Five Years of Chuckle Time.
Exactly about five years ago this month I started performing stand-up comedy. My first performance was at the now defunct uptown Charlotte Comedy Zone in the preliminary round of a now defunct comedy competition called the Carnival Comedy Challenge. It was set up so they would hold auditions on Monday, some in the afternoon, some in the evening, and from there they would select ten comics to perform the next day in the finals.
I was in the afternoon heat of participants. My cousin came with me. While we were there we looked through the Comedy Zone food menu, and having no money looked for the cheapest thing there. That was the origin of a joke that sadly is not yet defunct, and I still tell five years later.
There were something like 30+ comics auditioning that evening. Each comic got 5 minutes. It was a long night. I don’t know how many of them were professionals, how many open-mic’ers, or how many first-timers. I do know the guy sitting at the table closest to us was a first-timer though, just like me. He was there with his wife and they talked about how he’d been thinking of trying stand-up for a while. He was the funny guy amongst his group of friends and they kept telling him to try it out. He struck me as a nice dude, unfortunately.
I drew a spot somewhere near the middle of the line-up, after intermission. So I had a lot of time to watch other comics go up and get little to no laughs. The preliminary was set up to be in front of about five judges. There was no real audience, only the other comics, a lot of whom were not even paying attention. I imagine some of them were nervous enough about their own performance. Even the ones that were paying attention were not laughing much at all. I’ve performed in front of a lot of shitty audiences in the five years since, but few compare to a room full of jaded professional comedians and nervous amateur open-mic’ers.
Some comics dealt with the silence better than others. The better comics would just do their material till their five minutes were up and would get off the stage. A lot of comics just crashed and burned. They were so thrown off by the total absence of laughter that many would cut their sets short to lessen the pain. A few barely made it to the one minute mark. Unfortunately, my first-timer buddy from earlier was one of them. He was very noticeably nervous when he took the stage, was having a hard time getting his words out correctly, and ended up getting heckled by one of the judges. He was crushed. There were still several comedians left in the line-up after him, but as soon as he got off the stage he went over to his wife and left the club right then. My guess is to never perform comedy on a stage ever again.
I went up after intermission and somehow ended up doing all my time. Fortunately, the lack of laughter didn’t throw off my timing as much, given that I had no benchmark as to how many laughs I should be getting. It’s easier to deal with no laughs when you’ve never gotten ANY laughs. I don’t recall much of my set. I vaguely remember something about hunting cows (as you can tell, I was doing very socially poignant material even at the outset of my career). I think my only laugh came from an impromptu joke I made about the neon flamingo that was being used to indicate when the comedian’s time was up. Needless to say, I did not make it past the preliminary round. But I wasn’t totally crushed either. I think the fact that practically nobody got any laughs that night, may have helped. Even though my jokes would probably not have gotten any laughs had there been a real audience anyway, it made me feel better that in my head I was doing just as bad as everybody else.
I still have some video of the show somewhere, not just of my set but of some of the other comics as well. I stopped at some point when one of the comics going up waved his arms at me telling me not to record. I’ve since found out you’re not supposed to record other comics, but at the time I thought this dude was just being an asshole. I was taping because I thought it would be cool to have a record of “the time I did stand-up comedy”. For all I knew, this could be the only time in my life I’d ever get in front of a microphone to tell jokes.
Turns out that several of the people I saw that night I would end up running into in the years to come, one ended up trying to steal one of my jokes (coincidentally the same one I wrote that night), others I ended up working with, and a few became my friends. Off the top of my head I recall Paul Hooper, Matt Davis, Tim Kidd, Jermondo, and Mike Diesel who memorably lost his shit upon finding out he was not going to make it to the next round.
On a side note, the winner of the whole thing ended up being Pretty Paul Parsons, who is one of the dirtiest darkest comics you’ll ever see. He’s like the creepy old grampa your parents won’t talk about and wouldn’t let you visit by yourself. The win entitled him to a gig on the family friendly Carnival Cruise Lines. It was like Michael Richards getting hired to headline the NAACP annual convention. I don’t know if Carnival has honored the prize to this day, and if they did, I wish I could’ve been there to see it.
So anyway, turns out I did do stand-up more than once. It took about three more months for me to get on stage for the second time, at the now defunct SK Netcafe open-mic in Charlotte, but after that I became pretty much a regular. Even though in the early days I would sometimes get there and wimp out when it came to signing up to perform, I was still there pretty much every Wednesday for the next year. One Thanksgiving week it was just me and the now defunct late great Bird. But we still had a show for every other pathetic soul that was not traveling to see their family, and that happened to be hanging out at a coffee shop long enough to find themselves the unwitting audience to an open-mic comedy night.
At last count I’ve done 2,784* stand-up comedy shows, and even though my biggest joke is currently my checking account balance, and I am far from being able to claim a successful comedy career, whatever trace of a career I do have I owe to guys that helped me get where I am by either putting in a good word for me, hooking me up with feature gigs, or being brave enough to take me on the road to feature for them when I was probably not even ready to do it. However, they believed I had enough potential to put their names on the line for me, and without that I would’ve never been ready to do anything at all. Guys like Kerry White, Matt Davis, Paul Hooper, Tim Kidd, Tony Boswell.
By the way, I want to make it clear that these guys helped me at a level beyond MC. Because in all honesty, it really doesn’t take much to get someone an MC spot, especially if it’s unpaid…
-“Hey Mr. Booker, I found a guy that wants to MC your club!”
Booker: “Will he work for free?”
Booker: “Is he funny?”
Booker: “I’m just Fucking with You! Who Cares! Just make sure he gets the announcements right.”
Hell, you can buy your way into an MC spot in a lot of places if you just have a moderate grasp of the English language and are willing to pay whatever the going rate is for the local comedy class taught by the town’s resident hack. I’m not saying getting someone an MC spot isn’t a nice thing to do, but some people will hold it over your head like you owe them your career. Which is something none of the guys I mentioned have ever done with me, even though they’re the ones most entitled. What takes real courage is to put your name on the line and tell a booker that there’s someone they have never heard of, who doesn’t have much experience, but is a good enough comic to be hired to entertain a paying audience for thirty minutes. So don’t believe anybody who acts like a god because they “hooked you up” with an MC spot. If you’re good enough, there’s nothing they’re doing for you that you couldn’t have done for yourself.
The coolest thing about the people that have helped me is that they didn’t owe me anything. They helped me simply because they wanted to, and even though I’ve done practically nothing to repay them since, they have never patronized me for it.
The irony** of it all, is that as much as I would like to repay the guys that have helped me, I will never be able to because they’re so far ahead of me careerwise that anything I may achieve they will likely have achieved years before me. So I can’t really hook them up with anything. What I might be able to do though is try to help other people like they helped me.
So, finally, this is my promise to anybody who starts doing comedy today or at any point after this. If five years from now I’m headlining on a consistent basis, and you keep in touch, I promise I will bring you to feature for me on as many gigs as I can get you into. Of course, I’m gonna have to like your comedy first, but odds are if I don’t like what you do we’re probably not gonna be keeping in touch anyway. At least I won’t.
By the way, the reason I’m not extending this invitation to comics that started within the last five years is because, even though you started after I did, odds are you’ll still start headlining before I ever do, and I’m more likely to need You to bring me along as Your feature. That’s right young’un you OWE Me! Don’t you forget that time I let you MC for me! I MADE You!
*I made this number up.
**This is an incorrect use of the word ‘Irony’.
(Originally Posted 8/23/10)