I’ve always wanted to go back to stand-up. Well, “go back” is probably an overstatement. I did a few low-grade open mics around San Francisco in college and liked it so much that here I am racing out to do it again ten years later.
The fact is, I hate doing stand-up. And what’s worse, I’m bad at it. I talk too fast. I move too much. I don’t like people looking at me. I’m awkward. I’m self-conscious. My hands flutter. And I look like an asshole. (I am told that people are surprised that upon meeting them I do not spit directly in their eyes.)
So, why do it? I’ve done okay as a TV writer in Los Angeles, and the energy I’d devote to stand-up would probably be better spent on a new writing project, or maybe on some kind of class that teaches you how to be an emotional adult. But ill-suited as I am, I’m drawn to stand-up like a particularly stupid moth to a flame that hates it. Comedians are my heroes, and creating laughter with nothing but a mouth and a mic exists on a level of purity that TV will never approach.
Plus I’m waiting to hear whether a pilot I helped write is going to become an actual show, so I can spare the time. And self-esteem.
It’s officially too late to be a wunderkind. Late-bloomer now in play.
Decision made, I sift through a thirty-page document filled with jokes, bits, and stories about poop/genitals/poopy-genitals that I’ve compiled over the years, a bomb shelter cache stored against the possibility of the End of Days: i.e., the time when I would grow a set of functioning balls, and once again impregnate the stage with comedy.
None of it is in a performable state.
I sit down. I write some jokes. Time, yielding to its nature, passes.
On the day of the show, my hallway carpet must think it’s being punished for severe fabric crimes. I’m pacing so continuously as I recite my act that an old ankle injury flares up, and I’m actually forced to ice it. This seems stupid even to me, the person stupid enough to do this to himself.
The ice makes me contemplative. It’ll be an open mic. Everyone will be terrible, and I’m a professional comedy writer. As long I’m sort of average, I’ll manage to slink out of there without too much humiliation. My confidence perks up a bit.
That’s when I get the email: my pilot isn’t being picked up. I am officially unemployed. My internal self-description goes from “successful TV writer tries stand-up on a lark” to “failing TV writer grasps at straws, misses.”
Two hours to showtime. I have a minor panic attack and rewrite everything.
* * *
Sal’s Comedy Hole doesn’t look like a comedy club; it’s more like a cafe with a tiny wart of a stage erupting off the side. There’s one row of chairs and three tables smashed in front, with the rest of the café looking at the stage edge-on. Before you’re allowed perform, you have to make a five-dollar purchase, and I realize that this establishment’s primary source of income is struggling comedians paying for the right to talk into a microphone. This seems both pathetic and noble, like so many things in Los Angeles.
Forty people have signed up make strangers laugh, and there are a grand total of two audience members who are not themselves going on stage. Not an ideal crowd. Comedians are notoriously terrible laughers, since to laugh at someone else is to admit that you aren’t that funny.
The first comedian is introduced by the MC as “the guy who washes dishes here,” and he tells some rambling stories about being in prison. After the second performer, “the other guy who washes dishes here,” I’m feeling pretty good about my chances.
But then, as scruffy neurotics parade to the stage to do their five minutes, something changes. These people can do it. Sure, there are some hacky premises and soft punchlines, but they can actually do it. They sound like comedians. They respond to the audience and idly play with the microphone stand to claim the stage. They are not fucking around. They’ve devoted their lives to honing a craft, chasing the dream, probably the only ones who made it out of their podunk shit-towns, keeping at it even as their mothers make cutting remarks about “potential” at Thanksgiving. These are comedians. Crap.
I hear the MC say, “I’m not sure who this guy is, but I think he’s here. Mark Ganek.” I wobble to the stage, intensely conscious of the fact that all the blood in my body has simultaneously decided that my head would be a cool place to hang out.
As I said before, I don’t like people looking at me. If I enter a restaurant and the hostess isn’t visible, I’ll leave for a few minutes rather than wait at the front where everyone can see me. If I’m forced in front of people, my mind flits out of my body like I’m a religious adept, astrally projected into a hall of mirrors where I observe the process of being looked at until I vanish up my own astral ass. This process takes about three seconds.
By the time I have the mic in hand, my legs are quaking uncontrollably. I should make a joke out of it, but notice that I’m already talking. I’m burning through my first few jokes like a madman — way too fast. My brain separates from the part of me that’s speaking, and I’m watching from outside as I destroy my painstakingly crafted bits like a comic buzzsaw. I really have to pee.
Feedback keens in and out, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that. My eyeballs feel hot; that’s actually new. It’s a fascinating sensation, like some cooling mechanism in my skull has stalled. I idly wonder if any comedian has ever swallowed his own tongue.
That is when I discover that I have stopped talking. I’ve done my first two bits, I think. I can’t be sure. I look down at my index card set list, but my eyes aren’t working right. Probably too hot.
Out of desperation, I launch into a more personal bit about writing poetry in high school. The set-up gets a chuckle. My legs come under conscious control. I stretch out a bit, relax, smile at a few people around the stage, and land on the punchline like a castaway on a sandy shore. I’m rewarded with a healthy medium laugh.
But then it’s back to the shit. My head feels like a washing machine as I spit out random pieces of conflicting jokes. I’m deciding that bits aren’t funny in the middle of telling them and constructing new punchlines on the fly. It probably sounds like two people are fighting inside my mouth. I get a small laugh on a bit about hiking and immediately decide to redefine “big finish.” It’s over.
Abruptly, I’m offstage. I’m not even sure I told them I was done. I’ve warped to the café counter, and I’m requesting the largest beer that that has ever been poured. The lovely barrista looks in my eyes, gently touches my arm, and informs me that they only have bottles.
I make it to my car, pull into traffic, and nearly cause an accident. Tunnel vision. I can’t really feel my hands. This is terrible. The humiliation is so thick I’m having shame-flashbacks to junior high dances and birthday party fuck-ups when I was ten. Nothing is worth this. It’s just not what I was meant to do. Not to mention I’m now unemployed, and I have no idea where my next paycheck is coming from.
That high school poetry bit is working. I’ll build on that.
Mark Ganek is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles.