By Jim Schutze
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"Comedy is the ingredient that makes the poop sandwich of life palatable," says Gary Hood, the godfather of the open mike at Arlington's Hyenas Comedy Night Club. Hood's been telling jokes since the '70s. It's really just about laughs, he says. "That classic corny shit."
I know what he means. Four months ago, I became a comedy addict. It started at that first open mike, when I made a stranger, someone who had no obligation to make me feel good about myself, laugh. I sought out stage time nearly every night of the week and fell in with a bunch of comic hopefuls doing the exact same thing. Our cars practically drove themselves to the bars and clubs willing to give us three or five minutes of stage time.
"You gonna be at Hyena's tomorrow night?" I could ask anyone—Jeremy Procter-Smith, the prematurely bald guy with the NAMBLA joke, or pseudo-stoner Larry Campbell, a former redneck from Louisiana—but I already know the answer: a resigned, flat "I guess." It is an admission of defeat. Comedy wins. Doesn't matter what else might be happening on a particular night, it takes a backseat to the pursuit of laughs.
In Dallas, we're lucky to have stage time available just about every night. Mondays, it's the Dyer Street Pub by SMU, followed by Tuesdays at McCarty's in Richardson, an experience that consists of standing in a bar and screaming curse words until (you hope) everyone shuts up. Wednesdays it's Hyena's, a real comedy club open mike whose audience is mostly other comics waiting their turns to go onstage. Thursdays it's the Backdoor Club, a PG-13 place where you can't say the F-word and you're given just three minutes to spill your comedy soul. Lucky newcomers might get to go up at one of Addison Improv's monthly open mike showcases, "bringer" shows where you must get eight people to pay to see you before you're allowed to perform.
I got into stand-up through improv comedy. In the summer of 2005, I was hanging out with a local improv troupe called Section 8. After several Budweisers and a fair amount of whiskey late one night at the Regal Beagle, one of the troupe members told me "girls aren't funny."
In investigating this claim for a Dallas Observer article, I met stand-up comic Linda Stogner, who owns the Backdoor Comedy Club, an intimate room downtown that features the best local comics. That includes Stogner herself, a 15-year veteran of stand-up. Back then, Stogner suggested I give one of her open mikes a try, but I didn't have the balls. Being funny was a defining characteristic of my personality. I was so sure that I was funny that I was terrified to be proven wrong. If I bombed, that meant I wouldn't be Andrea.
But stand-up continued to nag at me. I knew I'd never do it unless I made it part of my job. So I told my editors to expect a story about comedy and booked myself at the Backdoor open mike. I expected it to be difficult, but I didn't know how hard, or how intensely rewarding, it could be.
Laughs come with a price. Comics who want to make it big have to tell jokes four or five nights a week, minimum. That kills relationships. And if being out every night doesn't do things in, the jokes might. Dallas comic Paul Varghese recalls having a girlfriend come to his show only to hear him talk onstage about having concerns in his relationship. On the car ride home came the inevitable: "Did you really mean it when you said that you hate commitment?" Varghese jokes that he'd just tell her, "Um, you wanna go watch The Notebook?"
Open mikes and headlining can eat up a life, and not many people fancy shoving their spouses out the door every night to face being left alone.
Then there's the struggle of balancing a day job. Larry Campbell worked the early shift at a West Dallas gas station. That meant getting up at 4:30 a.m., just a few hours after finishing a midnight set. He has a new job now, teaching at a local school. "Now I can sleep until 5:30 in the morning," he jokes. Way, way better.
Why endure? I've spent the past four months trying to answer that question. I've been the 47th performer of the night at an open mike, telling jokes at 12:45 a.m. to four people, among them a guy who calls himself the "hoe man" and carries a garden tool onstage. I've been told my jokes didn't work because my "tits got in the way," a charming variation of "girls aren't funny." I've bombed hard in front of a huge, kind crowd who loved every other comic that evening.
But I've also had exactly two thrilling nights where I played for packed audiences who laughed hard—sometimes even with applause breaks. Those are rare moments for an open miker like me, and they fuel the addiction. With enough work, bombing stops being a concern. Eventually you have enough good material that you can work almost any room. So, night after night, I joined the motley bunch of comic hopefuls and seasoned veterans who make up the Dallas comedy scene. Now I'm always chasing the high.