Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Year of Living Humorously: A Stand-Up Philosopher's Pilgrimage - Part VI

David Vitter, the very socially conservative Senator from Louisiana, was caught in the DC Madame scandal. What makes it even more ironic is that the prostitute spoke with the press and told them that the Senator insisted on wearing diapers to their sessions. Apparently, it’s still family values as long as you call the hooker “mommy.”
But then it was as if my guardian angel was protecting me. Writing at the public library, I rifled through the comedy albums, finding a Mort Sahl disk. A routine from the 90s with a few good lines, the CD held minor interest until the end. He closed by saying that he was told that you had to play down to the audience to succeed in comedy, but that he had always treated his audience as if they had Ph.D.’s. The wording stung me. He paved the way for Leno and Letterman with that approach, I could do worse.

It gave me back a sense of power over my act. I would write forty-five minutes of material that even drunk college students would have to laugh at. I got a note from the organizer that the gig would be a combination of comedy and dance music called “Chicken and Beer, Music and Comedy.” I’d be doing three fifteen-minute sets during the band’s breaks. Fifteen minutes was the combined length of my first and second modules. I already had a third of it written.

Typed out, seven minutes of comedy was about two pages. So, fifteen minutes, I estimated would be five, allowing for the fact that things tend to come out quicker on stage because of nervousness. I would need fifteen pages of jokes that would entertain beer drinking, chicken-eating, college students. I could do that.

But I would also need to develop stage presence, at least enough to get by. Karen, a friend in the theater department, offers a class in improv comedy and she was graciously willing to let me sit in to learn the basics of stagecraft. I could begin to solve the problem in my own geeky milieu.

But I would need to confront the mic and stool and the drunks that came with them. The classroom was one thing, but if I was going to be a comedian for a night, I needed to be a comic for several hard months.

Looking for rooms to play, a friend tipped me off to a new place in Northeast. I showed up to literally play to an empty house. The bartender, house manager, and sound woman took the front table as I got up and told every joke I had ever written. The sound woman had minored in philosophy and wanted more smart jokes. Was she a prophet?
The only thing worse than playing an empty room is playing a room of comics... which happens often. Bars rely on comics to bring people, but since the number of friends who would come out to see your act is limited, you only invite them to big gigs. As a result many open mics are badly attended. Of course, without the open mics, the rooms close and then there is no opportunity for the better shows. The circle is vicious.

Almost as vicious as the comics themselves. As a matter of policy, comics do not laugh at each other’s material unless it is to express derision. While newbies will get compassionate handshakes and nurturing backslaps, once you are seen as a regular, the best you can hope for is the comic’s attaboy, a flatly delivered “nice set.” You know you nailed it when someone comments that they had never heard the Mr. McFeely one before. A direct reference to a joke means it stuck in the mind and needs to stay.

Another room only gives you three minutes for your first set at the venue. The need to pack set ups and punch lines into such a tight time and the fact that a cable company was filming it for its amateur comedy specials combined to throw me back into my head and I blew it, but I learned a valuable lesson. The host made the comics sit in the front row until the room filled and audience members looked for those seats. No one wants to sit up front out of fear of getting picked on by the comedian, but if there is distance between the stage and the audience, jokes fall into the void never to be laughed at. You need to hit a home run, he said, to get it over the wall of empty seats.

Then I found a home at a club in Arlington, All-Stars Comedy club. I could get guaranteed stage time every week and a college educated audience. The regular comics were a good bunch and I settled in. Each week, I’d watch them hone their act making minor modifications while I’d take the chance to work through new modules. Some hit, some missed, but I was gaining back my confidence and adding to my time.

I figured that a college audience would have at least a few geeks, so I wrote some nerd jokes (I was part of a study testing the placebo effect, but I ended up in the control group. What do you get if you cross Sophocles and James Bond? Oedipussy Rex.) I knew that I had no business telling these jokes in a bar, but I had a roll of twelve and needed to practice the rapid-fire delivery in front of a crowd. They were going to fail. I was going to die on stage. I knew it and I accepted it. I was going to become a comedic martyr for my cause and I was at peace with that.

It was the day before April Fools’ Day and on that holy day the comic gods saw the new purity of my heart and my reverence for the jokes and they did deliver a miracle. A new guy, a recent graduate from James Mason, brought an entire table of twenty bright college kids and sat them right in front of the stage. They got each and every reference. Other comics were strangely complementary about the bit. The weather was getting warmer, time was getting shorter, the comic gods were smiling and I was feeling ready.