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When it’s done right, stand-up comedy is heroic and transcendent, the rawest form of comedy. However, as I learned when I started going to open mics in Los Angeles at age 19, the vast majority of aspiring stand-up comedians don’t radiate transcendent insight so much as they radiate sinister implications of faulty, unstable inner-workings.
Blame the accessibility of the form (all you need is clear space and some chairs) for attracting the broken and deflated like the Island of the Lost Balloons, but my first forays into LA’s stand up scene to watch my then-boyfriend perform made me desperate to elbow my way onstage and say something -- anything –- designed to crack a smile. To banish, for just a few minutes, the collective tirade against dumb girlfriends, pushy moms, and bitches who give head wrong.
Why, I asked myself, was everyone up there so male? And why were they so angry? So I started putting my name on the list.
Obviously there are also hilarious, eloquent guy comedians; they just get quickly Swiffer-Swept by Fate into better venues and HBO Specials. The guys stuck at open mics years on end are not the ones who click with a mass audience, so they get left behind to antagonize the young blood. There’s a simple Darwinian elegance to the system: Your first audiences are usually your worst audiences, rooms of other angry stand-ups, waiting for their turn. Make that room laugh and you’re funny.
For two years I haunted sticky coffee rooms and shady bars late at night, listening to hours of amateur comedy and building my set. I’d get up for three minutes, then stay through the other comics’ sets, then hop in a car with my stand-up friend to cross town and do it all over again, tweaking my performance each time, 2-3 times a night, 3-4 nights a week.
The hook was the feeling onstage. When I stood smiling up into a spotlight, I lived in a luxurious bubble of eerily confident calm. I found mental sunshine in the darkest hours of the drunkiest dives, but the clarity ended the second I stepped offstage, with a hurricane of adrenaline that made me shake.
Years after things ended with the then-boyfriend, I was walking around town practicing material into a flip-phone held up to my ear, thinking no one could tell I was talking to myself: We do crazy things when we’re in love.
In another year, I climbed from coffee shop open-mics to rooms run by choosier dudes, to “bringer shows” at the Comedy Store’s Belly Room (you get on the list with a recommendation and, more importantly, the promise to bring a set number of friends who will buy a set number of drinks) to finally (yay!) Friday night shows at the Belly Room. You didn’t have to bring friends, just your A-game.
It was maybe my fifth time in that room that a joke of mine preceded me onstage. I had been pacing, whispering my set like a nun in a horror movie whispers a rosary, when the guy who had gone ahead of me a few weeks prior cashed in my closing punch line.
My joke was that based on the Terrorist warning level for the day, I’d carpe diem and be a little more romantically adventurous. Red level warning? I might just hit on a cute guy in an elevator. His joke was that he’d hit on a cute girl in an elevator and if she didn’t respond well, he’d remind her of the terrorist level warning for the day.
Humor (like every art) is a dialogue. Phrases, cadence, concepts get borrowed. But this didn’t feel like homage, it felt like he’d Hamburgled my brain. I knew what I had to do.
I barreled onstage, up-ending tables and innocent tourists from Kentucky in my haste, wrapped the mic cord around his neck and bellowed: “THE NEXT TIME I HEAR MY WORDS COME OUT YOUR MOUTH I WILL WEAR YOU ON MY FIST LIKE A VENTRILOQUIST’S DUMMY.”
Ha ha! Just kidding. I did nothing that triumphant/unbalanced. I was weirdly flattered, for a split second (“My material just got ganked! Je suis arrivé!”) And then the onslaught of raw panic: I had to adjust for the hole in my act before the obligatory “high energy” jock jam started and I was called onstage. The audience couldn’t hear that same joke twice, regardless of who wrote it.
So I pulled from my B-string and made a different joke. I never told that original joke again. I patched the hole with stronger material. Who knows if he even realized what he’d done. Maybe he thought he’d changed it enough to make it his own. I don’t know: I never confronted him.
In another couple years, I went from doing stand-up to writing and performing sketch comedy. When I wrote sketches for myself and a guy friend to do onstage, the other comics would walk up to him afterward and compliment what they assumed was his writing. Even after he corrected them and said “Thanks, but my partner wrote that scene…” they would glance at me and keep talking to him.
Maybe the guy who stole my joke just disassociated me with writing he liked, as they apparently did. That’s his problem. That’s their problem. I’m still writing. I’m still making
jokes. It’s what I do now (albeit by typing, sun streaming in the window) for a living. Some guy out there might be reading or hearing them and re-telling them as his own, at work or to friends or who knows, recycling them at an open mic. Let him. I’ve got plenty more where they came from.
Have you ever had a joke poached? Have you ever said something in a group of guy friends and immediately after one of them says the exact same thing like he’s translating you into guy? Do you love/hate/perform stand up?