Have No Fear, Dave Chappelle

Our man tries stand-up. It is not a total disaster.

Stand-up comedy is the most frightening thing you can do this side of warding off a pack of starving wolves with a foam bat. I know, because I recently agreed to perform a stand-up gig at the Wilmington bar 1984 (“Over 30 classic arcade games. Pinball. 21 craft beers”) as research for an article on amateur comedy for this stellar publication.

As the date approached, I began to lose sleep. I twice asked the editor to allow me to write about jumping out of an airplane instead. A sadist, he refused. I considered other alternatives—e.g., splitting town in the dead of night and moving to Moose Jaw, Canada. No stand-up there. Moose don’t do comedy clubs.

I should declare up front that I find the whole concept of amateur stand-up comedy inexplicable. What perverse instinct motivates a sub-species of homo sapiens to willingly risk public humiliation in a foolhardy attempt to amuse a potential lynch mob of other homo sapiens? And for zero pay?

People want to laugh, and some people are willing to pay big bucks to laugh along with a professional comedian. But there are plenty of other people just as willing to go to comedy open-mic nights to laugh at some poor schlub squirming helplessly on stage. Delaware is home to approximately a half-dozen bona fide comedy clubs and dozens of bars, clubs, and restaurants that host open-mic nights for wannabe comedians. Which is not to say that the amateurs who show up at these venues aren’t serious about their comedy. They’re not up on stage risking life and limb on drunken whim. And they are legion.

Many people think they’re funny, and some actually are funny. But funny at the water cooler and funny on stage in front of a pitiless horde of laugh-hungry cynics are two very different propositions. To be a good comedian, you have to own your audience. Most of us can’t even afford to rent one. Stage comedy requires all kinds of talents, such as timing, rhythm, and the development of a unique comedic persona. You also have to decide what form of comedy you’re going to adopt. Actor and comedian T.J. Miller once defined the types of comedy as “sketch, improv, writing, acting, music, and badminton.” He forgot to add just saying to hell with it and telling jokes you stole from Carrot Top.

I originally intended to fire off some cheesy one-liners of the Rodney Dangerfield variety. One went, “I’m so old my idea of an exciting night out is going coffin shopping.” Another was, “I hate myself so much I had to outsource some of my self-loathing to South Korea.” But delivering zippy one-liners is both a difficult and rather outmoded form of comedy, which is why it’s referred to in comedic circles as “pulling a Titanic.”

The author says he survived "paroxysms of pure existential dread" prior to his debut. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)
The author says he survived “paroxysms of pure existential dread” prior to his debut. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

As I ran through my options, I became increasingly terrified. I spent a sleepless night trying to decide if the joke “I ordered the western omelet. Unfortunately, I forgot to say hold the shoot-out” was funny or not. In the cold light of day I realized it wasn’t. I actually considered “So I’m captured by pirates and the captain orders me to walk the plank. And I’m like, ‘Sure, where’s the leash?’” And I had to give up on “If at first you don’t succeed, Russian Roulette is probably not your sport” because it was a variation on a joke by Steven Wright. The last thing I wanted was for some Steven Wright scholar in the audience to stand up, point a quivering finger at me, and cry, “joke thief!”

One thing to be said about stand-up comedy: it tells you who your real friends are. Real friends are willing to suck it up and come to lend moral support. I have no real friends. I showed up at 1984 with just my girlfriend in tow, and it was obvious she’d have preferred attending a funeral: she was dressed in black. Fortunately, the crowd didn’t appear hostile. There wasn’t a heckler in sight, and I didn’t spot a single rotten vegetable lurking about the premises. And my fellow performers were supportive.

Situated at the center of an unprepossessing strip mall, 1984 is a cozy enough establishment with a horseshoe bar in its center and the much-vaunted array of arcade games lining one wall. The stage, at the front left of the bar, is big enough to support your average bar band. There were maybe two dozen people in the audience the night I performed, and they were polite enough to stay off the arcade games during the night’s entertainment, thus sparing us amateur comedians from having our efforts drowned out by the sounds of exploding race cars and heavy machine gun fire. The show itself was a seemingly ad hoc affair that took its good old time opening. It was hosted by a comedian who cracked a few jokes before welcoming each new “entertainer” onto the stage.

After putting my name on the list of that night’s comics I had a chance to chat with Jia Din, who has been doing amateur stand-up for five years at clubs in Wilmington and Philadelphia. Din performs a wonderfully hangdog form of stand-up. She stands on stage, adamantly refusing to make eye contact, and delivers devastatingly funny lines about the emptiness and sadness of her life. When I told her I liked her shoe-gaze shtick she said, “It’s not a shtick. I try to look at the crowd but… “ Din leaves a lot of sentences unfinished. When I asked her why she does stand-up she told me, in her deadpan way, “Basically I’m lonely and I have no friends and this is as close to making friends as I get.” I think she was serious. That said, hers is as rational a reason for doing the completely irrational as any I’ve heard.

I suffered paroxysms of pure existential dread as my moment approached. But when my name was called and I mounted the stage, a strange thing happened: I was calm. My mind didn’t go completely blank, as opposed to Donald Trump’s just before he tweets. I started with the true story of a girlfriend who told me she was breaking up with me because, in her words, “I belong to the world.” To which I’d replied, “What are you, a National Park?” It got laughs. I gained confidence. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was beginning to see why people did this. I was the King of Comedy. A God of Guffaws. Move over, Dave Chappelle.

Then I told a joke that flopped. The crowd was completely silent. And I realized I wasn’t the King of Comedy, just another schlub standing before a Supreme Court of hanging comedy judges pleading a case that had more holes in it than a donut shop. The room swam before my eyes. I detected what appeared to be a rotten tomato in the shadowy glow of the Walking Dead pinball machine. I prayed to God to please, please, let me self-combust.

Then I remembered Sam Kinison’s dictum, “Comedy attacks, man,” and went back on the offensive. I launched into a long bit about how the World Health Organization has stated that hope is a disease that afflicts almost 82 percent of the human population—a number that could skyrocket should optimism ever go airborne. The crowd laughed. I tossed in some jokes about what a misanthrope I was, and how I was the only kid on my block with A Child’s First Book of Human Atrocities. Again they laughed. I was saved.

I did not want to leave the stage at the end of my routine. I finally understood why amateur comedians risked failure for no pay. Making people laugh is more addictive than crack. One hit of applause and I was hooked. So, I went back to 1984 the following week.

And I totally tanked. Bombed. Went down like the aforementioned Titanic. Standing there was both demoralizing and terrifying, and brought back unpleasant memories of my second-grade teacher and first heckler, who dashed my comedic hopes by writing on my report card, “Mike wants to be the class clown.” That “wants” still rankles.

Except—and this is the truly scary part—that debacle of a few weeks ago didn’t cure me. I hanker for another shot.

Last month, eternity welcomed Don Rickles into its bosom, prompting me to think perhaps it was some cosmic sign that a space had been cleared for me among the universe of comedians. I lie awake at night thinking up new bad jokes. Like the one that goes, “I’m easily distracted. When I set my mind to a thing, it generally bolts off to urinate on the nearest bush.” Or, “I had to give up beer because it was giving me terrible hangovers. So, I switched to nonalcoholic beer but had to give that up because it was giving me terrible nonhangovers.”

Yeah. I can hardly wait. I’m going to step back into the spotlight and absolutely slay ‘em.