Lizzie called out to the crowd, "Anybody? ...Seriously?"
It would be the capper to a fairly dynamic set that started with the conic sprawled out on the ground, the giant heeled boots she had been clacking against the floor in hysterics throughout the night were prone, looking like an establishing shot on "Law & Order: SVU." Over the course of her act, she had made it upright, standing tall in tight, black leather pants that clung to her waifish frame, accented by a sheer black shirt that concealed a black bra as curtains conceal the sun. But without a volunteer, there was no closer.
"No one wants to get slapped?"
Not wanting to let the birthday girl down, I raised my hand to meager applause. Standing dead center on the stage, she reared her hand back, re-enacting the end of a particularly bad experience with a guy at a bar (he was a Canadian who didn't know The Guess Who -- of all the indignities!) She took a second and looked me in the eyes. Then she hit me right across the mouth. Lizzie checked to see if I was ok. I returned to my seat as a flaming shot and birthday cupcake made their way to the "stage."
We all sang "Happy Birthday" as she walked off and out of the room with her friends, taking half the audience next with her. The host made his way to the mic. "This next comic...."
Stand-up comics are not created out of thin air. Funny people don't just materialize on "The Late Show" set on their camera mark and start doling out chuckles to America. No, they are diamonds, formed through years and years of intense pressure to do something exceedingly difficult: getting strangers to laugh.
This past Sunday, I entered one of the coal mines. Not exactly an open mic, and not really a showcase, just a show at a bar on 13th and Avenue A. It boasted a mixture of "established comic veterans you've seen on TV to the up and comers," slanting a bit more heavily toward "the up and comers." Louis CK says it takes 20 years to make a great stand-up. Here is an opportunity to see people about 1/20th the way there.
Like a row-rent version of "Cheers," they populated the one-sided bar a half hour before the show, some preparing, some goofing off, all drinking. The low lights did not make the ideal spot for last-minute cramming, forcing them to read their crib notes like my Grandma reads the newspaper: close and somewhat perplexed by what's there.
A blonde girl intensely studied the oodles of unconnected blurbs and thoughts scribbled on to a loose leaf piece of paper. Its edges were frayed from getting ripped out of a notebook, matching the status of her nerves. She subconsciously picks at them as she reads and, with two more sheets of scribbled ideas resting below, there was a lot of work yet to be done.
To her right is a thin, wirey guy in a plain white shirt, who wouldn't look out of place loitering around the bars near Liverpool on match day. He fidgets, alternately opening and closing a small, neat piece of paper, pulled from one of those back-pocket notebooks TV assures us every reporter uses. This one was obviously selected for its conspicuousness; a veteran move, I suppose. He folds it closed again, looks up at the sky, then looks back. Hopefully he passed the test.
Whenever the door opens, the rooks turn their eyes to the door. What's unclear is rather the sight of a loved one, close friend, or work associate would bring them relief or further anxiety. When a stranger crosses the precipice, their eyes shoot over to the piece of fabric that separates this safe haven from the performance space. With every new arrival, they get closer and closer to the start, another person added to the pile to appease.
Their impromptu comedy club is set up like any trendy Lower East Side spot. Comfortable couches outline the area, fashioned into four self-contained social circles. It's the perfect set-up for Monday's "Single Night." For tonight, the set up affords someone a great, comfortable seat to watch folks on the opposite couch watching the show that's going on behind their backs.
In the center of each little island are barren steel tables, just pieces of metal thrown together that retail for twenty times as much as the unformed scrap they came from. They are ensconced by ottoman seats that look fluffy, but any time you sit on them, all you feel is the uncomfortable wooden frame concealed underneath.
An announcement that the show would begin in fifteen minutes prompts the three people sitting nearest to the microphone stand to get up and leave. Obviously a free comedy show is too much of a price to pay. The rest of the spartan crowd, made up almost exclusively of the other comics on the bill, fill out the back of the room. Only a couple of Lizzie's friends sit just stage left, giving a helpful "crowd work" valve if the set doesn't go as well as hoped. Incongruous raggae reverberates through the room.
I take a seat on a couch as a large, stocky guy with a close-cropped haircut ambles in next to me. "I had to sneak this in," he says, pulling out a large bottle of Fiji water. It's the kind of drink you bring to live out the dream: walking out on stage to applause, gingerly putting the bottle on the adjacent stool as you adjust the microphone stand while the audience eagerly awaits your clever insights and turns of phrase. Before you even open your mouth, they're in the palm of your hand. It all starts, of course, with the water bottle.
He asks if I'm going on. I'm not, which prompts a frank, "then what the hell are you doing here?" Somehow, "a friend invited me" doesn't sound like a proper response.
He mentions how he might go on, launching in to a full, detailed story while his right leg pumps like an engine turbine. After going at it for four years, he dropped out of the game and is thinking of getting back in. "There might be time at the end," he says, in a hushed tone. "We'll see."
There is a strong kinship between comics, not unlike retired members of the military. A language is shared: volunteering to head into fox holes, in constant fear of bombings, all while living in terrible conditions (the common theme of "I'm so broke" was met with knowing head nods) to do something noble. To fill a need, one that no one outside of the community can understand. But to them, well, there's no other way.
We're joined by the white shirt kid from before, who sits right down and enters directly in the conversation. Seems he's in the same boat, unsure whether or not he'll get on, maybe unsure whether or not he wants to get on. He brought a video camera to tape his set though, just in case.
"I only watch when I kill," he says, "but I never seem to do well when the camera's on. I usually do well when there isn't a camera, but bomb when there is one. Whenever I bomb...." He takes a second to choose his words carefully. "I mean, I should watch when I bomb, but...." He shuts the side screen and looks away. The show begins. Each take in a long, deep breath.
A number of comics will perform over the evening, somewhere around a dozen, each getting ten or so minutes to work their magic. To add to a few cards to the deck stacked against them, there are a few technical issues throughout. A dodgy microphone alternates between cutting out and emitting either static or a constant high-pitched tone, which, as one comic remarked, sounded like a test for the emergency broadcast system.
On the other side of that thin curtain, the bar doesn't stop. The digital jukebox still runs through such gems as Kris Kross's "Jump." People engaged in the impossibly loud conversations you can only have when seated on adjacent bar stools. None of the comics dropped the mic, clutching to it like a parent's hand, guiding them safely through their set, bad sound be damned. Only one rapped along with their forced backing track.
The comics' experience ran the gamut. Some had figured out their voice, controlling the pace and letting the audience come to them instead of rushing at them with jokes. Others stammered through bits, simply trying to get their thoughts collected and outputted; flow and transitions will come later.
One girl, Jess, had a strong notion of who she was and projected that image upon us. She used a great mixture of personal information -- sharing how her girlfriend taught her that women are as crazy as men say -- and general issues, like riffing on the general nonsense found in a typical issue of Cosmopolitan. All of this was done to a proper measure of applause.
Then there was another guy who used the opportunity to work through some shit. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend of four years and, as he nervously began his first set "in a while," it became clear that he wasn't the ax man. Going through the end of his relationship, he took the mic stand in his left hand, rhythmically beating the floor.
*Thump* "So even though Thump ...we're broken up Thump ...I still send her Thump ...flowers because Thump ...I'm a good Thump ...guy. Thump ...I guess."
He then relays this story about his first date after this unpleasantness which featured a bit of a mix-up from the good folks at OK Cupid. Seems that the girl he was matched with was 4'6", a fact that she kindly relayed before they went out on the date, saying she "understands if he wants to back out." He decides to go anyway.
"So this oompa-fucking-loompa tries to get into her fuckin' seat," he begins, "and she can't climb up there! ...And what can I do? I can't give her a boost, right, cause that's not nice to do for a fuckin' midget." He then breaks into the Oompa-Loompa song as the crowd nervously titters. His set is cut off soon after, but he still thanks us for the time.
This isn't a temperamental room. No one boos or turns away. We all applaud, like a member of our AA group just spilled his heart out. This was a room full of support, both from the comics and the like-minded small patch of audience members. This is a safe place, where like-minded risk takers can jump off into the shallow end of the pool. It builds up the courage before having to climb up the big diving board to leap headfirst into the murky water below.
Daralyn, the blonde note-reader from earlier, took the stage next. Her body language was resigned, a head trained downward between slumped shoulders only to bop up toward punch lines. She was instantly likable, almost sympathetic. We pulled for her, leaned in to listen, ready to soothe her through this performance no matter what.
Turns out she knew exactly what she was doing. From this seemingly shy girl came a distinct, strong voice, with really solid lines packaged in this faux-weakness. It was the kind of performance that showed she knew where she was going which is more than half the battle at this point, and was certainly one of the most reassured of the night.
I told her as much at the bar afterwards. She reacted as if I returned her long-lost puppy. We talked shop a little bit -- about her choices, where she was going with the physicality, if the punches were a bit too cutting -- before gaining her as a new Facebook friend.
Then she asked what spots I do. After taking a quick look around to see this little community celebrating another set of spots completed, I found a suitable answer. "None right now, but soon. Soon."