Funny Girl

Laughter's the best medicine? For aspiring stand-up comics, it's more like heroin.

Before Comedy Central, there is open mike. Your first time, you make a call, and you get your name on the list. You'll be at the end of the list, where the newbies go, because newbies usually suck. You will have three to five minutes to not suck.

I should have been more scared before my first open mike. But Backdoor owner Stogner has a sunny, simple comedy philosophy: "Support your fellow comics." She told me I was funny, so obviously everything would be OK. I'd done plenty of improv and live theater, so this was going to be the same. I would be funny in front of strangers. They would laugh.

While most of that first night is a blur, I do remember being intimidated walking into the Backdoor that night. The lobby was full of comics with notebooks discussing their sets. All I had was a reporter's notebook. I was no comic.

Backdoor Comedy Club's Linda Stogner is a relentless supporter of local comics.
Brian Harkin
Backdoor Comedy Club's Linda Stogner is a relentless supporter of local comics.
Linda Stogner's also a pretty good jokester herself.
Brian Harkin
Linda Stogner's also a pretty good jokester herself.

"I think I'm going to do the Mexican joke," they'd say, or "I don't feel like doing drinking jokes tonight." I hadn't thought of what I was going to be doing as telling "jokes." Jokes started with "Knock, Knock!" I waited in the audience for my three minutes of truth. With every comic that went up, I tried to rate them on a funny scale, so I'd know where to place myself. I had to get laughs. I was funny. If I wasn't funny, I was going to have an identity crisis.

And then my name was called, and I talked about Genghis Khan's publicist and Vag Davis, breathily heaving out an example of the sexually frustrated Vag in the check-out line at Kroger. And it was over. I think I was not the worst person who went up that night. Afterward, I shook some comics' hands. They seemed to think I was OK. They told me about Wednesdays at Hyena's Comedy Night Club in Arlington.

Gary Hood, longtime comic and cigarette-smoking czar of the Hyena's open mike, presides over the show from a booth near the front door. He is in charge of a very powerful piece of paper: the performance list. I started out at the tail end of a packed night, nearly 50th in a long evening that didn't get started until after 9 p.m. On the phone earlier that day, Hood laid out the rules in his nasal tone: "You keep coming," he said, "you move up in the order." Loyalty pays off. So I became loyal, missing just one night before a tough Thursday deadline.

Hood speaks in parables. When I went to him for advice, he told me about a famous jazz musician who was auditioning horn players for his band. One guy played the hell out of his instrument, soloing like crazy. But the jazz musician told him afterward, "Did what you played make the drums sound any better? The guitar?" Hood lets the story sink in a little bit and continues. "It's about balance." A good premise. Good delivery. Good punch lines.

As I went up week after week, Hood might offer a "Good job, Grimey," but there was never simply praise. Hood is a teacher. I wanted to hear, "Let's get you a headlining set this weekend, Grimey! Think you can do 25 minutes?" But, of course, that's not what I got. I got lessons.

After a couple of times doing one of my favorite jokes, about phone sex with National Public Radio host Diane Rehm, Hood started calling me with regular updates about Rehm's show. And, of course, with tips, since his own Rehm impersonation was spot on. "You gotta get the warble," he told me. So I worked on my warble.

It took me a couple of months to bomb. I was still feeling out my routine, but I had started to develop a persona that worked, adopting a slightly heartbroken single gal outlook that allowed room for the occasional off-color one-liner. I started getting regular laughs with an easy one about R. Kelly. "Have you heard his new song, 'I'm a Flirt'? That's an understatement. That's like Michael Jackson releasing a song called 'I'm a Baby-sitter.'"

Easy chuckles courtesy of a punching bag like Jackson worked for me. Anything was better than silence. And so I got a little bit cocky and didn't practice as much as I should have before sets. When I arrived at the Backdoor for a Thursday night open mike in March and found a nearly packed house, I figured I was in for a cakewalk. I'd made five people laugh at Hyena's the night before. Fifty? No problem.

I started with a joke about being a bad dancer (Santa said I was a shitty reindeer. Ba-dum-chssh?) I remember pre-emptively hearing the laughter in my mind, fabricating the sounds that were supposed to be coming from the audience. There was nothing. I moved on to the ATM-mugging bit. No response. The set culminated in a round of pity smiles after my R. Kelly closer. Silence. I felt like I couldn't breathe. What was happening? What had I done wrong?

Mortified, I had to trudge through the audience to my seat in the back of the room. A few courteous folks offered half-hearted claps, but that just made things worse. I wondered if I had even told jokes at all, if maybe I'd been speaking French.

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