LETTER FROM L.A.: Should stand-up stand down?
copyright 2002, Jim Chevallier
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.
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.
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.
sort of thing does wonders for your sense of humor.
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
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.”
as some of these acts were, they at least involved material. That’s a
given, you say? A sine qua non?
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.
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