I'm staring at something on the side of the stage, out of the view of the audience. I don't even remember focusing on anything in particular, just a downward gaze. If you saw me out of context, you'd think I was praying. I am.
I'm getting an intro from the host of this show and other comedians are nearby, slapping me on the back and offering words of encouragement. Maybe I responded to them, maybe I didn't. I've already started sweating. Well before that, I started doubting.
In between prayers, I'm going over my set-list and ignoring the little voice inside that says, "You know you could run right now out the side door and just not do it. That'd be something, huh?" Shut up, voice.
When my name is called, I go from the cool darkness and solitude of backstage to the white-hot stage lights and the even hotter stares of 70 or so people. I'm not alone now. And these people paid money to see me talk about Taco Bell and my sporadic encounters with women.
Six months ago, I was terrified of stand-up. I promised myself I'd rather have my wisdom teeth removed than ever grab a microphone on a stage by myself. But my wisdom teeth were taken out my freshman year of college, so what choice did I have?
See, I do improv at Theatre 99 and perform and write with my own sketch group. Maybe you've heard of it? Foxhole Feng Shui? Doesn't ring a bell? Well. This is awkward.
Anywho, I've done both improv and sketch, but stand-up is a beast all its own. When I do improv, people think, "Oh that one scene wasn't all that funny, but they were making it up right then and there." When I do sketch, there is at least one other person on stage with me. Spread the glory, spread the blame. But stand-up comes with a whole bag of preconceived notions. People expect stand-ups to be a certain way. Maybe not everyone has seen groundbreaking sketch comedy, and maybe someone's only exposure to improv has been Whose Line Is It Anyway? But everyone has seen a stand-up comic, from Henny Youngman to Bill Cosby, from Zach Galfiani-whatever to (gulp) Jeff Dunham.
Growing up, I thought all comedy clubs had brick walls, and stand-ups could only afford ugly sport coats and pastel mock T's. From them I learned that I never wanted airplane food and that black people walked differently from white people. An over-saturation of stand-up in the '80s cheapened the art (yes, I said art), and when everyone and their brother went into it to leapfrog to a sitcom deal, comedy itself suffered. I've turned on Comedy Central and seen some of the worst comedy imaginable, and I know some local guys and gals who could do a lot better with five minutes on a show like Premium Blend. Seriously.
Recently, Charleston has seen a bit of a stand-up resurgence. It never really went away, despite not having a true comedy club in the city for several years. It's always been an underground scene, occasionally resurfacing at a bar, or most recently having a permanent home once a month at Theatre 99.
T99 has been the center of Charleston's improv comedy for over a decade, but Greg Tavares and Brandy Sullivan have also brought in big-name stand-up acts for the ever-expanding Charleston Comedy Festival and, more recently, stand-alone performances by comics like Todd Barry and Kenny Z. Centre Pointe Bar and Grill in North Charleston also regularly brings in national acts. Jaguars Gentlemen's Club kicks off a series of stand-up this week, starting with Pauly Shore.
Meanwhile, the local stand-up scene is flourishing due to several open mic comedy nights around town. The idea of an open mic comedy night is just like an open mic would be for musicians. Sign up and you can perform that night. It's instant exposure, a workshop for comedians, and a confidence-builder. Most importantly, it's entertainment for crowds who are ever-eager for something different.
Every Monday night, there is an open mic at the Upper Deck on King Street, hosted by Dusty Slay. One Sunday a month, there is an open mic at Tin Roof, hosted by yours truly, and the occasional open mic at Oasis in James Island and even a small show out on Folly every now and then. A comedian working on his craft can theoretically perform around town once or even twice a week in any given month. And there's beer served at all of the places where comedy is performed. Is there a correlation? Oh my, yes.
The Stand-Up Competition for the 2010 Charleston Comedy Festival has gotten so many entries from would-be performers that preliminary rounds are needed, with only the best five out of 15 comics from each preliminary round moving on to the show in January at the Music Farm. The first round is Sat. Nov. 21 at Theatre 99 on Meeting Street. The audience chooses the winners (cough-cough-Jason Groce-cough-cough).
A recent open mic night at Tin Roof had to accommodate more than 20 comedians and a raucous, ready-to-laugh crowd. We've done shows where the comedians outnumber the audience. We've told jokes to a packed house where only about 25 percent of the people there were paying any attention to the comics. Someday, I hope to read a grocery list or the instructions to assembling a cabinet to a crowd like that, just to see if anyone notices.
A lot of the performers you might see at any of these shows around town are Theatre 99 improv veterans, including myself. It seemed like everyone I knew was doing it, so I did it, too. Peer pressure: it's not just for teens anymore. But it helps. Charleston has a strong sense of camaraderie among all of its comedians, even those who aren't a part of the Theatre 99 family. We give constructive criticism, we talk about our coworker's favorite jokes, we offer advice and gleeful handshakes after a killer set.
Tim Hoeckel, host of the monthly This Is Chucktown! series of stand-up at Theatre 99 and a seasoned veteran of the Charleston and Baltimore scenes, says, "There's no jealousy or competition with comedians, that I know of anyway ... We are all friends. Maybe that rubs off on other people, so they want to try it out."
I guess that's to be expected of America's friendliest (until this year) city. On a side note: I'm personally talking a lot of smack about Savannah to get our title back. Spread the word. That's probably counterproductive, but just look at Savannah. So freaking smug.
Charleston has diverse comics, too. We are fat, skinny, happily married, unhappily single, Northern, Southern, clean, dirty — joke-wise, that is, comedians are known for excellent hygiene. Some of us are political, satirical, metaphorical, or observational. We tell stories, and we throw out one-liners. You will have a favorite comedian or two, and you will not like a couple of us. We're OK with that. The one thing everyone has is a point of view. It unites us, and it is the very thing that makes us individuals. It is why I can't tell one of Dusty Slay's jokes and why he can't tell mine and get the same effect.
Tommy Hutchins, a newcomer to the scene, thinks a collection of unique life experiences are the best source of material. "It also helps to have a lonely childhood," he says. I would add to that lonely childhood lots of sugar. I think a lot of who I am as a comic came from eating entire packs of Fruit Stripe gum and extra Little Debbie Nutty Bars when no one was looking.
I spoke with several comedians, and to my surprise, most of them write their comedy from a happy place. I was thinking comedians were sad and longing for attention to fill the missing void that neither love nor Little Debbie Nutty Bars could fill. Turns out, in our little neck of the comedy woods at least, comedians are generally happy.
I guess the most-heard comment I get from people is something along the lines of, "Oh I could never do stand-up. I don't know how you guys handle it up there. You're a strapping young man — now why don't you show a lady how 'serious' you can be."
All right, that last sentence never gets uttered. I think many comics reach a point where we realize if we wanted to hook up, we would've picked up a guitar and tighter jeans long ago.
But people do ask about the pressure and what makes a comic get on stage. The answer is as varied as our personalities.
What does it take to get up on stage and be emotionally naked to the world? (Yeah, I liked the way I asked that, too.) "Balls," says Derek Humphrey, in the most succinct answer I got. He may have thought my interview was a timed exercise, I can't be sure.
For a female perspective, Kathleen Donnelly puts it slightly more eloquently: "A love for telling stories. A desire to have all the attention on themselves. A quick wit ... But the main thing a stand-up comic has that others don't is awareness."
Tim Hoeckel, known for working the crowd as a major part of his show and thereby taking on a huge risk, gives an answer that fits his style as well as his improv background. "A 'good' comic possesses the ability to take everything in stride, and roll with a situation good or bad," he says.
Acceptance, confidence, and cojones were common answers across the board with everyone I interviewed. That's the how, but why in the world would anyone want to do stand-up? You may have heard the term "bombing." It's either a poor reaction (booing, crossed arms, gnashing teeth, rotten vegetables, including and up to tomatoes) or (shudder) absolutely no reaction to your comedy. You suddenly feel as if you're speaking to a group of Russian sailors who are here for shore leave. You may have heard the term "flopping," which is the same as "bombing," but I think misleads one to believe there is movement and life in your act, as if you are a fish that could be put back into the water. It's more like a little death when one of your jokes bombs. That joke lived inside you and was manifested when you spoke it, and when it hits and does nothing, it dies a little bit. You may not even take it out of your act, because here's the weird thing, that joke might kill next week.
Here's where thick skin comes in handy, because the next three times you try it, it still may not work, and then you have to flush that little non-flopping fish down the mental toilet.
A common comparison is that stand-up is like walking the high wire, except if you fall off, there's no ambulance to cart you away. You're still there, and you have to climb back on the rope and keep going, broken legs and all.
But the thrill of laying down a great set or just having that one new joke you're really proud of kill when performed is just as thrilling as making it to the other side of the chasm on a high wire. Some of it is your writing. Some of it is the order you put your jokes in to make the most sense and get the greatest crowd response. Like a good mix tape (yes, I'm that old), sequencing is crucial to make it all feel like it fits. And when it does, there is no better stand-up set. I would agree with another comic, Nick DeNitto, when he says he loves "when an improvisation on a weaker joke magically turns it into a big laugh-getter."
David "Apples" Appleton is even more specific about what he enjoys. "It's great to hear even that one loud guy or girl who can't stop laughing." (Moms and Dads don't count.) "Then when you come out after the show and folks congratulate you on a good set. Those things are true validation for the work you put in." Amen.
I think we also like to create the things everyone in the audience sees when they watch stand up-comedy. I know, we may come off as these mighty gods and goddesses, but we're really just normal people with — duh— good senses of humor. We like to laugh. We love to see when a comedian talks about some topic that we thought we were the only ones who noticed. We love to try to reincorporate our stories and jokes and make everything relate somehow. We love the magic of a good performance and try to recreate that. We weren't born on the stage. Just like you like to watch stand-up comedy, we do, too. If you decide to go to one of the local stand-up shows in town, and we all really hope you do, just keep in mind how much work each person puts into even a five-minute act.
And when that five minutes connects with the audience, all of the blood, sweat, and jeers that went into it are worth it. It goes a little like this:
After my last line is uttered, the lights immediately come down. The audience applause from my last joke grows as they realize my set is over. The host hops back on the mic and says my name once more, and another arc of applause follows. I've maybe made a few new fans as I slink back into the cool darkness offstage. I hear the last few lingering laughs of people recalling something weird I said about cats or whatever still tickles them. I've let out more than one deep breath.
Offstage, my eyes adjust to a small family awaiting: those who are smiling if they've already gone before me, and those who offer cautious congratulations if they've yet to expose their own stories, neuroses, and wit to a growing and open audience for local stand-up comedy in Charleston. Now, where's my beer? I know for a fact they serve them here!
Upcoming stand-up nights
Charleston Comedy Festival Stand-Up Competition Preliminary Rounds
Sat. Nov. 21; Sat. Dec. 12; Fri. Jan. 15
10 p.m., $5
Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St.
(843) 853-6687, thehavenots.com
This Is Chucktown
Fri. Nov. 27
10 p.m., $8
Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St.
(843) 853-6687, thehavenots.com