We had become friends during a six-month internship at Wired magazine in San Francisco, but it was only after I moved to New York that we became really close. She was in town that weekend on one of her frequent visits, which always involved spending time with more grandparents than any 25-year-old had rights to have.
After getting our nails painted and sneaking through Pomander Walk, a mysterious gated community on 95th Street, we were about to go our separate ways when I asked Bess if she wanted to do the open mic with me, or at least before or after me. I wasn’t that surprised when she agreed, but I still felt exhilarated. It felt like getting a buddy for your execution: now I had someone to scream with.
Since we had a couple hours before we needed to be there, Bess suggested we go work on our bits in “the nearest Le Pain Quotidien,” a vaguely French chain specializing in things like $12 granola. I said sure, even though it seemed like we’d just eaten our croissants. Who was I to deny her a Croque Monsieur? I was no one, that’s who I was.
For the next hour we worked furiously at a small corner table in The Quot, which I’ve never called it until now, but which I like enough to say once again before killing myself. I had some bits that I’d done before at this same open mic. While they hadn’t exactly elicited much laughter, they were what my how-to comedy book had helped me write, and since I had so far refused to come up with anything better, they were also all I had.
Bess had a story about a stay in a hotel in Texas that was run by a woman who didn’t know what the Jewish religion was and who didn’t approve of ladies staying in Texas hotels alone. Bess also had a story about her boyfriend and some of their friends doing something, which is as much about that as I can remember, because working on my “jokes” always sends me into a fear blackout.
We went back and forth over our soft-boiled eggs asking each other if stuff was funny. Mainly it wasn’t, and in no time at all I had scrapped my carefully crafted bit about how babies keep planes from crashing (“little karma lifejackets AMIRIGHT?!”). After that it seemed easier to get rid of all the other bits as well and start fresh an hour before going on stage. Well, all of them except for one: Middle dick.
Middle dick was up to that point, and truthfully up to this point and likely up to any point that will ever exist, my crowning achievement. A friend had even told me he was worried that I was going to become a one hit wonder. Like that band Fastball, except without even a brief period of fame, which I pointed out to him was more like a “one wonder!” But I took this as a compliment, because “You really think this might be a hit?!” If I had to be a one hit wonder, I was fine with the hit being Middle Dick, because A.) it was based on a real premise (It’s really weird that when people are fooling around and don’t have a condom, or want to stay virgins or something, they will sometimes do “just the tip” of the penis, seemingly without realizing that that is the most dangerous part in terms of STDs and getting pregnant.) and B. It involved the creation of an entirely novel sex ed campaign (Middle Dick: Safer Than The Tip) and C.) it had one, I felt, funny act out: “Blow jobs would be difficult” (pantomime giving a blowjob to just the middle of the penis as though you are eating corn on the cob, except without teeth, so as though you are licking corn on the cob, I guess). I figured I could definitely base three minutes around middle dick and just pad the edges with some light Facebook banter (It’s weird that “Like” is the only option on Facebook when “Die Fucker” would be so much more useful).
Finally, it was time for us to quit working on this stuff and just get on a goddamn stage somewhere and have all of it be way funnier than it had seemed during practice. Also, Bess had been too nervous to eat her breakfast in a civilized manner, and the way her soft-boiled eggs appeared to have hatched all over the table was making me nauseous.
Being one of those people who you simply cannot keep out of a cab, Bess suggested we take a taxi to Queens. The way Bess suggests taking a taxi is by hurling herself toward one without telling anyone what’s going on. She thinks if she can just get you in the car, you’ll get all docile and sleepy like when the vet rolls your cat up in a towel and hugs it so she can clip its demon claws. For Bess, a taxi is like Temple Grandin’s hugging machine: they make her feel safe and more like herself. “I can always get a taxi,” I imagine her repeating in her head like a mantra as she listens to someone’s girlfriend talk about making her own yogurt over a six course Raw-stafarian meal in Berkeley.
Unfortunately for Bess, we had ample time to get to our destination, and therefore there was no way she was going to get me in a cab, which people always say will only be an “$8 ride!” but which always ends up being at least $16 with tip and some random dollar they add on at the end, and the fact that someone forgot their wallet at home, oopsie!
I would of course live to regret this decision as the journey to Queens turned out to be a nightmare of trains that weren’t running, getting on trains that were going to the wrong place, backtracking and being like, “Should we just go to a spa?” When you don’t want to go somewhere every small setback seems like a good reason to give up.
Finally, we made it to The Creek and The Cave in Long Island City. We ended up being a little early which somehow seemed worse than missing the whole thing altogether. Bess went to the bathroom to apply bronzer and mull her options, while I put our names in a bucket like the consummate professional that I am. Then I got a beer, because I was not at the point where I could go on dead sober, and was even thinking of trying a joke like, “How many beta blockers can you take before your heart stops beating? More than three I guess!” Beta-blockers are the best if you get stage fright because your whole body just slows down. Unfortunately, they don’t make you funnier at all, but that is a tradeoff that I am willing to take. I now see that one of my problems is/was being more concerned with appearing calm on stage than appearing funny, which resulted in a sort of wistful blankness mixed with honest confusion as to why people weren’t laughing more.
When Bess finally emerged from interrogating the real in the bathroom, I was leaning heavily on a part of the wall that allowed me be to be near the other would-be comedians without actually being part of their group. There’s nothing worse than a group of acquaintances who feel like they have to act like good friends just because they’re in the same room. It’s particularly horrible to be the person in that room who doesn’t know anyone, and is pretending not to be hiding behind a wall, since groups like this are just praying for a target so they can shift the attention away from the fact that they all hate each other. Luckily, it was soon time to go upstairs and do what needed to be done.
We entered the small theater, which was actually a pretty good place to do an open mic because unlike most venues, it had been designed for that purpose and did not involve standing awkwardly in a corner while hateful people ate linguine. There was a little stage with two mics and a spotlight, and then a bunch of chairs set up theater style with an aisle in the middle. The darkened room and the spotlight made it so you couldn’t even see the facial expressions of the people in the front row, which is both a blessing and a curse: you don’t have to see disapproving frowns, but you also don’t get to see amused half smiles and are relying fully on out loud laughter to tell you how you’re doing.
Bess and I sat in the front row, because we were fucking doing this, okay, and we didn’t care if we looked like teacher’s pets or regular pets or whatever. We didn’t come to Queens to sit on a bench while our friends went on the rollercoaster. Just kidding. If someone at that moment had walked up to me and said, “You can’t do this! You have to go!” I would have said, “Okay,” and walked out with a shrug like, “Who am I to question that guy?” But that’s not what happened. The host got on stage and introduced the show and how it would go down: names pulled in groups of five from the bucket; three minutes each; after two minutes you get “the light” (the host waving his iPhone from the back) so you know you have one minute left. You have to high-five the person who went before you. At this point I felt really nauseous and sweaty and wondered if I might have overdone it with the beta blockers — “How many beta-blockers can you take before your heart stops? [falls to the stage dead].”
Bess and I had retreated into our own worlds of fear. I guess right before you head to the chair the idea of an “execution buddy” starts to seem pretty dumb. In death as in everything else, you are alone. Every once in awhile one of us would look at the other with a big fake crinkly eyed smile in order to keep morale up and make sure the other was not trying to back slowly out of the theater. At this point I doubt either of us had any idea what we were going to say when we got up. I mean we had the things we planned to say, but at least in my case, the more I thought about them the more those things seemed not at all funny, and also they were getting really hard to remember. I felt like I was coming down with the flu.
The first group was called, and Bess was in it. I felt scared for her. She hadn’t done this here. She didn’t know that no one ever laughed, except at inside jokes with their friends in the audience. She’s too smart for them, I worried. They won’t get her, and that will make her feel bad. And then it was her turn, and she got up on the stage in her amazing Coach boots that I really would like to own, and launched into her set. I can’t say I clearly remember how it went since my memory of this whole thing is blessedly hazy, but I do recall a few things. One is that even totally sober Bess is really calm onstage. She doesn’t blush or shake or seem unsure of her words. I would say she’s a pretty natural performer and would probably be good at improv. Her mind works extremely fast. I remember that she got some laughs, although not as many as we would have liked, but I swear to God no one laughs there so that was to be expected. It also wasn’t necessarily her room. I mean, later in the evening a guy got up, and when one of his jokes was met with silence, said, “Who’s mom did I rape?!” which both demonstrates how hostile these first-time performers somehow already felt toward their would-be fans and also the type of humor that was expected to be appreciated.
Bess finished up her three minutes and returned to her seat. I could instantly feel that our camaraderie was gone. She had already died and was on her way to Nirvana, and I was still waiting to be called.
By the time it was my turn, three-quarters of the audience was gone. Doing an open mic is already pretty narcissistic — no one asked you to be here — so having a big audience gives it some legitimacy. Doing an open mic for five people feels both delusional and embarrassing like putting on too much makeup and then being stood up for a date.
But I had promised no one that I would do this, and that is exactly what I was going to do. As I walked to the stage, I was mainly regretting my outfit because, while perfect for a Dwell photoshoot, in this context my taupe wrap sweater made me look like someone’s young, sweaty mother.
What happened next? I started with a spontaneous riff on a previous comedian’s comment about how they fainted when they got nervous, “I wish I fainted when I got nervous. I’m on a date, and as soon as I start blathering on and on about some nonsense my body’s like WE OUT WE OUT WE OUT!” I was proud to find that my brain was working well enough to come up with a spontaneous joke, unfortunately no one was happy enough for me to laugh. Freaked out by how out of control of the audience and myself I already felt 20 seconds in, I decided to go straight for the pièce de résistance and wrap this set up in a tidy 45 seconds. I launched into middle dick in a half-hearted manner that didn’t at all convey that this was the climax of my set. My pantomime of sucking a dick like it was corn on the cob lacked gusto. The audience sat in stony silence, while Bess gave a few brave whoops.
Then I said something that must have seemed like a complete lie and the beginning of a stroke, “I feel good. This is the best I’ve felt up here.” What I should have said was “I feel vaguely comfortable talking about intensely sexual topics while no one laughs or enjoys themselves.” I don’t mean comfortable as in “good” but comfortable in the sense that a group of masked men is holding up the bank that you’re in, and after the initial hysteria, you press your cheek to the cool marble floor and realize that yeah, you might die, but whether or not you are going to, this is the moment that your body has been preparing for all your life. It’s not so much that you’ve come to terms with death (that takes too long) but that your most constant thought “I could die, and eventually I will,” finally matches up with your current reality. Or as the Scottish comedian and late night host Craig Ferguson said, “Dying onstage is almost as exhilarating as killing. It’s like any misery you’ve ever felt in your life. It’s not self pity anymore, you’re completely accurate: everybody fucking hates you.”
It’s sort of like when I was a freshman in college, and I was completely miserable because my boyfriend was on the other side of the country, and I started exclusively wearing sweatpants and athletic shoes. I would sometimes run, with my backpack on, between my liberal arts classes and the AA meetings I was court-ordered to attend. It was an upsetting time, but it was also the last time I felt completely unconcerned about looking cool. I knew that nothing good was going to happen, and that felt fine.
Which is why something like standup is so great for a certain type of person. Your enjoyment of it doesn’t necessarily depend on the audience’s enjoyment of you. I haven’t had the experience of the audience enjoying me, so I can’t say whether it’s a billion times better, but I have had the experience of the audience being completely indifferent and doing my jokes anyway and then getting off stage and going home and feeling just exhilarated, which is how Bess and I felt when we burst triumphantly out of that hell hole at 6pm that Sunday evening. The street was empty, and the early Spring sun was just starting to get low in the sky.
It felt like when the only survivor emerges from the cave in The Descent after stabbing her ex-best friend in the leg and leaving her for the albino zombies. We had gotten on stage and died, but we had lived! For no real reason we were getting a second chance, well really it was the same chance, but it felt new, and by God we would take it.
There was nothing to say at this point. A rehashing of what had happened would have meant talking about how we had bombed, and that seemed incidental. We weren’t good, but if we did it everyday for the next three years we might be. The point was that if we wanted to, we could do that. We had gotten on stage and made no one laugh, so we knew we could do that too. I felt exhilarated, head-achey and very tired. Everything in there was over, and all that was left was the shouting. Which we did. Half hysterical we frolicked down the sidewalk “woofing” and “fuck yeahing.” Suddenly a cab was rounding the corner toward us, like a patronus from Bess’ dreams. She threw her hand in the air and ran toward it, and I followed. We threw ourselves into the back, rolled the windows down and and woofed and cackled all the way across the Pulaski Bridge and into Brooklyn.