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One Night. Five Open-Mike Shows. Hundreds of Lousy Jokes.

A Monday spent on the front lines of comedy.

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New York Comedy Club
241 E. 24th St., nr. Second Ave.; 4:06 P.M.
The first question, of course, is this: Who goes to an open-mike show at four in the afternoon? It’s the same people, it turns out, who go to pretty much every open-mike show: wannabe stand-ups. Comedians claim these are good venues to hone new material, though the events lack one thing: an actual audience. Instead, comics pay to participate (here, it’s $3 for five minutes), so the show plays out like a cross between karaoke and a vanity press. In this no-frills theater, the host jokes to a room of eight people, “Anybody get their sitcom on NBC yet?” The highlight is Joey Slade, a rotund Bostonian who has a funny bit about watching the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a gay bar in the Village. The other acts, however, are more like Victor, a former cabbie who recalls De Niro in The King of Comedy, and not in a good way. He reads one-liners from a clipboard that are borderline Dada. “My girlfriend has a big nose. But she’s very good in bed, which makes up for it. Even though she’s an aardvark.”

Laugh Lounge
151 Essex St., nr. Stanton St.; 6:03 P.M.
An even smaller crowd: six comedians and me, scattered among long tables and exposed aluminum piping, as though in a cafeteria on a space station. One comic tells the host he heard about the show on gigglechick, a Website that includes open-mike listings. “You should check out chucklemonkey,” says the host. “Oh, I know about chucklemonkey,” says the comic. A performer ducks in late: It’s Joey Slade. Onstage, a kid, Chris Laker, cracks a few good lines. (On iPods: “Steve Jobs couldn’t sell a computer, yet he’s convinced the world to put their old Boston CD on a portable hard drive and carry it with them everywhere.”) But the absurdity of the empty room is crushing. “Fuck, this is just like jerking off,” he says as a sign-off.

Village Lantern
167 Bleecker St., nr. Sullivan St.; 7:10 P.M.
Finally: a show. There are only about twenty people, mostly comics, but at least the tiny basement room seems full. The crowd’s supportive, braving more iPod jokes and such punch lines as “All I’m saying is that in the future I don’t want to have to wipe my ass.” One woman, though, bombs spectacularly. Bombing is unlike simply not getting laughs, which is the norm at open mikes. The room becomes silent and airless, as during a terrible wedding toast. “Just do your thing,” someone yells. The comic actually croaks out a decent joke about job interviews and wearing a suit to work, before ending on the phrase “I have a rotten vagina” and mercifully retreating.

The Underground Lounge
955 West End Ave., at 107th St.; 8:55 P.M.
Another stone-walled cellar, another room with nervous men sitting alone like the patrons at a strip club. It’s a two-drink minimum, and at least one comic has exceeded the minimum. Joey Slade, the trouper, is here. So is Clipboard Victor, though now he’s performing under the name Sick Nick. Same Dada jokes, though, thudding to the ground like dropped eggs. Then one gets a solid laugh: “As a cabbie, I developed a fear of heights. Washington Heights, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights . . .” The host, Geoff Kole, tells the story of how he used to own land on Long Island but sold it all to move to the city and get famous. “And here I am, famous,” he says with a self-mocking smirk. “Just check gigglechick or chucklemonkey. I’m famous.”

Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery, nr. Bleecker St.; 10:23 P.M.
The spirit of the open mike, of course, is to give anyone a chance to perform. The downside, however, is that it gives anyone a chance to perform. This point is driven home at the Bowery, which, at least, offers more variety than the typical parade of angry, doughy white guys. There’s “Osama Bernstein”; Angry Bob, a 400-pounder; and a bald, black, slightly cross-eyed albino named Victor Varnado. “Yes, I’m a black albino,” he says as an opener. “Probably the most talented one in the room.” He is right, by a long shot; he’s also the funniest guy I see all night. Later, someone named Milton wobbles to the mike. “I almost got hit by a car on the way here.” Long pause. “I am really high.” Soon it’s 12:30 a.m., the crowd’s restless, and the show’s only half-over. A woman who’ll unfurl a pointless, meandering, please-God-make-it-stop act—if open mikes teach you anything, it’s just how long seven minutes can feel—takes the stage to a Belle & Sebastian song, the first line of which is “Get me away from here, I’m dying.” It’s a perfect anthem for the evening, for both the performers and the crowd.


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