There are some scary things out there—root canals, shark attacks, the Kardashians—but one of the most frightening things I’ve encountered is the Open Mic. The Open Mic is the forum for comics to test out new material in hopes that you’ve got some comic gold. Most of us mine through acres of crap for a precious gem that can make peer comics laugh so hard that beer shoots out their nose. Most of the time, you are performing to a room full (if you are lucky) of bowed heads; not in reverence, but in study. They are pouring over their notebooks, iPhones and even a few scribbled napkins mining for gold in their own untested material.
I am still a bit of a novice at Open Mic-ing (so much so that I had originally spelled it “Mike”), and may be still getting accustomed to the process. The first one I hit, I was pleasantly surprised at the camaraderie. Not sure what I was expecting: a cut-throat vibe of comics who’d steal material or shoot down a newbie? What I got was a warm, supportive welcome where folks laughed at my jokes, even the ones that kinda sucked.
That leaves me with one question. In our attempts to support each other, are we doing a disservice? In other words, is laughing at a bad joke kind of like faking an orgasm? You are supporting and encouraging your partner, but he never improves and you are never really satisfied. (As I wrote those last lines, I realize how much like Carrie Bradshaw I sounded. I apologize for that “Sex in the City” moment. Crap show.*)
I can personally attest to the fear of standing up on that stage with a page full of untested material, and the crushing blow when no one laughs. It stings – kind of like a bucket full of jellyfish down your shorts – but most medicine is bitter. But it the end, you lick your wounds and edit out the bits and pieces that flop.
What can hurt more is watching a comic try so hard to get the giggles, but each joke just falls from their lips to the floor with a resounding “THUD”. You’ve been there. You want to be encouraging; you don’t want the comic to be sad. So you laugh. Not a full-on, good-lord-that-was-funny guffaw, but a short chortle. The comic thinks, “I am totally pleasing her,” and you think, “Wonder who’s on Letterman tonight?”
(FYI – you can always tell when I’m faking because I laugh like Fran Dresher.)
This may start a viscous cycle. Armed with a false sense of confidence, the comic goes on using those same old moves, maybe throwing in a swirl. But that much-anticipated YOA-ZAAA never comes. Is it in this poor guy’s best interest to let him go on believing he’s delivering the goods? As hard as it may be to do, I say no.
I think that it is time to put an end to the false laugh. Every established and budding comic deserves an honest appraisal of his or her work. If that means an uncomfortable silence following a dud, that is just something we will have to accept. Silence that first time out could lead to uproarious laughter at the big show.
Every comic who takes the stage at an open mic deserves our attention, our support and our applause. But not every joke deserves our laughs.
*I know as a woman I am supposed to love and relate to “Sex in the City”, even being assigned a character. (I’m a Charlotte.) But I hate that show and think the Carrie Bradshaw is a awful person. Does that make me the anti-woman? Whatever.