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.
"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.
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.
"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.
I knew the only way to fix it would be to get onstage again. I couldn't change that night, but I could make a new crowd laugh. I felt like I'd written something down in ink and needed to scratch over it with a big, black marker. I couldn't make it disappear, but I could make it better.
The next time I had an opportunity to perform for a sizable crowd, I obsessed over it for weeks. I got on the list for one of the Addison Improv's Tuesday night open mike bringer shows. I needed to get eight people to commit to driving to Addison on a Tuesday night and paying $5 plus that dreaded two-item minimum to watch me perform.
I became the obnoxious friend who sends out daily e-mail updates about her exciting upcoming events. I nagged my family, assuaging their fears about venturing from Tarrant County. I created a MySpace event page and bulletined the hell out of it.
I practiced my set over and over again, talking to myself in the car and in the shower. I'd had the advantage of breaking up with my boyfriend the week before, an event that spawned two decent jokes, and had the even bigger advantage of getting back together with him the night before the show, so he was there with a video camera. I would have proof that my comedy career was either hopeless or promising.
As I was called to the stage, I looked out at the wonderful people who'd heeded my pleas to attend despite the fact that the Mavericks were, at that very second, being soundly whipped by the Golden State Warriors. But my folks were quickly lost in the crowd of almost 80 people. The biggest yet. I was proud of having that big, shiny "IMPROV" logo on the wall behind me. So proud that I started off with an opening line I hadn't practiced and didn't really know where it came from. "Go Mavs!" I said. "Not a fuckin' chance in hell." The room shook with laughter.
Laughter! At a mean Mavsjoke in Dallas during the playoffs! Is this what a real audience felt like? I had to wait for the applause to die down after my first bit, about being profiled as a lesbian because of my short haircut, absolutely soared. Then, the new break-up jokes: my friend comforted me by giving me a tub of Blue Bell ice cream. I thanked her profusely for being so thoughtful, as I was just going to egg my ex's car, but this would likely break the windshield. Laughter! I strode on, ad-libbing a MySpace joke and concluding with a sad-sack bit about eating frozen dinners made for two all on my own. And the audience just kept laughing until I saw a flashlight in the back of the room—the universal comedy signal meaning "time's up." Applause. Joy. Shock.
I had finally experienced that thing that comics crave. It was unreal. As Arlington comic Mark Agee put it to me over beers at the Green Elephant late one night, "It's like I'm a magician. I'm creating laughter."
I don't think I killed, but I do know that applause breaks are good. The Improv gig renewed my faith. Maybe bringer audiences are just nice, and it was a fluke. But I hosted another bringer show at the Backdoor just last week, doing a set as well as introducing each comic coming to the stage, and did even better there. That same weekend, I got to do a real Friday stand-up show at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, where I made a whole $5. Somebody paid to see comics, and I walked out of the theater with a little bit of their money. Life lesson learned: I absolutely love taking people's money, and I'm making it a point to figure out how to do more of it.
I called on Paul Varghese, possibly the only comic who lives in Dallas and makes a living off telling jokes. The Richardson native is living the dream out of a one-bedroom apartment in far North Dallas. He's already been on Last Comic Standing, and this summer, he'll make his Comedy Central debut.
Varghese told me about the first time he went up at the Improv. He had no expectations, just friends who told him he was funny. He killed. Six years later, Varghese has never thought about quitting.
"I go up every chance I get," he says, showing up at every open mike in town as well as occasionally headlining at the Improv or opening for big-name touring comics such as Dave Attell. For him, comedy is a seven-day-a-week job.
"If you want to be good, you have to go up at least five times a week," Varghese says. "If I can go up twice, three times in one night?" He'll go. That means hitting an open mike, a bar show and a club show all in a matter of hours.
Varghese is Indian, something that helped him stand out in the beginning. Asian comics, at least in the Dallas, are as rare as females, though both groups are growing. Today, Varghese says, he's trying to come off the Indian thing a bit.
"I don't want to just write jokes about being Indian," he says. It's better to go with something that doesn't involve stereotypes or just putting on an accent. Right now, he's working out a bit on watching church on TV at home, using Doritos and salsa for communion. It's funny, but when he pretends to lick the host-Doritos residue off his fingers, it just about slays 'em. But I'm not nearly to the finger-lickin', crowd-crushing point. I just want to know how to write a joke. So I ask.
"Write down everything that pisses you off during the day," Varghese tells me. "You'll get at least one joke out of it."
Really? That's it? I don't have to spend hours thinking of wild and crazy scenarios involving historical figures or that old stand-by, dead babies? Really. Hood told me the same thing. I'd be parked at a booth before Hyena's open mike, writing my routine over and over again, and Hood would ooze by.
"Topic, premise, punch line," he'd say. The next week, again: "Topic, premise, punch line." What the hell did that mean? So I picked up a corny book called The Comedy Bible that contains mostly feel-good motivational crap but also made joke writing seem, like, easy. The Bible had a formula.
Take a topic, figure out what's "hard, weird, scary or stupid" about it, and riff on it until you get a punch line. I whipped out my notebook and started scribbling.
Topic: breaking up
Premise: Breaking up is hard when your friends try to comfort you and it doesn't work.
Punch line: Mine brought me ice cream, which I don't like. I'll just use this gallon tub to retaliate against the evil ex-boyfriend.
I talked out a few different versions at open mikes, and two days later, I had the windshield joke that did well at the Addison Improv. I had a joke! And I'll be telling it as long as it keeps getting laughs, boyfriend or not. Someday, all my jokes will be true. Until then, I have seven minutes of workable material about being single and sappy that I'd be telling if I eloped tomorrow.
It's a start.
But I was wrong, and the "girls aren't funny" guy from the improv troupe was right. Girls aren't funny, not even a little bit. But he was only partly right, because guys aren't funny either. The only naturally funny creatures are kittens, puppies and other small, furry animals, and they're too short to reach a mike stand. Before I realized everyone struggled to be fresh and original—even guys—I had lunch with comic Sherry Belle. Maybe she could be in my man-hating comic coalition.
The first time I saw Belle onstage was two years ago, when she'd just begun to develop the mildly evil yet saccharine sweet Southern belle persona she takes onstage. She's a slim, pretty corporate girl who works in marketing for Dickey's Barbecue by day and spends nights playing the Fort Worth Hyena's, the Pocket Sandwich Theatre and several clubs out in Shreveport where I suspect the Southern belle shtick goes over particularly well. Initially, I didn't like what she had to say about being a girl playing a man's game.
"I think it's a good thing," she told me as I continued to stubbornly mold my mind around the stereotype of women as comedy underdogs. She used the notoriously crowded open mikes at the Arlington Hyena's as an example: "If there are 10 or 20 guys going up in a row telling jokes, and then there's a woman's voice, I've got their attention."
Spend a week—or 12—at every open mike night in town, and it's easy to see comedy is overrun with white dudes. One of Hood's theories is that this is just about numbers: There are more white guys everywhere, so there are more white guys in comedy. Or, if you want to delve deep into the white guy psyche, "generic, middle-aged white comic" Richard Houghton says, blame it on their fathers.
"The urge to do comedy comes from watching our dads," he wrote in a MySpace message from his online comedy profile. The dads had "crummy jobs," and Houghton's generation—he's 43—said, "Screw working for one company forever...how can I do something I really want to do?" Today, the comedy scene is littered with diversity, even if the numbers still skew to white guys. Black and Latino comedy nights—frequently called "urban"-themed shows—pack rooms. Minority comics are all over television—unfortunately enough for anyone who's seen an episode of Carlos Mencia's show on Comedy Central. Maybe 10 or 15 percent of the hundred or so comic hopefuls here in Dallas are women.
One of Belle's jokes starts, "So, I used to have a husband..." And it's true. She did, before comedy. She married young and took a stand-up comedy writing class with her husband as a kind of bonding exercise during a rough patch. At the end-of-class showcase, Belle says she did six minutes and 41 seconds of funny, the longest set of the class. Her husband?
"He did three minutes and got off the stage," she says. They divorced not long afterward. Belle left me with a dilemma: Being a girl comic is awesome because we stand out, and being a girl comic is crappy because guys can't handle the competition.
So far, I've experienced just one instance of sexist jerkoffery. It was a McCarty's open mike, a hit-or-miss Tuesday night affair in Richardson that involves getting co-ed softball teams or suburban couples on a hot date to quit talking, drinking and otherwise acting like they're in a bar and listen.
I'd managed to get an entire birthday party crew of 20-somethings to listen to my five-minute set. They even dug my joke about phone sex with Diane Rehm, a real gamble of a bit that rarely works in bars.
Afterward, a big, goofy guy comic told me he'd caught my set at Hyena's the previous week. He told me my jokes were funny, but I was too cute to get laughs. Why? My "tits got in the way."
At that moment, I converted to full-on man-comic-hating, ranting to anyone who would listen. More than once, the response was: "Well, didn't you tell him that his tits get in your way?" No. I was not quick enough to think of that. What am I, some kind of comedian?
The fourth or fifth time I heard the "his tits" retort, I realized it kept coming from the guy comics who'd befriended me. Guy comics who'd been giving me tips and tags to add to the ends of my jokes. Guy comics who asked me to do shows with them. Shit. Guy comics were not misogynistic assholes who wanted all women to burn in unfunny hell. That one guy just happened to be a tool.
I was liberated.
People started telling me things about whose jokes sucked, or why did those two comics get an out-of-town gig when they didn't deserve it? If I gave my honest opinion, was I going native, fanning the flames of controversy or just being a friend and fellow comic? Factor in free-flowing booze and the inherently competitive world of stand-up comedy gets a lot more complicated.
"You've got to focus on your own journey," Linda Stogner counseled me during a comedy debriefing session after I'd been going up for a few months. "Don't worry about everybody else." What a Linda thing to say. She's a wild-eyed woman who tells jokes about talking squirrels; wacky and truly original, her attitude is relentlessly supportive.
But comedy is a one-man (or in this case, one-woman) game that naturally pits the comedian against his or her fellow comedians, all of whom are vying for a limited number of spots—and cash—in weekend shows. There isn't the inevitable camaraderie that occurs in improv comedy troupes or close-knit casts of funny plays, where success depends on everyone doing well. In stand-up, when no one's laughing, no one's laughing at only you.
Nevertheless, comics stand behind each other, supporting their friends and sometimes their enemies, because they're people who forego normal social lives to share a potentially ego-damaging hobby or, in some cases, career. Take this year's Texas auditions for the television show Last Comic Standing. The San Antonio event was a disaster for practically everybody.
Hardly anyone got a word out in front of the judges, but a few locals made the first cut, including Sherry Belle's boyfriend, Johnny Elbow. Belle didn't. The producers tried to stage a fight between the two.
Neither had any idea what the producers had planned when the cameras started rolling, and Belle said she was proud of Elbow. Still, she says, "Who knows what they're going to make me look like on TV?" Elbow and Belle are still together.
Late one recent Sunday night, after the inaugural evening of a comedy and music show I'm now co-hosting at the Lakewood Bar & Grill, the bartender approached our table of comics, shot glasses in hand. Three shots of Jaeger for Varghese, Raj Sharma and Shaun Arredondo, the three vets I'd convinced to do the show. And a shot of Jack for the newbie. All courtesy of the gregarious blond woman who came in to spend some time playing Photo Hunt but stayed to hear our jokes.
The blonde toasted us: "To comics!" she said. I put my Jack on the table.
"I'm not sure I'm a comic," I said, not wanting to be presumptuous. Eyes rolled. "But I don't know anything," I said, getting a hearty "Shut up and drink!" in reply. I obliged. The guys probably don't remember the moment, but I'm taking the opportunity to declare myself a comedian.
I'm a people pleaser. I want the whole world to find me funny, and stand-up's the fastest way to fit everybody in before I die. Sure, if I bomb, it's all on me. But when I'm killing, it's all on me too. For comedians, the desire to elicit laughs is inherent. Why do they tell jokes? That's a stupid question. "You either have the balls to find out whether you can do it or not," Agee says. Yes, the hard times are humiliating. But like a true comedy addict, Agee asks, "Why wouldn't anyone want to stand onstage and be the center of attention and make other people laugh and bring them joy?"