©2021, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
I had been telling stories at a local venue for a couple of years, mostly to get out of the apartment I had been living in since my marital separation but also with the idea of potentially meeting a kindred spirit or two. I knew from previous open readings, including one particularly disasterous one at the Seriously Avant-Garde Literature Group, that this was unlikely. I was proud, probably too much so, that my stories defied classification. (But not enough to be Seriously Avant-Garde. That's another story entirely.) I got quizzical looks as much or more than appreciation when I read my 2000 Words aloud in front of other people who were also there to read their 2000 Words.
As it turned out, the storytelling group I found out about through a local newspaper was better. The aim was to start with a prompt and tell a story in five minutes or less based on that prompt; or not, if you didn't want to. The prompt was revealed a couple of weeks beforehand, so this was not "improv storytelling." I usually made it a challenge to find something from my already written stories that fit the prompt. Occasionally I would look at the prompt and realize that a story I had in my head but not yet committed to bytes was a good match, and so I "tried out" this story live before writing it.
The audience was generally larger than the open readings that I had attended. Sometimes there would be forty people—we never had more than ten reading 2000 Words. Not everyone wanted to tell a story. Some were just there supporting someone who did tell a story, or were asked to be there by someone who wanted to and needed friends around to do it. Yes, some of these stories were quite personal. No, I won't give examples here.
A fair number of the participants had something else in common with each other: they were also stand-up comics. Some were more professional than others, however, they all had day jobs as well. They came to the storytelling to practice being in front of an audience—you can't get too much of that in that avocation. And it was also something different from stand up.
Although some of my own stories were serious, others were lighter and I did solicit laughter from the audience, mostly intentionally. The stand up storytellers seemed to appreciate not needing to get laughs and some of them talked about topics with a gravity that they could not use when at a comedy show.
The last time I had been to a stand-up show that was not headlined by a nationally known comic was easily in the Previous Century. (And those headliner shows could be counted on one hand with fingers left over.) When the host of the storytelling at the time told the audience about some stand-up shows coming up, I decided to check one out.
And like the reaction of listeners to my tales, my response was generally mixed. I am not a fan of excessive swearing or bathroom humor, and that was the stock in trade of more than a few of the participants. I had a few laugh out loud moments along with some snickers and giggles. Some of the audience laughed more than others, although some of that was polite and some of that was more nervous than genuine. What was nice is that I didn't detect any "laughing at," just "laughing with."
I didn't have much on my social calendar during those times, so I went to a few more "open microphone" nights and also attended more structured shows that included the stand up performers that were regulars at storytelling. As I listened and watched, a four word thought that sometimes got me into trouble grew in my head:
I could do that.
Well, maybe I could try that. Some performers were getting few to zero laughs, and in theory, I could bomb so completely that I would equal that zero laughs.
I knew that the host of the storytelling also was the host, organizer and emcee of yet another local open mike comedy night. (It turns out that it was possible to catch one of these just about every night, and sometimes there were two or more to choose from on weekends. It was far cheaper for the venue than booking a band!) Before the next storytelling event began, I approached him and said that perhaps I'd like to try a stand up sometime.
"Sure, why not? I think you could do it. But remember," he cautioned, "It's different that just telling a story."
"I think it might be fun, to give it one shot. What's the worst that could happen? I bomb? It wouldn't be the first time." I was thinking more of certain infamous business presentations when I said that, but he didn't know that.
"Alright, then, I'm hosting again in a week." He gave me the location. People start coming in at about seven and the show starts at eight. I'll give you an early slot."
I guess that meant that I'd just signed up.
With that formality out of the way, all I needed was three minutes or so of a routine of some sort. I thought that would be plenty. I knew I'd dealt with absurdities from time to time in my writing, either in the subject or dialogue, and I'd made some people laugh at these stories. In fact, someone I gave a bunch of my "unpublished" work—that is, pieces not on the website—and she floored me one night by quoting back one of the better lines from one of those stories, in an appropriate context, no less—and I almost missed the reference! So I thought I could string together enough one liners, or quick shots, to survive on stage for a couple of minutes. The question was what to string together.
After thinking about it a little bit, I realized that just as in my storytelling, the operative phrase was "go with what you know." And I knew one thing for sure: there were certain types of television commercials with which I was really annoyed. At the top of the list were prescription medications, notably those that addressed a certain, ahem, male problem, the brand name of one in I won't mention here, but rhymes with "Niagara." And then there were pharmecueticals of other kinds, for more serious conditions but almost as annoying. Not far behind that were come-on ads for questionable legal firms. Unlike the drug ads which could be found on network television during prime time, these ambulance chaser spots usually accompanied the umpteenth rerun of a episode of any number of long-running series which aired from the 1960s to the 1990s on "subchannel" digital television stations. These stations existed exclusively on recycled shows of that genre, aimed at the demographic "65 to Dead" as one wag once put it.
Could I get three minutes out of a rant about both of those pet peeves, accompanied by some transitional material? Let's find out, I decided. Locating some index cards, I jotted down a complete but single thought on each, such that I could reorder them if necessary.
As I compiled my ideas, I realized that while I was still not going to use any expletives, I could be a little more PG-rated than I usually was in my writing or my live storytelling. I wasn't going to break my character, but I could bend it just a bit.
The evening approached and I ran through my short routine, which ended up fitting on somewhere around ten cards. I knew where I wanted to start, and how I wanted to end, but even as I drove to a neighborhood bar that was the venue for this Open Mike Comedy Night, I still wasn't completely sure about the sequencing of the other cards. Ah, whatever, I decided, besides, I was probably only going to do this once, just to see what it was like.
And hope that I get a laugh.
Hey, wait, that's a good idea, I told myself. And I won't need to put that on a card.
I'd timed my arrival to be a little after seven, and the place was already packed. The space for the show was off the main barroom, and about half the chairs were already taken. Hmm, more popular than I thought. I greeted the host and saw a couple of other familiar faces from the storytelling events. They were a bit surprised to learn that I was actually going to give a routine. The host slotted me third, which was good because his list had over thirty spaces on it, of which two-thirds were already taken. Add in friends of some of those who were signed up and that explained the number of people in the place. I wondered whether I should have invited anyone and quickly dismissed that notion. If I was going to bomb here, I wanted to do so in relative anonymity.
The minutes toward the start of the show dragged on. I didn't really know anyone well, even the other people who arrived whom I'd seen at storytelling. I wandered over to the bar to get a soft drink, which was about ninety percent ice, and nursed it as I waited. And waited. I scanned the cards with my lines and decided that the order they were in would be just fine. I don't know why I wasn't more nervous than I was. I knew that in other circumstances I would be a wreck. Like, for example, business presentations. But no, I was calm. I guess this was a low-key low-risk venture. It wasn't that much different than storytelling... right? Furthermore, I was an unknown except for my fellow storytellers, which was fine.
Finally, at about quarter after eight, the host turned off his personal playlist of songs and took the makeshift stage. "Hello and welcome to Number Sixty-Two in a series of Open Mike nights here," he introduced. That count seemed pretty impressive. "We'll be bringing up our first comic in just a few minutes," he said, "but before that..." and then launched into his own short routine, as was his privilege as the host. His set of jokes and one-liners ranged mostly in the political and family areas. There weren't too many laughs.
Great. A tough crowd. Ah, no matter. I was committed anyway, so whatever happened, happened.
The host introduced the first performer, who was genuinely funny. She lamented about the gap between her as a Millenial and younger people in Generation Y, especially at parties. My favorite line of hers was delivered while she pretended to talk into a smartphone: "Siri, who is Skill-Rex?" That, a mispronounciation of the musical act Skrillex, and even I knew who he was though I was two generations older than she was.
The second comic—the host introduced everyone that night as comics—was an occasional participant at Storytelling. His three minutes consisted of zingers and expletives about being stuck as a passenger in a car that decided to give out right in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in town, while being late to work. The crowd liked it.
And then it was my turn. The host returned to the stage and announced, "And now we have a first-timer coming up, you might know him from the storytelling event we have once a month at..." and gave the place, date and time of the next one. Nice plug, I'll need to remember that, I decided. "So put your hands together for George."
The crowd politely did. I took my cards and made my way to the microphone stand.
"Hello, everybody, and yes, this is my first attempt at stand up. My goal here is simple: get one laugh. If I do, I will retire undefeated." That was the idea I had come up with on the way to the show.
Well, here goes. I took a pause for effect, looked down at my first card, and dove in.
"There comes a time in every father's life when you are asked, ‘Daddy, what is erectile dysfunction?"
And I heard someone laugh.
"By... your daughter."
Another laugh from the back of the room.
"Your five year old daughter."
A number of chuckles. That turned out to be my best line of the night, actually.
"And the problem is, that no matter what you do, you can't get away from commericals for the products that are supposed to help with this. But are they stupid, or what? A couple in separate bathtubs? What's the point here?
"There's this other brand... I won't say its name but it rhymes with Niagara..."
A few knowing snickers.
"So this guy fixes a printing operation, and now he wants a little blue pill?" This was an actual ad at the time. "What are we supposed to think about that? What's the connection, anyway?
"And then there's the guy who gets his pickup truck and horse trailer stuck in the mud, so he gets the horses out of the trailer and has them pull it out of the mud! Okay, but what does that have to do with what my daughter asked me about? What idea does he have now? I'll tell you, at that moment I would hate to be the horse..."
A different reaction: groans. Like, OK, that was going too far.
"Oh, come on, give me a break, Wilburrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr," I said in my best Mister Ed imitation. No reaction at all. I was definitely aiming for the wrong demographic there.
"But we can't leave out a very important part of these ridiculous ads. The statements about..."
I paused for emphasis.
I paused again. Timing is important, in both comedy and storytelling.
I switched to a Serious Announcer Voice to say, "Do not use this product if you are allergic to it or any of its ingredients."
And back to my normal voice. "And you're supposed to know if you're allergic to it if they won't tell you what's in it?"
I think I observed a couple of nods of agreement.
Back to Serious Announcer: "This product may cause dizziness, nausea, headache, water retention, trouble breathing, and other symptoms, which may cause death."
Normal voice: "Death?"
"And let's not forget the most infamous side effect: if the intended purpose of this medication lasts more than four hours, then seek medical attention immediately. Hmm, I would think the reaction to that would be, 'Whoopie!'"
And that line absolutely bombed. If there were crickets in the bar I would have heard them. I could blame my soon-to-be ex-wife for that one-liner, since I'd first heard it from her, but I had only myself to blame for using it. I got about as rattled there as I did when I sensed that potential clients were not buying my presentation.
Fortunately, I was about to cut over to the last part of the routine.
"But, hey, if you have side effects, and you need help, there are... lawyers!"
A couple of people laughed, maybe at the sudden transition.
"You've all seen the ads. And the more you watch television, the more you see them. And I knew it would happen sooner or later... I was up too late one night watching one of the rerun channels..."
A couple more giggles from the crowd.
"And I finally heard it. ‘If you've taken a medication and you're dead, be sure to call us right away!'"
Perhaps that was too subtle. I didn't get the response I expected. In fact, I didn't get any response at all.
"Well, that ends my time at the microphone. And yes, I did hear a laugh, and that was my goal, so I'm announcing here tonight that I will now retire undefeated. Enjoy the rest of the show! Now back to your host..."
And to a round of relatively sincere applause, I concluded my attempt at stand up comedy. I hung around for what I thought was a polite amount of time after that. I laughed at some of the other performers' jokes, but couldn't even manage a forced laugh at other routines. I guess I was part of the tough crowd. One of the other storytellers told me I did really well for a first try.
"Thanks. First and only try," I replied.
"Really? You could do this again."
"No, I think I'll leave that to the professionals."
A debrief of sorts took place following the next storytelling session. Some of us had decamped to a different local watering hole afterwards.
"So, what did you think?" I asked the host of both events.
"Good. Some people go up there and don't get a single laugh in their entire routine. The first three times I tried stand up I bombed."
"So I did OK for my first and only appearance."
"Yeah. You sure about that?"
"I am. It's not like storytelling."
"No, it's not. The big thing is that when you go up as a comic the audience is there expecting that you will make them laugh. That's not the same as at storytelling."
"And is that why the stand-up folks come here?"
"Part of it, yes. We love an audience."
"Ain't that the truth. And with storytelling, there are no side effects."
The host laughed heartily. "That's a good one!"
"Don't worry... I'm still retired from stand up."
And yes, I still am.