A few months back I woke up with a dire hangover, a broken Playstation (some drunk chick from The Rookery had fallen on), and a 25-dollar tattoo on my leg that I only vaguely remember getting in a shoe store. With all this came the realization that I had been living in New York City for three years and I hadn’t done anything except drink. Nothing.
So to make short a long, beautiful story about self-improvement, I decided to make a change. I thought stand-up comedy was a good place to start. Funny was my most redeemable quality.
Doing standup was a life long dream of mine, but I had always been too afraid to do it. But I knew I had to do something in this city except booze.
At the risk of talking myself out it, as I had done so many times before, I didn’t give myself time to write a good set or study the craft of comedy. Instead, I found an open mic the next day at Precious Metal on Troutman Street. I reminded myself that I had written my speeches for public speaking class the day they were due. People had laughed at those.
I was destined to win. The subway train with butterfly wings forever printed on my leg thought so, too.
Even Whiskey couldn’t kill these jitters
I got to the bar early. There were about 15 people or so, and more trickling in. Everyone seemed to know each other — a community making the small talk of those brought together by mutual interest, nodding heads, waving across the room, a few laughs echoing in the quiet space. A few people were on their own, writing some last minute material or scrolling through their phones. No one seemed to be there just to drink; everyone was a comic.
To signup, you wrote your name on a little piece of paper and dropped it into a big glass stein. The order would be determined at random. I wrote my name with a shaking hand and found a seat on the wall opposite the bar, having promised myself that I would do this sober — read self-improvement here. I tried to do my routine in my head, failed at that, tried meditation, realized it didn’t work, and settled on the black-and-white movie playing on a TV above the bar.
A moment later, I found myself ordering a whiskey. It was happy hour. Three dollars, what a deal!
The event started 15 minutes after the scheduled start time. By then, there were about 25 people. The music died, and the two hosts clapping for themselves as they moved towards the stage was enough to kill any tranquility the whiskey had given me. They did some warm-up banter to the unenthusiastic crowd for about a minute before giving up and asking if anybody “wanted to hear some names.” Everyone grew more enthusiastic with that.
Five names were pulled from the stein, each met with applause, none of which were mine. So it had begun.
I ordered another drink and watched the comics doing their best to win over the room. They came and went quickly.
I was too nervous to laugh. My heart was in my throat the whole time; my skin was too tight for my body. A harrowing anxiety filtered my world where humor didn’t exist, and whiskey didn’t get you drunk.
When my name wasn’t called in the second group, I stepped outside, thought of leaving, didn’t, looked at the sky, and took a deep breath. That helped. I went back inside and I was able to smile at the jokes.
Some comics were good; others not so much. Most had at least one good laugh in their set, while others got a chuckle here or there — or maybe some quick releases of air that didn’t quite qualify. A few had nothing but crickets. Even fewer got considerable laughs through their whole set.
Despite the inconsistency, there was a cordial atmosphere to it all. The comics redid jokes if they messed up the wording, abandoned material during a set-up, using the word “transition” instead of an actual one. As I watched, it became apparent that this was a comic’s practice zone — a safe one, even — where jokes were essentially birthed and raised before heading out into the real world where audiences don’t tolerate unpolished work and only want for you to make them laugh. No one was against you; rather, they were just being the tough critics you needed.
If you asked a comic, they’d tell you that they go to so many open mics a week and sit through so many damn hours of jokes that they aren’t going to give you a laugh just for trying it out. You actually have to earn it.
An hour and a half after it started, the last group was called. Even though I knew I was going to hear my name, I still died a little inside when I did.
I had roughly five minutes to bail out or to take another shot of whiskey. I did neither. Instead I watched the two comics before me and didn’t hear one damn word that was said. The room had emptied out a bit. My heart. My poor, little heart. I was healthy, but surely this wasn’t.
It dam near exploded when I heard:
“Give it up for our next comic: Cody Lewis!”
It takes a lot to laugh
I tried to take a deep breath, shuffling toward the stage, bent over like an old man trying to keep contents spilling from a broken bag.
The prior comic tried to shake my hand, but in my nervousness I didn’t see it until I was out of reach. I gave him a little wave and an “oops” face instead.
I focused way too much attention on the mic, grabbing it, taking it from the stand, putting the stand aside. I looked up. I could see everyone, unlike some places where they blind you with lights. And by God, they could see me.
For a moment, time froze. It became an entity, a weight bearing down on me, a ringing in the ears. Strange details that had nothing to do with the task at hand consumed my attention: the food stain on a man’s shirt, the dust on a dirty fan, the filaments in the lightbulb.
“Hi,” I heard myself say.
My words were far away; yet even in that strange state of mind, I was aware that my nasally voice wouldn’t compliment a PA system.
So I did my set. And I didn’t get one laugh.
Not one. Not even a scoff or that release of air. Not only was my material awful and without structure or set-up, but my routine fell from my mouth like a shy toddler reciting their ABCs. No inflection, no rhythm — just words. I didn’t even give people time to know I was telling a joke. Not even a slight pause where a pity laugh could have been inserted. It was bad. It was so bad.
To be honest, the thing I remember least about that night was doing my bit. Like a terrible car accident, my mind filed away the memories from that time. But I definitely remember that I didn’t get laughs.
And then, 45 seconds after it began, it was over (hold your sex jokes). Despite what everyone had just sat through, their was applause. That was something.
AND ABOUT THAT TATTOO…
I got off stage, feeling awful and wonderful at the same time. In the wake of the adrenaline dump, I collapsed into a seat, letting my heart find its rhythm. No one looked over at me to laugh at how bad I was and wonder what the fuck I had been thinking when I decided to try this. I was just another comic doing another open mic and I wasn’t receiving any thought beyond that. With the task behind me, I was able to relax and actually laugh at the last two comics.
Doing my first stand-up, I realized that even though I hadn’t gotten any laughs, I hadn’t lost my only redeemable quality. Stand-up is like anything: you have to put in the time to be good. But for some reason, that detail seems to fly over people’s heads (“you’re funny, you should do stand-up” or “I can’t picture you doing stand-up” aka “you aren’t funny”).
The open mic ended and I slipped out the door without a word to anyone. My body had finally granted the whiskey access to my mind and, combined with a feeling of personal triumph, I floated down the street on a mental high I hadn’t felt in a long time. I knew that I would get on stage again.
Then I went out and got hammered and got a tattoo on my other leg. Baby steps.
And please, if anyone has any information regarding the girl who broke my Playstation, I would be eternally grateful for her number.