Some of the most excruciating hours of my life have been spent watching open mic comedy nights. Years later, I distinctly recall the horrible trapped feeling: sinking in my seat, my gut clenching, eyeing the exit but unable to leave without being seen as abandoning the sad, desperate people taking the stage like concentration camp victims Playing for Time.
Largely because of these experiences, I’d always thought a good way to do comedy would be to tell the audience at the start of a set that laughter was not required or requested — that the comedian simply had some thoughts to share, and if any struck the audience as funny, well, it should go ahead and let loose. This technique has its own drawbacks, which I understand not from trying standup comedy, but from adhering to a kind of Antioch approach to sex: Basically, if you talk too much about what you’re about to do, the spontaneity drains away, leaving only awkward self-consciousness.
The right comedian could still make this work. The wrong comedian would be as screwed as ever.
I’m not talking just as a long-ago audience member. Despite the ancient scarring, I recently immersed myself in local comedy — standup, sketch and improv — and had far more positive experiences once I removed myself from the brutality and tragedy of the open-mic night. (Oddly enough, many comedians say they did great their first time on stage. Then they go chasing that high, more often that not with cruel results.)
When I see bad comedy now, I still wince, my gut still churns a little with discomfort, but I’m able to take a more analytical and less visceral view of it.
I know now, for instance, that “bad comedy” doesn’t necessarily mean comedians aren’t giving you good stuff. They can send out into the audience perfectly funny bits, honed on stages from Dorchester to Worcester for weeks or months, that usually sail out straight and true to perform astonishingly graceful, daring and clever midair loop-de-loops before bowing out with a flourish of enchanting fireworks. But in some places those perfectly funny things just plummet to the ground, one after the other, flailing around and grunting faintly as everyone looks on in horror. This happens where there’s bad comedy feng shui, where some slight jiggering of the comedy club equation — the space between tables, the brightness of the lights, the number of people in the room and lord knows what else must be plugged in as variables — afflicts an audience’s willingness to laugh with a muteness that prevents it. It’s possible to get laughs in The Thirsty Ear, the hidden pub at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but attempting it isn’t for the reckless, the amateur or the unlucky. The Thirsty Ear may be the Mount Washington of Cambridge comedy clubs.
It’s also a good venue for observing what comedians do wrong. Destructive or unproductive practices can be missed in a more forgiving room, where laughter can echo or come reflexively long after the funny has stopped, providing cover for a blank or bad stretch. In the Ear, though, every line, every bit, every act-out (I use this comic jargon to show I’ve been paying attention) has to pull its weight.
So while I’m really just a dilettante with no right to speak, largely based on my slogs across the Ear’s comedic desert, I’d advise comics to avoid the following:
“Ladies.” This word is delivered knowingly, winkingly, as a follow-up to revealing a particularly unappealing or off-putting aspect of a male comic’s behavior or persona. For instance, that he’s an engineer. “Lay-dees.” Or that he’s seven feet tall and weighs 410 pounds. “Lay-dees.” This can actually be a funny thing to say, but it’s overused, and trotting it out merely makes the comic look unoriginal. This is no particular comic’s fault; but the word, and ideally the whole self-deprecating shtick behind it, needs to be retired for a while. As an alternative, just don’t be the second or, god forbid, third comic to use it in a single night.
“It’s good. Good stuff. Good times.” [Repeat.] These nonsense phrases come mumbling out as a comic tries to shift gears, but they unfortunately just suggest that the gears are slipping — that, in fact, there’s nothing at all going on inside a comic’s head and, thus, nothing to listen to. This is because these phrases are simply sardonic validations the comic is using to comment on his own material, and they probably wouldn’t be used at all if what was taking place on stage deserved validation, sardonic or otherwise. “Good times,” especially, is something people say because they’ve heard other people say it as ironic commentary in times of mordant distress, and that’s how anybody even slightly versed in humor will take it; using the phrase not only looks like thievery, and lazy thievery at that, but suggests that the user has missed the fact that the irony only works as commentary on what the comic sees, not what the comic says. “We used to take turns clubbing baby seals. Good times” is entirely different from telling a joke that gets no laughs and following it up with “Good times,” just as saying “That sucks” is different from saying “I suck.”
“Okay. It’s funny to me.” This can be good. It also risks sounding like a comic is insulting the audience, making it them versus him, and unless that’s the comic’s thing, it’s a bloody awful thing to do. It makes the audience defensive, which gets them thinking of why the comic is wrong and unfunny rather than giving the benefit of a doubt that something really was funny and missed the laugh it deserved. Finally, it gives the audience a chance to think, “That’s the problem — it’s funny to you, not to us.”
“What else do I got? Yeah … so …” [Looks at watch.] Ugh. Death. This is a cruel world, and nothing sparks an audience’s collective alarm like the suggestion that the person on stage isn’t in control. Jim Morrison, Billy Joel and Ralph Garcey couldn’t get away with it, and you can’t either. The audience will feel trapped, and your hesitation will make it feel agitated as well. Add in a cover charge or a two-drink minimum and you’ll have actual anger to deal with.
Most of these unfortunate phrases are used to fill in time to get from one joke to the next, and the rest is defensiveness springing from the same source: The laughter of the audience is supposed to cover the transition from one joke to the next, and when it doesn’t, the comic stands revealed as inadequate.
Don’t let it happen, comics. Never let the audience see that you’re uncertain, grasping or desperate. Smile as you sink. Connect your jokes with friendly patter, not subconscious mutterings. Relieve your watchers from the need to feel anxious for you, and maybe of the need to laugh at what you’re saying. You may not make it as a comedian, but you’ll save many people from years-long horrors that have them running for the exits before you can even hit the stage.