From the Las Vegas Weekly:
June 15th, 2006
WILL WORK FOR LAUGHS
That says it all about life in the open-mic, tiny-audience world of local comedy
By Matthew Scott Hunter
"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Those were the famous last words of the British actor/director Sir Donald Wolfit. As I sat in Boomer's Bar, I considered that only minutes from now, I'd probably experience both firsthand and make my own comparison. It was open-mic night at Boomer's Humors, and I was about to make my stand-up debut.
Thing is, I'm not a comedian. I'm afraid of crowds, and I think a group of more than two people constitutes a crowd. I was that kid in high school who feigned illnesses to get out of oral presentations. In fact, there are probably people in my graduating class who can't remember if I survived that horrible ailment I endured through the entire Shakespeare unit.
I'd chosen Boomers because it seemed to be the most intimate venue for a crash course in comedy. The open mic was held every Sunday night in a quaint little room in the back. The stage was barely elevated, the makeshift spotlight was weak and forgiving and, most importantly, there were never, ever more than a handful of people there.
Except tonight. "A big crowd is good," the host, Matt Markman, assured me with a friendly pat on the back. I still had my doubts and returned to the bar for a little more liquid courage. It was imperative that I get the dosage right: enough tequila to get me on that stage but not so much that I'd forget what I was supposed to do up there.
The show began, and I shrank into a corner in the back of the room. I was up fifth, giving me ample time to build a decent panic attack. As I nervously jackhammered a hole in the floor with my quivering leg, I watched in horror as the local comics dragged in even more chairs from the outer bar to accommodate latecomers in the already packed room.
It turned out that Mr. Markman didn't count himself as one of the five preceding comedians, so a fifth person went to the stage, giving me five more minutes to reconsider losing my stand-up virginity. See, doing stand-up for the first time is a lot like having sex for the first time. You've fantasized about it—even practiced several times on your own, in private. Then, as it moves closer to becoming a reality, you feel a mix of excitement and nervous anticipation. And when the moment finally comes, you get laughed at. (Maybe my first time was different from yours.)
"It's his first time doing stand-up! Please welcome to the stage Matt Hunter!" Markman announced. I ran to the front of the room and took the mic, and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd never even held a real microphone before—though I'd practiced with the hilt of a toy lightsaber. Looking out at the crowd, I realized that the weak spotlight was, in fact, a horrible choice. It permitted me to see all those little eyes staring back at me.
And I thought, "How the hell did I get here?"
Funny story, that.
My comedy odyssey began in a simpler time, back before several important issues had been resolved, like who would win the latest American Idol. It was a time when we as a nation rallied together to say "No!" to the movie Poseidon. Yes, it was a whole three weeks ago when I stepped into The Beach nightclub one evening to watch a taping of four up-and-coming local comedians: John Hilder, Matt Markman, Dr. Jim and Marlon Baker.
My goal was to look at the local comedy scene on the ground floor, well below the level of Strip comedy clubs and big-name headliners—where aspiring stand-ups try to build a career from open-mic nights and showcases in bars. I wanted to witness comedy in its earliest stages.
Several of the comics were atypically nervous. This particular event called for them to do a lot more material than usual.
"We have to do 20 minutes," said Dr. Jim. "I'm used to doing eight."
This was a second taping for Hilder and Markman. A camera glitch foiled their first attempt.
As the audience gradually filtered in, host Joe Lowers began maneuvering people into the seats closest to the stage, where they would show up on camera. He briefly warmed up the crowd before Hilder took to the platform, opening with a series of jokes about his Mormon background.
"I have the typical large Utah family. I have six brothers and four sisters," he said. "When you have three moms, you're gonna have a lot of siblings."
Next up was Markman. I'd give you an example from his set, but this is a family newspaper, so you'll have to take my word that it was funny, as long as you're not offended by jokes about the mentally handicapped. Or porn. Or masturbation. Or pedophiles. Or pregnant women.
And since comedy is never complete without a good dose of irony, after the first two comics completed their sets, the camera failed to record the next two. The technical difficulties were discovered halfway through Baker's act, and he'd been killing. Markman passed a note to the host, which read, "The LAPD wishes you guys were the ones videotaping when they got ahold of Rodney King."
It was decided that Baker should repeat the first half of his set. A sympathetic crowd greeted him back to the stage with enthusiastic applause, and impressively, the reluctant Baker pulled out all new material.
These guys are dedicated. Whether they're up against relentless technical problems, drunken hecklers from hell or audiences that appear to have had their senses of humor surgically removed, these local comics persevere.
"I've never been booed, thank God," says Hilder. "That would be horrible. But I've done horribly before—I've bombed—and not once has quitting popped into my mind. I just get back up and do it again."
"You start getting addicted to the laughs," Markman adds. "You tell a joke that you've written—that you've come up with—and people laugh. It's really addicting. Then you want to get up more."
The taping was for promotional purposes, so these comedians could move onto the next level and get some paying gigs.
"I'll send that tape to a lot of local clubs," says Markman. "I'll send it to Harrah's and all the clubs on the Strip, just to give them the option, so they know there's this guy in town they can use if they ever need him. Will any of them pick it up? I doubt it. But I'll also send it to Southern California, Utah, Colorado—places I maybe could drive to, to get a weekend gig out of it."
Until then, it's back to the open-mic circuit.
Is It Just Me, or Is It Crowded in Here? No ... It's Literally Just Me
Even an accident-prone shop-class teacher could count Las Vegas' open-mic venues on one hand, with fingers to spare. And they're not all in the safest locations or places that are easy to find.
It took some Mapquesting, but I eventually made my way to Boomers Bar, where Markman hosts a weekly open mic. In the back room, there was an audience of just 15 people. I thought, "Could this turnout be any more pitiful?" Then I realized it could be and, in fact, was. Two-thirds of those people turned out to be comics awaiting their turns onstage.
This wasn't amateur hour, either. Several of the comics had hilarious, highly polished acts—in particular, a comedian by the name of Brandon Muller.
"How come Christianity has such a monopoly on cuss words?" he asked, before suggesting alternative religious entries into the swearing lexicon. "Ow! Brigham Young it! Son of a Buddha!" He even offered suggestions for atheists ("Nobody damn you to nowhere!") and agnostics ("Go to hell! Maybe.").
He proceeded to perform prop-less prop comedy, which was funnier than anything Carrot Top does, and more dignified, because he didn't actually bother to build stupid props. It would have brought the house down, but there were little more than a dozen of us, and it was too big a house.
After visiting a series of open mics, I discovered this was pretty much the average crowd for local comedy, and week after week, the crowd typically consisted of mostly the same faces.
"I came here thinking I'm gonna start at the top. I'm gonna start in one of the best comedy scenes in the world. And it's ... horrible," Hilder says. "Brandon Muller is hilarious. I've never seen anyone say he wasn't. And to see him at these shows with just five people. ... It frustrates me to see people so talented in front of such a small group of people."
There are several likely culprits for this lack of interest, the first of which is simply that people don't know. Before I'd walked into the Beach that night, it had never occurred to me that watching an open-mic might be a fun thing to do in Vegas.
"A lot of the smaller venues will say, 'Go ahead and do it,' but then they won't really promote it," Markman says. "Anytime something like this works out, it's just about getting people to come down and spread word of mouth. 'Go check this show out.'"
"I think the problem is that a lot of our comedy clubs here don't need the locals to help them out," suggests Muller. "In other places you can work your way up because they need the local people to open and host. They don't need that here. Because of tourism, there's pretty much a different crowd every night."
And in a city filled with headlining comedians with name recognition, whose shows can get rather pricey, there can be the mentality that you'll only get what you pay for.
"I think a lot of people assume that if it was good comedy, we'd be charging for it, but since it's free, it must not be funny," Hilder says. "It's like a free handjob. She can't be attractive."
Of course, in some cases, that's the truth. As surprised as I was by some of the talent, occasionally, I was equally appalled by the lack of it.
"I'm not a big fan of open mics, only because you've got people who are really good, and you've got people who are really painful," says Shelly McCarty, host of the "Laughs at The Beach" booked show. It just takes one laughless set to ensure a first-time comedy-show attendee will never return. Even so, McCarty tries to give as many breaks to aspiring comics as she can.
At a true open mic, like Boomers, you have to be willing to accept the chance that a string of first-time comics might initiate a train wreck of a show, in which case Markman will be in the back of the room, frantically flashing a flashlight at the onstage destroyer of mirth, signaling that it's time to wrap it up.
But audiences that aren't easily discouraged and return are likely to spot someone who's going places.
Making It in the Funny Business
After Boomers, I was told to skip the next open-mic night at Take One Nightclub because most of the comedians would be no-shows. Instead, they were going to Tommy Rocker's Cantina & Grill, where Doug Stanhope was performing.
Doug Stanhope is one of the better-known comedians who started in Las Vegas. He hosted Comedy Central's The Man Show after Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Corolla left and, more recently, participated in Girls Gone Wild videos, where he joked around with drunken college girls and traded beads for their bras. So I've heard.
Muller had opened for him once before and got to do so again. It wasn't a paying gig, but it's still quite a resumé-builder. The only drawback was that the stage was pretty much adjacent to Industrial Road, and every time a truck roared past, it was almost enough to knock a comedian off balance, threatening unplanned pratfalls. But the audience didn't mind. They came to laugh.
"It's different from the open-mic scene in that there's a bigger crowd," says Muller. "There're actually people who are there to see a known comedian, so they're a little more in tune to the comedy rather than glancing over once in a while between their drinks."
To the large group of comics who sat around a table, not far from the stage, Stanhope is something of an inspiration, even a role model—an exceptionally foulmouthed role model, but a role model nonetheless. Like them, he did his time on the open-mic rotation but managed to move beyond that. Of course, what qualifies as success depends on who you're asking.
"I really look up to Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle because these are two guys who are just massively rich, but they still want to do stand-up all the time," Hilder says. "My goal is to be able to do stand-up as my only job. My goal is not to be on TV. If I could make exactly what I'm making now doing stand-up, I'd be happy. I don't need to be stinkin' rich. It wouldn't suck. But as long as I could pay my bills, that's my only goal."
"I always wanted to have a career in comedy, whether it's writing or acting or anything," Muller says. "But I think in the comedy world, stand-up's the best way to get there."
But some comics, like Honour Pillow, a former model-turned-comedian, are even content to keep comedy on the side.
"I love doing comedy, and I love the art form, and I love entertaining people, and I need it to be a part of my life, but I don't need it to be my life," she says. "I actually like my day job."
After two weeks of exploring the local comedy scene, I was confident I'd seen it from every possible perspective. Then my editor suggested one more: the other side of the microphone. Why hadn't I thought of that? (See second paragraph).
But he was right. We learn by doing. So with his promise that Las Vegas Weekly would print me a kick-ass obituary if I died onstage, I proceeded to write a five-minute comedy routine. Markman, Muller and Hilder agreed to be my stand-up mentors and walked me through a writers' session.
With lightsaber in hand, I performed my act for the trio, who offered some useful tips. Primarily, I needed to whittle down my lengthy set-ups, which wasn't surprising. I do have a slight tendency to babble. In fact, by the time you read this, my editor will have excised about 1,000 redundant, unnecessary words. (Note to editor: But please leave both the words "redundant" and "unnecessary" in the preceding sentence as an example/joke).
They also offered some useful tags so I could milk all the laughs I could. For example, one joke explained that I've never been able to draw Minnie Mouse, but have often faked it simply by drawing Mickey in drag. Markman suggested I finish the joke by commenting on the presence of something obscene that's a dead giveaway. Comedy gold.
The local stand-up community frequently engages in these writers' sessions to help one another refine their routines. It's a good way to pick up a funny tag or determine whether a potential joke is just racist enough to be edgy and therefore funny or so racist it becomes offensive and will therefore get a comic beaten to death in the parking lot. And sometimes these meetings are used to brainstorm more ways to promote local comedy. But then, sometimes these meetings don't accomplish anything because, as you can probably imagine, when you put a bunch of comedians in the same room, there's a lot of screwing around.
But everyone agrees that this sort of camaraderie is the best thing about being a comic in Las Vegas. You don't necessarily find much solidarity among comedians elsewhere.
"In Chicago, if you're not in the 'in' crowd, then basically you're nobody," Pillow says. "And they make you feel that way, and it's very hard to get into that group. But if you're good, you don't really care because you have so many opportunities to perform and advance. But here it's the opposite. Here, you have the support of the other comics, but you have no room for advancement and no room for growth because there's nowhere to go. So we end up constantly telling inside jokes and trying to entertain each other. It's not really about the audience anymore. It's about what's going to make the comics laugh because that's the audience."
McCarty definitely prefers it the Las Vegas way.
"The core group of comedians that support one another are really, really good people, which is very refreshing, because it's a tough business," she says. "In any type of entertainment, whether it's music or comedy, there's a lot of backbiting that can go on. It's like, 'I'm going to succeed, even if I have to step on you' kind of philosophy. And this group of people is completely the opposite. It's great to make an audience laugh, but if you're doing it amongst friends, that's 10 times better."
So that's how the hell I got onstage. And each second up there lasted about as long as it took you to read this far. To compensate, I rushed through my material as fast as I could. I was halfway through my fifth joke before I realized the audience laughed at my first one. And very slowly, I began to relax. By the time I got to my bits about alien porn and robot arms (don't ask), I started to feel like the audience was even on my side. Either those shots were finally kicking in, or the act of performing stand-up comedy was becoming (dare I say it?) euphoric. I suddenly understood the appeal.
"Laughter is so important," says Hilder. "People need to laugh. Everyone needs to laugh. I've gotten e-mails on myspace from people who came to The Beach, who said, 'You made me laugh. I really needed it. Appreciate it. Thanks.' It's really refreshing."
It was a banner night for Boomers. The laughs only got bigger as the night went on, and I was happy to have made my own small contribution. I couldn't have done it without everyone's help.
"That's one thing that's really great about comedy. Even if you're a total outcast—even if you're a total nerd—you can find friends in the comic community," says Pillow.
And I did. Now it looks like my editor is blinking the flashlight at me, so in closing, let me just say: Go check out an open mic; there are hardworking people there desperate to make you laugh. Remember, every time you support local comedy, God spares a dying kitten. That's my time! Good night!