes to hosting one of these open mike events. The host has a signal for when the comic on stage should wrap things up. It might be a table candle that gets raised into the air, or it might be a flashlight that gets clicked in the comic’s direction. I’ve seen a few comics brazenly ignore these signals even though they’d overstayed their welcome by a wide margin. I’ve even seen it happen that the host has had to walk onto the stage, begin clapping, and wrest the microphone away from the comic. So if it’s quiet dignity and grace you’re looking for, look elsewhere. I’m sure I haven’t attended my last one of these things, but I want you to know what you’re in for should you decide to attend one yourself.

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