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Should stand-up stand down?

LETTER FROM L.A.: Should stand-up stand down?

copyright 2002, Jim Chevallier


                About 15 open mikes are listed in our local free paper. (That’s right – paper. We used to have two, the other being the New Times. But Village Voice Media just bought its assets and has shut it down, leaving the LA Weekly a clear field. Wow. The Village Voice, media conglomerate. Whoda thunk it? What’s next? Ralph Nader Megamarts, coming to malls across the country? Greenpeace touting its nutritious new whaleburgers?)  Recently, I tried to check a few out.

                “Open mike” by the way once meant a procession of sensitive folkies with a smattering of comics. Those proportions have long been reversed, however, and many open mikes are only for comics these days.

                New Yorkers may need to be reminded that such explorations require intricate maps and a lot of gas. It’s not like you just take the subway to select neighborhoods and then wander around on foot. Each new trek involves pawing through the technical manual Los Angelenos call the Thomas Guide, locating the appropriate coded number, squinting hard at the miniature address, and then driving endless miles on soulless highways before exiting on to (more often then not) obscure and unnerving streets. All of which leaves you less than exhilirated when you get there and discover either that no one else has bothered to go to all that trouble, and so the employees outnumber the acts (forget any audience) or, plain and simple, the place has closed.

                This sort of thing does wonders for your sense of humor.

                Still, I found a few with full houses; which is to say, enough comics waiting to go up to do a good imitation of an audience. And so I sat back, that rare jewel among them, someone who wasn’t there to perform. I wasn’t expecting much, just a few jokes that did or didn’t hit their mark, with a few standouts popping up in the parade.  And, no, these weren’t the best, most competitive places in L.A. (those along Sunset, for instance). And yet, as it turns out, I should have lowered my expectations. A lot

                Right off, the experience was somewhat surreal, a bit like watching a sitcom and suddenly seeing the camera go behind the set. It’s refreshing in a way to see comics openly holding pieces of paper and looking down at newborn jokes. Surprisingly, even some who did that maintained the illusion that they were chatting off the cuff - a little reminder of how much delivery counts. Others though were prisoners of the paper and at a complete loss when their notes ran out. Not to mention others who had tried to memorize their new material, but discovered too late they hadn’t. Or those who would stop in mid-quip and say, “I haven’t written the rest of that yet.”

                Tattered as some of these acts were, they at least involved material. That’s a given, you say? A sine qua non?

                Apparently not. In several cases, it wasn’t just that the jokes fell flat. It’s that there was almost no material there at all. Mumbles, fidgets, half-hearted throwaways. If there was anything prepared behind all this, it was really thrown away. Not to mention the extreme case of a man who made the merest pretense of telling a joke before launching into a lecture on the war in Iraq.

                So, what’s happening here? Well, again, to be fair, I wasn’t at any of the top venues. I’m guessing no one goes to the Comedy Store unprepared. But a few years back I did go to some other obscure venues with better results.  I keep thinking of a line from Jim Belushi’s sitcom, after his son says he wants to be a stand-up comic: “Oh yeah. Because there aren’t enough of those.”  Well, what with comics starring in TV shows and six-week courses turning out new hopefuls, there are certainly more than enough people trying to do it.  But the question that comes to mind is: how many people should be doing it?

Because at this rate, the word ‘stand-up’ could end up taking its place in entertainment history next to the word ‘mime’.