By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This is how the scene must have looked at the Backdoor Comedy Club downtown on the night of February 1: It's open mike night. In the lobby, a middle-aged woman with a mop of spiral curls is milling around in a blue polyester dress and white sneakers, carrying a boom box. That's "Just Jude." A couple of 30-something white guys are hunkered over notebooks, scribbling jokes about their wives, Kelly Ripa or George Bush. Maybe all three. In the hallway, a guy named Ryan, who calls himself the "metrosexual Frodo Baggins," is obsessing over his set list.
Club owner Linda Stogner must have been running around with a yellow flashlight, shushing the chattering comics who might drown out whichever struggling jokester was plowing through three minutes onstage. Just beyond a set of black curtains sat the audience. Maybe six or eight chairs were filled with charitable friends who paid $7 plus a two-item minimum to see their buddies try to make them laugh. If the audience was lucky, the next guy up might be a seasoned comic with a few minutes of good material.
It must have been that way, but while I was there on February 1 and have the videotape to prove it, I don't remember driving there or waiting in the audience until it was my turn to go onstage. I certainly don't recall the three minutes I spent telling a joke about Genghis Khan's publicist and imitating a heaving, squirming character I'd named Vag Davis, "woman constantly on the brink of orgasm." It was the first time I tried stand-up comedy, and I don't recall a lick of it.
Many people would like to be able to forget their first time up. For self-professed "generic, middle-aged white comic" Richard Houghton, his first time involved telling long, meandering stories without punch lines. Sherry Belle, a Brett Butler-style comedian who started two years ago, says her first set got laughs, just "in the wrong places." Like after she finished a joke and told the audience, "That was the punch line."
But thanks to my tape, I have exactly three minutes and 41 seconds of painful proof that I got onstage and told what I believed were jokes. The video starts with the master of ceremonies, comic Kirk Smith, apologizing for me before I even take the stage. "This is harder than it looks to do. Give it up for Andrea Grimes!"
There I go, clutching a bottle of Amstel Light like a security blanket. I launch right into the awkward minute-long bit about Vag Davis, wherein I get three laughs before moving on to my Genghis Khan closer, which did surprisingly well considering 97 percent of the joke, told from the point of view of an over-excited publicist representing the Mongolian emperor, is not funny, including the part about Khan's "wild and crazy defeat of the Jin Dynasty." A few kind laughs were sprinkled throughout. Those laughs planted a dangerous seed.
I went back the next week for another three minutes. I might bomb, but then again, I might get laughs. Since that first Thursday, I haven't missed a Backdoor open mike yet. What started out as a mild interest in having an audience hang on my every word and laugh hysterically at my jokes has turned into a full-blown crusade for acceptance, something I now pursue practically every night of the week, mostly at open mikes and sometimes at weekend shows where people pay money to see real comedians. My total comedy income so far: one Crown and Coke, three Coronas, two shots of Jack Daniel's and a five-dollar bill. I am well on my way to superstardom.
I had a joke about being afraid of getting mugged at an ATM in a bad part of town. I told it at two open mikes, though it didn't really have an ending. I just kept going until some part of it—usually the part where I admit to having WingStop as a speed dial on my cell phone—got a big enough laugh that I could move on. Always end on a laugh. The third time I told it, I thought I'd come up with a really great ending. I committed to the punch line 110 percent: "And so the scary guy behind me says, 'I'm just here to do a little fixy-fixy on this machiney-machiney!"
If you think it looks stupid on paper, imagine what that line sounded like in a cavernous black room, filled mostly with judgmental comics, where bad jokes do not merely die in silence but also are slaughtered with calls of "Oooooooh!" and "Oh, noooooo." I stood alone on the stage, cowering behind a mike stand, and let the "Oooooh" and "Oh, noooooo" and silence wash over me.
If a joke fails, the comedian fails. The humiliation can be paralyzing. But when it works, when the whole room is shaking with laughter and applause, all those groans and silences are erased. And so comics keep going back night after night for more, like addicts who remember only the high.