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The art of the open mic

Chesea Reed walks into a bar…and writes an article


I recently had a nightmare where I was forced into doing stand-up comedy, and as happens in nightmares, I totally sucked. But it got me thinking about comedy. If you don’t suck, the pay off would be well worth the fear. So nightmares aside, I decided to immerse myself in all things funny.

To get in the mood, I watched a special, one-off show recently, called Talking Funny where Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock sat around and, well, talked funny.

Hearing these giants of the World of Jokes chat about how they got started inspired me to go see where it all begins for the fledgling comic: the open-mic competition.

Wednesday night at The Roxbury is a long way from Letterman. A dozen nervous nobodies take it in turn to ‘kill’ or ‘die’. With five minutes to win the audience over, The Roxbury Hotel’s Comedy competition is a cutthroat test for comic timing. The biggest surprise for me on the night was the variety: poetry, a theatrical sketch, singing, dirty jokes and quite a few clever, insightful observations. Despite the inexperience of the performers it was a quality night – helped by a supportive audience.

Competition honours went to Alex Pisani, whose dry, Mitch Hedberg-style one-liners and awkward endearing personality won the audience over. Alex has had a lucky introduction to performing, with two successful gigs under his belt. “It’s been wonderful so far. People seem to really get into it once they realise I’m not a very serious comedian.”

But it’s a long way from midweek pub spots to celebrity and riches. In Talking Funny, Louis C.K says his desire to “be one of those guys” is what drove him to the open-mic in the first place. I doubt any comedians want to get up on stage for the first time because they know for sure that they’re funny.

“I was always into music and writing … comedy felt like another artform I could suss out,” says Pisani. “I heard of the Raw Comedy competition and just signed up on a whim, then forced myself to write as much material as possible … I chickened out and didn’t go on stage until two years later.”

Comedy is a subtle craft. The funny, loud guy in your group of friends who wears a Borat style “man-kini” at parties is not likely to be the next Seinfeld. Alex Pisani’s jokes are clever, and an insight into someone with an original and strange world-view. But a good gag can still fall flat if the context isn’t right. “My first gig was to a crowd of about 100 and I was the opening act … It went well until I misworded my closing joke … it came out more offensive than I’d intended. I hated the feeling of offending my audience. That joke is dead to me”.

The open-mic competition is an emotional experience. It’s the emotions that create the show. The feeling of being on the edge of your seat waiting for the first joke of the set is followed by that relief when you can let go and trust the person on stage to make you laugh.

And for the comedian? It goes like a dream.

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