Runaway Parade
CONTRIBUTE
     
   

The Open Mic

AMANDA MILLER

June 1, 2013

Dan’s making jokes about his dick. He’s straddling the mic stand and yelling, “I’m going to cum all over your face!” I sink deeper into my seat, glad to be in the dark so he can’t see the disgust on my face. God, why did I fuck him after last week’s mic? Because of the liquor. Because he praised my set. Because it seemed like he understood me in a way so few of these cliché comics ever do. If he had gone up on stage last Monday, there’s no way I would have gone home with him.

It’s 7:00pm. The ten other people in Hank’s Bar’s tiny basement are drunk comedians, nine of them dudes, slouching on the lumpy stained couch against the back wall or in the discolored plastic lawn chairs scattered across the sticky floor. Everyone is sitting as far back as possible leaving the front two rows empty. I recognize most of the guys from last week. They all look fairly similar: disheveled white guys approaching middle age with beer guts and unshaved faces, uncombed hair, ironic T-shirts. There are a couple of black dudes who are just as drunk but still manage to look somewhat put together; they know how to maintain harder bodies and dress in a way that makes them look like they might have a respectable day job. They might even work together on a low rung at the same corporate job and decided to mutually support each other’s secret fantasy of being the next Chris Rock. Then of course there’s the one Korean guy who’s here every week, Young Yoon. Last week during his set, he could hardly get a joke out. The room was heckling him so bad, calling him Kim Jong-il and shouting at him to go back to Korea. Poor Young Yoon. He’s actually quite funny! I’d fuck him if he weren’t so short. I’ve seen him really kill with a more civilized room. I guess one could call the crowd tonight civilized, although comatose would be more fitting.

The door at the top of the stairs swings open, and the bar music gusts into the room before it’s re-muffled. Three younger looking guys and one girl descend the steps, whispering and giggling to each other, the requisite one-drink minimum in hand. They don’t look sloppy or desperate enough to be comics; they must know someone going on tonight. Or maybe they’re drunk college students, checking out the cool New York dives. Those were the days.

I glance at the tiny curly haired Jewess next to me, hugging the wall and looking over her notes. I’m always intrigued to see what the other chicks do, so disappointed when they’re just as bad as the guys with their jokes about being fat sluts who know how to take a punch. They think they’re subverting sexism or at least that’s how they defend themselves to me over piss colored beers after shows. When did comedy become about the public contemplation of suicide?

I make it a rule to never talk about sex, heartbreak, or how much I hate myself, though of course I think about all three constantly. These thoughts are the root cause of why I take uptown trains from Canal Street when I mean to go to Brooklyn, or walk into walls, or drop my wallet on the tracks. Sex, heartbreak and self-loathing are so obvious; I need to be more original than that to have any shot at being noticed.

This room is like a botched group therapy session: the kind where everyone is a total egomaniac and no one is listening to anyone else. It’s group therapy where everyone is actually obsessed with their dysfunction and wants to revel in it instead of trying to get well.

Derek went up before Dan. Now he’s picking up his beer and heading upstairs. I’m tempted to follow him and forget about my set. My jokes suddenly all strike me as dumb, incomplete, pretentious… maybe a better use of my time would be to go home and work on them, or drink myself to sleep. Most of the comics are just fiddling with their phones anyway. At least Dan can’t see because the spotlight is so blinding. We can only be honest with people we can’t see. That’s comedy.

The host, Max, just flashed Dan the light, indicating he has one minute to wrap up. I’m up next, and if I bomb I’ll have an excuse to get wasted and fuck another sad comic. Jesus, if I want drunk sex that bad, I should probably just sign up for OkCupid. I don’t need to put myself through this Hell. So why do I? It’s probably because I’m a masochist. It probably has something to do with my childhood days back on the farm in Kentucky, some traumatic incident involving my dad and a cow udder.

Dan finishes his last joke and I give a courtesy laugh, applauding even though I stopped listening after the opening dick jokes. Max gets up and shakes Dan’s hand, the two of them looking oh so pleased with themselves. They may as well be swapping semen.

“Thanks, Dan,” says Max close enough to the mic to make it squeak. Everyone jumps in their seats; at least they’ll be awake for my set. The three youngsters cackle, marking the greatest laughter spell of the night. Max glances at the set list scotch taped to the sidewall. Dan saddles up to the late girl and plants a wet one on her mouth, sliding into the lawn chair beside her. I try sizing up the affectionate display to my left, trying to ascertain the level of familiarity.

“Alright, next we have Miss Lauren Hauser. Give it up!” yells Max.

There’s a flurry of light applause, like no one wants to clap too hard for fear of hurting their hands. I could be doing so many other things right now, like applying to law school or the seminary or petitioning a homeless man to rape me. Instead I calmly rise and wade through the musty air to the mic, taking my place under the light. The light seems brighter than I remember. Maybe the rapture is coming.

“Hi everyone,” I hear myself say. That first sound of my voice projecting from the speakers gives me the familiar shot of self-importance that I know will leave as soon as I tell a joke that falls flat. And then the self-hatred will creep in, but I won’t talk about it. I’ll dutifully recite what I prepared, knowing I can punish myself later. Stand up comedy really can be such an unforgiving art form. Oh well. Fuck it. Here goes.

“Hi, I’m Lauren. So I don’t know about you guys, but I am exhausted. Like in a way that goes so far beyond sleepy. In a way that makes me wonder if someone is putting horse tranquilizers in my food or roofying me on the daily. Last night I had a glass of wine at this bar and I woke up in the middle of the night passed out in my bathroom with my skirt over my head covered in cheetos, with no memory… Wait, now that I’m talking about it, I do recall coming home and smoking weed and taking an ambien. But I swear those cheetos are still a mystery.” Chuckles. Eh. It was okay.

“For real, people, I am weary to the fucking bone. Mostly because of living in this cunt-sack of a city, and trying so fucking hard to be somebody special.” The college girl emits a small gasp, probably because I used the word ‘cunt’.

“And another thing, why are you so fucking shocked by the word ‘cunt’? We women need to reclaim it like the gays have reclaimed ‘faggot’ and ‘queer’ and the blacks have reclaimed ‘nigger’ and the Koreans… Well, Young Yoon, you tell me. What’s the reclaiming going on there, ‘Slanty Eyes’?” Young Yoon snickers. The supportive little bastard would probably make a great boyfriend.

“But back to the point, why do I need to make a bunch of strangers in the dark laugh at me to feel like my life is worth anything? Are you even listening to me right now or are you checking Facebook? Shit, I don’t care if you check Facebook. Are you checking to see who liked your latest status update? Are you refreshing the page over and over, hoping someone will? Is it the technological age that makes us crave this kind of constant external validation or is just being human and technology has given us more access?”

The room is dead silent. I can still make a run for the stairs. Nobody would come after me. But instead I go on.

“I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I do the same thing. Refresh that goddamn page over and over hoping someone will like my link to the YouTube clip of goats who yell like humans.” That one got a little snicker.

“You know, I heard Detroit only has a population of 750,000. I’ve seriously been thinking about moving there, but I just can’t get up the nerve. Living in New York is a goddamn commitment. You and your art move here together and make a vow to this city, which could care less about you two. And then you meet other people and their art and you’re all like, how many shows did you book this week? Can you put me in touch with your contacts? Did you see Cindy in that Tide commercial?

I honestly wish I could free myself of this bullshit, free myself of the need to be up here, of the need for applause and laughter and accolades, of the dream of press coverage and interviews and television specials. But I’m locked in just like the rest of you, just like the rest of the desperate people who come to this shithole and scrape by for their dreams.”

Crickets. They are waiting to see if this is all going to amount to some kind of satisfying punch line. I am waiting to see too. I’ve veered off course, winging it now, because I’m tired of the shit I prepared. I just want to talk about what’s on my mind.

“So… uh… yeah… Detroit. That makes me think of the movie 8 Mile. Which makes me think of Brittany Murphy, another celebrity who supposedly had it all and died of a drug overdose. Make some noise if dying of a drug overdose sounds romantic to you.”

Dan and Max hoot. Some other people laugh nervously.

“Yeah I used to think so too… until my mom died of one. Just kidding, she’s still alive. She’s in a nursing home on Long Island, doesn’t know who the hell I am. Yells a lot for her mom who’s been dead for two decades. That’s where we’re all heading, so you know, maybe it would be better to die of an overdose.”

A mega-silence emanates from the crowd and I decide to join them. I want to see how long it can go on before someone breaks. The only sounds are faint noises through the door from the bar upstairs. Max flashes the light. I nod and maintain stillness. Some people giggle nervously but no one says anything. I feel the heat from the spotlight. I breathe into the microphone and hear my breath. More nervous laughter. Max starts to stand. I raise my palm to signify I am not done. He sits slowly. I conduct a complete scan of the dark room before me. The nervous laughter has stopped and it seems everyone has settled into the silence. It’s a powerful feeling being so in control. Because I’m in the light and they’re in the dark, I’m responsible for what happens next. But they don’t realize they are giving me this power. Power is always given.

What are they thinking about me? Do they think I’m dangerous? Nobody is even touching their drinks! I really could do anything right now: scream, strip naked, pull out a gun… I stare straight ahead, my face expressionless, my eyes boring into the back wall, their eyes drilling holes into my sides, but I withstand it. I stare harder at the wall, like I might be able to shoot my eyeballs over their heads and into the red plaster. The more I do this, the blurrier it gets. Someone coughs. Someone sets a glass onto a table. Someone’s feet hit the floor.

Then without warning, laughter bursts forth from my body, like a baby entering the world. As if on cue, the whole basement responds with explosive pain-in-the-belly guffaws. People are clutching their stomachs, the backs of their chairs, the shoulders of their neighbors. The laughing is interspersed with breath catching. I catch Dan and the college girl laughing and kissing. Young-Yoon wipes tears from his eyes and drops his iPhone. The screen cracks but his chortles don’t stop. The entire beer-bellied ironic T-shirted pack is slapping something: knees, backs, chairs, tables. Bottles and glasses crash against the floor while everyone keeps making waves of that strange undulating sound: something like chimps mating while under attack. Gradually the laughing gives way to giggling, which gives way to snickers and finally, silence— back to where we began. But this silence feels completely different: comfortable, safe, satiated. We have all experienced the satisfaction of tension and release, no joke necessary.

“Once again, I’m Lauren Hauser,” I say into the mic. “Thank you.”

The crowd darts to their feet, applauding wildly, their palms colliding like the rain slamming the pavement outside. I make my way to the stairs and they all trail behind, like we’re in a Follow-The-Leader parade. We march triumphantly into the bar, where The Cure is playing at a volume un-customarily low for the environment. But to be fair, Jared, the bartender, is the only one in there and he looks a little sick. Max marches over to the counter, slams his fist down and jubilantly shouts to Jared, “A round of tequila shots, sir! I’m payin’!” The room erupts into applause once again. As I absorb the smiling pink-cheeked faces, I realize I’ve never been so satisfied with myself. I think this is definitely one of those moments that I’ll remember in the future, which stresses me out because I’m suddenly thinking about getting old, and that stress triggers the memory of my anxiety attack this morning. But these smiling faces keep me smiling as I drift under a comforting wave of fuck it like I do every night before bed.

Shots are passed from hand to hand like an assembly line. Once everyone has a glass, they are lifted to the sky. Max looks to me.

“Lauren, I think you should make a toast.”

“A toast? Well okay, uh, thanks Max, and thanks all of you. Let’s see.. a toast… To times like these, when we are so happy we forget about death. Oh wait…shit.”

The bar balloons with laughter and transitions into drinking and mingling. “Lucky Star” by Madonna comes on. I love this song.

“Hey Jared,” I call, “Could ya turn it up?” Blowing his nose, he glares at me then turns up the dial on the sound system.

I plop down on a barstool next to Max and ask Jared for a couple more shots.

“I’ll pay for these,” I assure Max, patting the top of his hand.

He shrugs as if to say whatever, and I notice for the first time tonight that he’s wearing a tie over his T-shirt.

“I didn’t see this before,” I say, yanking on his tie. It comes off quickly. It’s clip on.

“Oh shit, you found me out,” Max says, clipping it back on.

He grins and shakes his head of shaggy dark locks. We’ve run into each other throughout the New York comedy circuit many times over the last couple years. He feels kind of like the cousin that I never knew I had, the one you meet at the family reunion who shares your sarcasm. Jared brings our shots. We clink glasses and shoot.

“Lauren, I don’t even know what to say. That was some crazy collective unconscious shit back there.”

“I know! I feel like maybe I discovered something I can keep playing with. Something that like, maybe Kaufman would understand. You know what I mean?”

“I think so, yeah. It has to do with the tension created by awkwardness and the confrontation… yeah, I think I see what you are getting at.”

We sit for a minute while I sing along to “Lucky Star.” Jared blows his nose again. Max orders a whiskey on the rocks.

“I just don’t know for sure if I could recreate something like that,” I say, “It was so awesome and spontaneous, it could have been a once in a lifetime kind of thing.”

Max shrugs again. “Could have been.”

“Max, do you like hosting the open mic?”

“Sure. It’s never boring. Beats paralegal work.”

Pat Benetar replaces Madonna with “Heartbreaker.”

“Well I think I’ll go home now,” I say. “I have to get up at 5 to work the breakfast shift at Murray’s.”

We rise and Max gives me a friendly hug. Before he lets go, I spot Dan and the college girl making out near the bathroom. Max smells clean and I think one day he might be nice to fuck. As he releases his embrace, his tie gets caught in my hair. I dig it out and clip it back onto his shirt. He nods and pats it against his chest.

“Feel better, Jared,” I say.

“Thanks.”

I step outside to hail a cab where it’s raining lightly. A trio of anorexic drunk blonds in heels and short skirts are also waiting at the curb. They are having the I’m-so-fat-no-you’re-not-I’m-way-fatter exchange. One says, “I swear, Eddie dumped me because I’m a fat ass. I should just kill myself.”

I walk down the sidewalk to get away from this conversation. After four short steps, I hear a scream, and turn around to see that girl lying on her stomach in the street, kicking her legs in true tantrum form. Her friends are freaking out and pulling at her clothes, trying to get her back on the sidewalk. Cars are swerving around her. A small group gathers nearby to gawk.

I hail a cab and get in. “Williamsburg,” I say, and the Armenian man nods. As we veer around the girl, I feel a strong kinship with her. I wonder if she’ll get into comedy. Drunkenly throwing myself into the street after a breakup was how I got my start.

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