Before Getting Good

I don't yet fully understand stand-up comedy. I know what makes me laugh, and why I laugh, but I don't yet understand how the crafting of a joke works. My training as a fiction writer showed me that any kind of professional writing is deceptively simple. Although I know a lot of comics don't write out their acts, usually just bullet points to hit,they think in words and concepts the way writers do. We all have the same communicative muscles, they just do sprints and I learned middle distance.

Stand-up is one of those artforms that people like to point to as one of the rare original American arts. It's the simplest medium, resistant to the changing times, and that makes it seem all the more important. The styles and topics have evolved, but the core of it has been the same since vaudeville. It's a person using nothing but spoken words and force of personality to entertain an audience.

I like to go watch open mic nights as a way to engage in my fascination with stand-up. This is where everyone starts, at their very worst, working claustrophobic 3 to 5 minute sets in front of other aspiring comedians. The theory is that if you're good enough, you catch management's eye, and then they'll give you a spot on a show that people actually pay for. Every open mic I've ever been to has generally been unfunny but massively interesting. That's probably the worst possible reaction these upstarts could hope for, but I appreciate their evening's entertainment all the same.

There's a scene in Louie, Episode 9 with Doug Stanhope as a hardcore road comic, where they walk in on an open mic night. There's a montage of all the characters trying out their sets. It's amazingly accurate and real to what I've seen here in LA. There are the stuttering, awkward deliveries, the clunky openers, failed attempts and universal anecdotes and even things as specific as recent immigrants with a loose understanding of English doing their damn best to translate their sense of humor. I don't find that last group particularly funny, but I admire them the most. Their ability to come to a new country and try performing for locals is a kind of daring most of us couldn't muster.

The characters that populate open mics are wide ranging in everything from age to style. There are kids barely out of high school and performers that inhabit outrageous and gaudy character creations. There are overdressed hotshots and office clowns that were encouraged by know-nothing co-workers to give it a shot. And this being LA, there are people who are clearly just trying to be actors.

When the comedians are in the audience, the charitable ones will laugh at every joke, just to fill in the many awkward silences. They seem to feel more community-oriented. They know it's hard, and want to support others more than they want to give honest feedback. It's often hard to pinpoint why they aren't funny most of the time. Often, my mind registers a bit as funny, but my soul doesn't laugh because it's not compelled to. I wonder sometimes if it's because no one else is laughing, and therefore it doesn't trigger in me. If that's the case, what separates aspirants and pros?

I think I've only seen one comedian at an open mic where I thought, "Oh, okay, you know how writing jokes works." But I don't understand why I believed that, other than the fact that she seemed comfortable and her words sounded like something a paid comedian would say. Humor is weird like that. It's not just subtleties in delivery, it's not always about selling. It's not even always about the idea. It's about how that idea unravels sand grows, so that it appears to be a complete, formed thought. It creates the illusion of perfect improvisation.

Learning any form of writing, I've found, is always about study until something reveals itself in an epiphany. Then that epiphany (like the segments of a traditional story arc) becomes the Rosetta Stone through which you decode technique & craft of everything. Then those branch off into deeper epiphanies underneath the other ones, and you just keep unpacking until you feel like you get it for the most part.

I'm not yet at a level where I can really articulate this intangible that makes open mics such a dour time. Somehow, it's still worth going to. If I lived in the area, I'd spend bored afternoons there. There's something about the fact that this is everyone's point of origin – even the megastars of the industry, everyone used to be terribly unfunny in a small room of 12 people.