It’s Friday, so that means we get to do whatever we want. And it’s surprising that I’ve never written about this before, as big of a part of my life as it was. But I strangely got the urge to see it all on the page a little bit ago, and now seems like the perfect time to do it. As a few of you know, before I started doing this I did stand-up comedy for six or seven years. I don’t say I WAS a stand-up, or that I worked as one, because I so rarely got paid for it. But whatever, semantics. It certainly shaped everything that came after it, and I almost certainly wouldn’t be doing this, or at least as well, if I hadn’t decided shortly after college to put every shred of dignity I had on the line.
I got into comedy at 22 or 23 simply because I didn’t have much else to do then. I was in a sketch troupe all throughout college, I’m sure you’re shocked (and it was the troupe that infamously was kicked off of campus for a year for sending an audience member to the hospital by getting bleach in her eye in a Blue Man Group spoof that obviously went off the tracks), and most of the stuff I wrote for that seemed to translate to stand-up. Also, I don’t play well with others so that only made it more attractive. Add to that a host of my friends from college were actors, and almost all of them moved to Chicago after school, and I wanted in on the artistic friends, probably because I thought it would help artistic girls speak to me. That’s not really how it works, but when you’re in your early 20s you think a whole host of stupid shit.
So I humped together three minutes in my room and finally got the balls up to head to The Lion’s Den (R.I.P.). You may not remember the Den, but it’s now The Globe here in Chicago. It was yet another wonderful dive bar that is no longer and our neighborhood and city is less for it. Every Monday, the Den had a comedy open mic. But it wasn’t so much open mic as three-ring circus. It was the biggest open mic in the city, every comedian on every level in the city came to it, and about five minutes into the whole thing everyone was already half in the bag. It was a riot. It was also just about the most intimidating scene to break into when you didn’t know anyone, but it immediately flipped to just about the most welcoming as soon as you met everyone.
I don’t remember exactly where I went up on that first night. I know it wasn’t that close to the top so the room was fairly warmed up but not so close to the end where everyone has either left or burned out. When they announce your name that first time, and you feel everyone’s eyes on you… well, there simply is no nervousness like it, at least performance-wise. Every limb was shaking, and I’m amazed I was able to make an audible sound that night much less coherent sentences.
Somehow miraculously, my first ever set went great. I would say I borderline killed. When you’re new into a scene as small as Chicago’s stand-up scene was then, the comics who have been at it awhile certainly have a curiosity and give you more benefit of the doubt than you’d think. So if you can appear at least competent, you get a warm reception. I got more than that. I could almost feel the entire audience leaning in, anticipating the next punchline or the next bit. That feeling of everyone hanging on your words, it’s intoxicating. I walked off to a pretty loud ovation I remember.
What they don’t tell you is that no matter how good your first set goes, unless you’re just obscenely naturally talented of a performer which I most certainly was not, you’re going to spend the next year to year and a half completely eating heaping amounts shit. Nothing works. Every three minute open mic is just complete torture. Not only do you question your choice to pursue this, you question just about every decision you’ve made in your life up until that point, including things that happened in kindergarten. You wonder how you made anyone laugh ever in your existence, much less from a stage.
But I suppose this is where those who have any business doing it are separated from those who don’t. Because if you can survive it and start being good again, you obviously have something. And I’m still pretty proud of getting through it. Once I did, I got to do some pretty cool things. I was a regular at Chicago Underground at Gunther Murphy’s, the precursor to The Pony and infinitely cooler than the bar where the Hawks go to punch each other. Same for the Lincoln Lodge. I got to perform at Zanies’ a few times, and recieve the most stereotypical speech from the club owner Bert Haas twice about what a comedian really is (seriously, you wouldn’t believe it. “A host’s job is to be not funny” I think was my favorite). I made a couple appearances at The Improv out in Schaumburg. There were others.
I moved to L.A. not because I thought I could “make it,” but because my life here had fallen apart and much like when I started doing comedy I couldn’t think of anything better to do. The L.A. scene wasn’t any better or worse than Chicago’s, it was just so much bigger. More good comedians, more bad ones. It was far more welcoming than you might guess. Everyone asked would help or tell you about a new show or mic or help get you booked when they could. But it wasn’t as close as Chicago’s. Instead of closing down bars with the other comics, everyone split off to hit the next show or set. Everyone was just more focused and working really hard. Plus it’s L.A., so you had to drive everywhere.
Eventually, this opportunity came up and I came back home where I belong. Eventually my mind was too preoccupied with The Indian to make any other time for new material on stage. After two years of trying to do both, I decided I’d taken my stand-up as far as it would go. I wasn’t writing anything new, or if I was it wasn’t any good, and I knew which avenue I would take from there.
I got to meet and perform with some pretty incredible people (NAME DROPPING WARNING). My first ever paid gig was opening for T.J. Miller in a coffee shop in Rogers Park in front of like 12 people. I did countless shows with Hannibal Burress, who remains one of the nicest and most talented people I’ve met. I could write the exact same sentence about Kumail Nanjiani. I did the first show Cameron Esposito hosted here in Chicago. In L.A. Kyle Kinane picked me up when I thought I was going to give it all up for the first time. Matt Braunger was another. Sean Flannery, who runs the Blackout Diaries here, and I are still close friends. There are plenty of others.
There are still too many stories, but I think my favorite was a show in some bar in Lincoln Park, and me and the other four comics on the bill refused to start the show until Rocky IV was done showing in the front bar. We started 45 minutes late, and because we were watching Rocky IV we were so plastered by showtime most of us forgot our own set and started doing each other’s. The audience, thankfully, loved it. Or the first time I hosted a show with my friend Andrea bartending, and she refused to let me drink anything other than what she made me. My two block walk home that night took a minimum 45 minutes. Or driving to some god forsaken suburb with Kumail to do five minutes is some white trash bar, completely suck, and head straight home. Or the night I was basically “auditioning” for The Improv and just as I said my first word the chord fell out of the mic. Hard to recover from that.
I don’t miss it much. Sometimes I miss the immediacy of affirmation. You tell a joke, people laugh or they don’t. Now I wait for emails or tweets if something really connects. But mostly I miss that rare feeling when you’re absolutely shredding on stage. I really only got to that level a handful of times, though had many merely good sets. It’s an out of body experience. You feel like you can say anything and the audience will gobble it up. It feels like you’re watching someone else perform the lines you’ve written with perfect timing and inflection. It honestly feels like you could fly.
Because it’s just you up there. You did it. It’s your writing, it’s your performance. You don’t depend on someone else hitting their mark. It didn’t go through some Second City/IO cheesecloth to water it down. There’s no more naked feeling, which is what makes it so rewarding when it comes off.
Everyone wants to be Louis CK when they start out. But I cashed out my chips with a writing job where I call my own shots. 75% of the comedians out there now would do the same I’m sure. I can be satisfied with that.