I always thought I'd be really good at stand-up comedy. When my friends were regulars at open mic nights in college, I witnessed the tepid reception to their sets and secretly thought, "Dear God, if these losers can do this, I'd kill it up there." See? I even have the terminology down. I'm not going to be shy here, I'm one of the funniest people I know. I've also got the best ass but that's neither here nor there (unless it is, call me!).
On top of that, I've got a certain je ne sais quoi that leaves people wanting more. You're feeling it already, aren't you? Or you've stopped reading (screw you!). Whatever, I'm not here to win friends, I'm here to get famous(ish). Plus, I live for approval, and what reeks more of desperation than stand-up? Nothing, besides keeping a vanity blog. And I've already conquered that.
Before I could start my ascent up the comedy ladder, though, I'd need some training – which is where W. Kamau Bell comes in. Kamau is a super-successful local comic, and in his solo performance workshops teaches plebes to be funny and not pass out from nerves in front of crowds. We meet near his house and I sit down with a pen and notepad, ready to learn from the master.
First off, Kamau is adorable. That helps your career in stand-up because looking good never hurt anybody. I have that going for me, so note this: Try not to be ugly.
Beyond the obvious bit about being easy on the eyes, another thing a successful stand-up requires is the need to dominate the audience. You need the desire to completely own them, comedy-wise. If you're at all timid about that, stand-up isn't for you. Kamau also advises arriving early and staying late at open mic nights and introducing yourself to the other comics. He tells me to study other stand-up comics to see how they "work the mic" and then assess what kind of comedy might feel natural to me.
I also learn from Kamau that comedians keep a "comedy notebook." That's just any old notebook or a scrap of paper or napkin that you keep with you at all times to write down anything funny that comes to mind. This might be unnatural at first but when you're high (on life) at 2 a.m. and say some crazy shit that makes you laugh for ten minutes, you're gonna wish you wrote it down. Or not.
My first entry is, "What's up, sluts! Soooo who are you? I'm totally a Carrie. Kidding!!! I'm more of a Charlotte." See, I told you it didn't have to be funny. Kamau encourages me to take the notebook on stage and work directly from it. Find out what works with the audience and what flops.
That joke up there? Not so much.
Although my time with Kamau was valuable, the most significant piece of advice he gave me was to just get up there and do it. I don't mean to get all-motivational-speaker on your ass but, really, the only way to get better is to practice. A lot. You don't need to take a class, you just need to get on stage and DO IT. Seriously, the stage is a skinny white girl and you're Tiger Woods – JUST DO IT.
So where to do it? The best place to cut your teeth on stand-up in this city is at the café/laundromat BrainWash. You tell your jokes over the din of people eating salads and doing their motherfucking laundry.
The BrainWash hosts two stand-up nights a week; Wednesday night is The Ladies Room, which is an all-female open mic night, starting at 8:00 p.m. (although gentlemen are let in later in the evening), and Thursday is the "granddaddy of San Francisco open mic nights," hosted by Tony Sparks, the (self-styled and publicly acknowledged) godfather of San Francisco stand-up. I decide to scope out the decidedly less terrifying Ladies Room first, as I am a lady. And ladies are nice.
Ladies night is tons of fun to watch, although definitely helped by the availability of the 21st Amendment Brewery's Hell or High Watermelon beer on tap and giant plates of french fries. The sets run the gamut from hi-larious to cat jokes. I am especially impressed by the women who are able to get on stage sober. Kudos to you, ladies!
It is nice to spend the evening just observing, without the pressure of hopping on the stage and being funny. I drink many beers and eat many fries and laugh and laugh. I leave the BrainWash that night confident that I could totally do the damn thing.
I return to the BrainWash the next evening to observe the co-ed (hot!) open mic comedy night. It is crowded and daunting. However, Tony Sparks is a hilarious and congenial host, and everyone's super friendly. The comics range from bizarre prop comics (including this dude I've seen around town who I thought was just crazy – think again, he's just a prop comic!) to a coked-out gay dude on roller skates who screams nonsense, but it is funny because he was coked-out and on roller skates. Again, I feel comfortable and happy. Still confident that I would kill at this stand-up thing, I head home full of beer and fries. Fat and drunk, not a bad way to spend two nights.
The following week, I go to check out Kamau doing stand-up at a Wednesday night event called The Business at The Dark Room theater in the Mission. The Business is where established comics try out their new work, and it's a lot of fun to watch. Especially after a hibiscus cocktail from Little Baobab around the corner (don't forget to get your $1-off coupon for your cocktail of choice at The Dark Room. I do because otherwise that shit costs me $3, okay?). The comics at The Business are exciting to watch because they are definitely more experienced than those at the open mic nights, and generally super weird and hilarious. This would be a great date place if you believe in love and relationships; laughter is the ultimate aphrodisiac. I mean, after liquor.
As the headliner, Kamau goes on last and he nails it. Never in a million years would I guess that he's trying out new material, he was so stellar. The difference between Kamau and the people I'd seen at open mic night is probably hundreds of sets. I decide there is no way in hell I'm inviting this professional to see my act.
Suddenly, my anxiety begins to rise; I had thought I'd just walk on stage and tell stories and then chicks would throw their panties at me. Now, I start to think I'd be lucky if tomatoes don't come hurling at my face. My beautiful face. I think the difference between the average schmo and a real stand-up comedian is the desire to put in the hours to become great, and I'm not sure I have it in me. But I am going on next week, so I'd better fucking get there.
The night I go on stage, I arrive later than I planned. I'm unprepared, and reading directly from my comedy notebook seems lame and ridiculous. My previous confidence has inexplicably fled the scene and I am a ball of nerves and will probably throw up.
I haven't freaked out this hard since I accidentally took a chairlift up a double black diamond when I was 12, and the crew at Northstar had to jet-ski my fat ass down an icy cliff. I am terrified. I can't explain the feeling other than to say I feel like a million asshole butterflies are trying to escape my stomach in the form of vomit.
When my name is called, I run on the stage and then…well…I don't even know. Bright lights, horrifying city. I remember nothing besides the hot, hot spotlight, sweat dripping into my eyes, and the vomitflies. I'm pretty sure I tell some joke about downhill skiers being good at anal sex (it's all in the knees!) and a 20-minute tale about stealing shit from Starbucks. WHO KNOWS. When I am done, I retreat to the back of the room, kinda like animals do before they're about to die, trying to find something to hide under.
Kamau had advised me to write down notes of what worked, what didn't, and how it felt, but I honestly can't conjure up anything. The host of the evening tells me I did great and was super nice in the way that you are only if you were terrible. You guys, I am bummed. I expected to be good. Actually, I expected to be great. And even though Kamau warned that I would and should bomb (and how!), I really thought I'd be different. The shining star exception to the rule.
I know now that if I want to get better at this, I'm gonna have to commit. Go to open mic nights every chance I get, watch YouTube videos of comedians, practice throwing tomatoes at my face. To not be humiliated at stand-up, you have to completely throw yourself into it.
One of the first things I noticed about people at open mic nights is that they refer to themselves as comedians. Not as receptionists who go to open mic nights in the evening – they are comedians. That's the kind of determination and dedication you need to succeed in this business. It's no joke. Or it is. Whatever, you get it. If you're gonna hack it, you'd better be prepared to pay your dues. I'll definitely go on again. And again, until the open mic host stops giving me doe eyes and actually laughs.
Thanks folks, I'll be here all week!
You can take comedy lessons and workshops with W. Kamau Bell and check out open mic nights at the BrainWash on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Now go, get famous, funny girl. Or dude. Or hermaphrodite. Whatever, just be funny.