November 2010–Throughout all the countries in the world, across every culture, race, and gender of mankind, there is but one universal moral truism: Monday is not a good day. Monday is transitory phase from the blissful work hiatus known as the weekend, to the Orwellian, soul-crushing, ant-like, mindless productivity we commonly associate with our day jobs. Recently a much needed blow has been dealt to this “Monday = Bad” ideology. Strangely enough, this victory over “the Mondays” has come from a little comedy club in Houston, Texas.
Every Monday night at the Laff Stop comedy club is open mic night. Interested Performers must arrive before 6:45 to be put on the list. The show ends when the last comic finishes. The Laff stop has been in operation for about ten years, and even though the shows there are regularly advertised on several popular radio stations, it doesn’t exactly have people coming in droves. Perhaps that’s because the club seems so out of place on West Gray Street in downtown.
West Gray street is home to a cavalcade of glittering shopping centers and restaurants, with parking lots full of some of the most expensive cars in Houston. Nestled within this street are two Starbucks, within 200 feet of each other, just in case the hipsters and coffee shop intellectuals get too crowded at one location. Conversely, the Laff Stop is a small, unremarkable building that sits at the end of a shopping center. Like a moth among butterflies, the Laff stop is plain and black, except for a small neon sign that says “Laff Stop.” If there wasn’t a sign out by the street, one might think they didn’t want to be noticed. A strip club or a speakeasy would be a more appropriate venue, given the location and surface appearance. One of the few distinctive features is the large parking lot that surrounds it.
I walked in at about 7:15; the show would be starting in a few minutes. The inside of the club wasn’t too far removed from a speakeasy either. Through a light haze of cigarette smoke and generic jazz music, I could see the center of the club: a crowded bog of chairs and tables at which the audience sits. Behind that sat a bar. At first I thought the bar looked tacky. The wall behind all the bottles was mirrored to the ceiling, and there appeared to be a large digital clock in the middle of the wall. But a trained eye can tell that ‘clock’ is actually a timer. The stage sat in front of the swamp of chairs. From the stage, a comedian could look straight over the heads of the audience, past the bar, see how much time they had left, and see their reflection in the mirror: A clever luxury that most comedians only have when practicing in the bathroom mirror. The stage was very well lit, whereas the rest of the club was all shadows. The walls were painted dark purple, and covered with pictures of past comedians. Some of the pictures are of the big names: Lewis Black, Jerry Seinfeld, Daniel Tosh, Judy Gold, etc. Those pictures came with dates and times next to them, they were probably promotional posters. Behind the stage however, hung black and white pictures taken with a camera and framed. These were pictures of the open mic regulars. Frozen in mid-speech, the comedians are seen screaming, making strange faces and gestures. I was actually able to match a few faces to the pictures. Looking around, I noticed that the club is packed, but nobody is sitting down.
To be honest, this is not my first time coming to the Laff Stop on a Monday night. I have actually performed here before. I performed at the Laff Stop a couple of times, and even did a set for my high school talent show. I don’t remember much of what I was doing before my set when I performed here for my first time, but I know I wasn’t sitting down. I was pacing around nervously, looking at my notes that I had written on my hand, and getting to know the other comedians; anything to take my mind off of the fact that I was going to get up in front of a crowd of strangers and undertake the Herculean task of making them laugh.
That night I seemed to be one of only several people here just to watch. I could spot quite a few comics from their telltale worn spiral notebooks and scraps of paper with material scribbled on them. If they didn’t have the obvious accessories, I could still hear forty conversations going on at once about what worked, what didn’t, old material, new material, and current events fertile for comedy. However, even with those criteria, I would bet there were more comedians in the audience that night than I could identify. There is no true physical profile of a comedian. People from all walks of life perform at open mic night. One of the regulars is a college professor. Even the girl hurrying around the audience serving drinks does a set some nights. Except for maybe two or three comics, all the performers have day jobs. Just think: your dentist, auto mechanic, tax attorney, or even your boss, could be comedians hiding beneath the clever disguise of a “career.” At least I know that’s my plan.
So at about 7:30, the first host came on the stage and introduces the comic. The hosts introduce the next comic after one finishes their set, and the hosts get some time for their material too. The first host decided to hold off on his material and bring up the first comic. A man wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt bounded up to the stage and snatched the microphone off the stand. His presentation was pretty loud too: very animated, very fast paced. He didn’t have the audience rolling in the aisles, but he gets laughs.
“You know, standup comedy… this is the lowest form of performance art there is…” That didn’t sit well with the crowd. “No! No! Hear me out! Standup is like, the lowest kind of performance, because you got these bums on the side of the road… they’re like comedians. They’re performing to an audience! Only difference is, they get PAID!” That punch line got a mixed reaction of groans and laughter. I think we weren’t sure whether to feel degraded or proud. He did make a point though. While I will contend that standup isn’t the lowest form of performance, it is unlike any other. To make it big, actors need agents, singers need contracts; but a comedian just has to set foot in the club and knock em dead. There is no ‘breaking into’ comedy. If you do standup comedy, you are a comedian.
The crowd went through a few more comedians, apparently satisfied with what they were hearing. A comic noticed a group of high school boys sitting in the corner and adjusted his material accordingly: “Hey look everyone! Hanson is here!” They were good sports though, and laughed along with everyone else. Another comic said the funniest thing I’d heard since I walked in: “I’ve been seeing these commercials on TV lately. They’re saying that if I buy drugs, I’m supporting terrorism… Whoops.”
Not everyone kills at open mic night though. When a comedian starts to set up a joke that you know isn’t going to work, you really want to reach out and save them from that inevitable dead silence. Its like watching a horror movie. You’re at the scene where the teenagers are about to walk in the rooms that the killer is hiding in, and you just want to yell “DON’T GO IN THERE!!” But you don’t yell at the screen. When a comic bombs, there isn’t much you can do, other than clap extra hard when they walk off the stage. Not a single laugh, chuckle, or giggle is given for charity. The people who get up and do a half-assed set get a half-assed applause. The only comic to get mercy is the first-timer, and after that they’re on their own until the day they die.
The important distinction to draw between a good comedian and a bad comedian is their presentation. A bad comedian gets up on stage, and tells a joke. However, a good comedian gets up on stage and describes the world as they see it. Audiences remember the best of the open mic regulars not only for their content, but their style. Because more than ninety percent of all communication is non-verbal, one can see that the joke is at most, ten percent of the standup experience.
My first performance at the Laff Stop was a comedic train wreck. I remember being on stage and shaking, with any virtue of comedy immediately forgotten. Of the four topics I covered, only one actually made the audience laugh. I probably would never have set foot in the Laff Stop again if I hadn’t been told by another comic that my material was really good. After losing the stage fright, my act has improved. Since then, I have been going to the Laff stop, not just to enjoy myself, but hopefully to help a comic hone their craft on me. The smaller the audience, the harder it was for me to feel motivated. Its important that I show up so that fledgling comics are not performing to the bartender. By supporting standup at its grassroots level, one is ensuring the quality of future big names in comedy.
Open mic night at the Laff Stop is something everyone should experience at least once. On TV, with an audience full of normal people, a comedian can get away with a lot. Open mic night, however, is the real deal. It is the bare-knuckles brawl for attention that you will never see on sugar-coated venues like comedy central. These are the proving grounds. I know I’m sensationalizing the whole experience with that rhetoric, but it really is deserved. Public speaking is consistently listed as the number one phobia of all time, more than death. Then think about the innate difficulty in getting someone to laugh. The people who are up on that stage every Monday are my heroes. To put your ego on the line, and give what is quite possibly one of the most difficult orations possible, takes a true absence of fear and a sharp wit.
I left the show early. Sometimes they run late, and by the end of the show both the audience and the comics are less enthusiastic. I would be lying if I said the reason I go to the Laff Stop is just for comedy. Sometimes the comics aren’t funny. Sometimes the audience just isn’t feeling friendly. But every Monday night at the Laff Stop is consistently an amazing experience. For the price (namely the absence of), there is little live entertainment that parallels open mic night. Do yourself a favor. Seize the Monday.
www.laffstop.com – If you still haven’t figured out that the first picture is a link.
www.comedycentral.com – See clips of your favorite comedians doing what they do best.
http://www.soyouwanna.com/site/syws/standup/standup.html – A how-to guide to standup comedy.
http://www.killerstandup.com/ccp5/cgi-bin/cp-app.cgi – A how-to guide to standup comedy… for a price.
http://www.jokes.com/ – Material for the not-so-creative comic.