Open Mic Night in Chicago

They drifted in from everywhere, each riding their own current through the vast human watershed that funnels yearning and desperation into the city. They were eager and nervous or apprehensive and nervous or they came with the stoicism of the lunchpail just there to do a job. Some were new and working hard to keep their dreams from running too far ahead and some were weary and wondering if hope had run out. Some came in secret and others told everyone they knew. Not for money or out of obligation but for goals and dreams and reasons of their own all different all the same. I came too. When I asked about the open mic they sent met to the back room, the basement, the end of the bar. I waded through the cheerfully indifferent and the totally oblivious. I stopped to get a beer and dodged a conversation with a drunken Englishmen and made small talk with the barkeep. I ate some food and drank some beer and formed opinions on both. But I wasn’t there for all of that. It was open mic night and I was there for the show.

It’s Monday and the Globe is bustling except for a quiet room the comics have all to themselves. I’m worried. I’m afraid I’ve committed myself to some awkward agony where bad jokes rattle in a silent room. Everyone is still and scattered except for one table of loud and happy drunks. Everybody else is alone and clutching a notebook, even me, and none are very happy. I don’t know what their problem is. I’ve got a bit of a headache.

The host gets things started early and there is right away an awkward pause for laughs. To my surprise the crowd supplies them. There are more jokes of dubious quality from the interim host and still more willing laughter. I start to figure it out: this is no ordinary audience but one made up entirely of people who have added their names to the list. They want to laugh. They need to laugh. They’re up next. I want to join in and laugh too and they make it easy slinging jokes with hopeful energy. The first thing I learn is that no one’s name is pronounced correctly. One by one they step out of the crowd and repeat their name, correctly one hopes, and transform from audience member to comic no matter how stammering nervous they might be. Each is separate from the other before the set worrying their routines in anxious isolation. On stage they stand corralled by a brass rail poorly lit lonesome. But when their time is up they are welcomed back to the group with hugs and compliments and reassurance. I think they all know each other. The support group grows as people are freed from stage fright by the accomplishment of attempting. I relax and drink another beer and laugh early and often. I feel sorry for Bonnie Hunt. People like to smoke weed and have sex. There is a joke about fingering cats which no one likes to do. Somewhere in the middle I start thinking about ambition. This is just the beginning. I have no idea if anyone here is going to make it.

* * *

I’m hungry on Tuesday but Lottie’s has a special. There are a few folks watching the Bulls and a couple pasty types with patchy beards lurking around the edges. They’re just the vanguard. I worry they are the whole thing. Either the show is late or I don’t know when it is supposed to start because nothing is happening. No one has touched the traditional signup legal pad. When a girl walks in I thrill at the diversity but she is not the whole story either. The hip hop is loud and good and my sliders show up well done with crispy charred edges. I turn my attention to the game and the crowd sneaks in behind me. It doesn’t look good for the Bulls. The music breaks between tracks and someone calls out a joke. It doesn’t work. For the first time I realize an audience has arrived. It is loud in here like a Friday night and packed wall to wall with mostly 20-somethings, all types. Once again everybody knows each other and big raucous cheers go up when another friend appears at the bottom of the stairs. There are still plenty of anxious faces though and the most frightened act out the loudest. The TVs finally go black, forcing the two or three still here for the game to make their way upstairs. It’s just comics here now and the crowd is ready. It’s about to begin. The host gets up to do his thing, breaking the ice an easy few minutes to get the laughs rolling. There’s no stage, just a brick wall, a 60 watt clip light, and a sweatshirt on a table so the microphone doesn’t go clunk when they set it down. This crowd loves to laugh and a good and a tight three minutes will rock the house.

Day jobs and Hitler jokes. Parents, man. An open space next to me serves as backstage for a time and a series of comics take turns obsessing and fidgeting and steeling themselves for the eyes of their peers. They must really want this. Maybe they’ll kill. Maybe they’ll get invited to a showcase. Maybe they’ll join the inevitable cool crowd and climb another rung. Then again, maybe they’ll fail. And people do fail. They forget punchlines and drop notes. They get laughs in the wrong places and lose their way. Not a single impression works. Some promise a rewrite and another version next week. Either way the crowd is behind them the whole way. They are savvy and sharp and they lean into the jokes anticipating rhythms. They cheer bold setups and give full credit for a game attempt. Nobody thinks they are attractive. Everybody’s broke. The faiths of our fathers have been abandoned. There is alienation by the bucketful. But in this room on this night there is community.

The room thins out a bit but the laughs are getting louder and come at points I can no longer predict. It must be the booze. Those yet to take their turn have had plenty of time to soak in it. I listen to a set full of puns and a few more sex jokes from weed smokers before I split. I’ve got a day job too. Here the dynamic is reversed and it’s the main room that feels sparse and quiet compared to the party downstairs. The Bulls lost. The energy is gone. There’s still a crowd outside though and it turns out the comics didn’t leave after their set they just stepped outside for a smoke. Artists everywhere are all the same. They’re just chatting, hanging out but they can’t help themselves. It still sounds like they’re doing bits. Gotta keep working, you never know what’s going to pay off.

* * *

On Wednesday there is a real-ass show at Jokes and Notes with lights and a mic stand and a stool and everything.  Well that’s pretty much it but it is awesome and it is all you need and you gotta pay five bucks and buy two drinks for the privilege. The crowd pours in and packs a big room so there are a lot of us stirring and drinking and chatting up dates. This is clearly not a night for the faint of heart. Black leather booths line the walls full of aristocrats lording it over us plebes on the floor. There are faces painted on the walls above them but I only recognize a few of the most famous names. I scratch down a few others to Google later. I haven’t yet. The DJ is spinning some big beats and it is real loud and I’m right up front. Our host arrives gets a second introduction and some louder applause and arrives again. A name this time, Lil Rel, who is on TV and comes with a tour and a manager and famous friends. He also comes wearing a hat. He immediately begins taking the place apart, swinging the stool around till the joints split and waving the mic stand at pantomimed shelves. He riffs, he sings, and from time to time he brings out a comic. The crowd is large and the stakes are higher here in an actual club, not just a bar, with gigs to offer and name recognition. The comics, mostly, rise to the setting. No one’s afraid of the mic, they own it no apologies and none for the jokes they tell either. Skins are thicker. Bits are sharper. Everyone dances to the stage. Ice and swizzle sticks scatter to the carpet from an errant elbow. Everybody likes to fuck and everybody’s broke. Crackheads are hilarious.

Lil Rel works the crowd. This one’s got a stupid hat, that one’s got a stupid laugh. Still, somehow he is kind and nice to everybody. He offers praise and joy for those who kill and sympathy for those who bomb. And some comics bomb here too. Personas fail, jokes fall flat, they run out of time at uncomfortable moments. Doubt and fear and confusion chase across faces firmly in the spotlight giving lie to the confidence everyone claims. Then they smile and wave at the crowd bounce to the beat. They shake Lil Rel’s hand and run to the back where no one is watching. First among hosts, Lil Rel acknowledges the failure of a woman chased off stage with a shana na na from DJ Dollar Bill, but he tells us it’s OK. That’s what they’re here for, to hustle and strive and struggle to call forth three minutes of laughter from a roomful of strangers. Even at the risk of failure and musical mockery. There is a lot of hustle here and most come to the stage with managers or tours and dates booked with Just for Laughs. They come anyway and for no money just so they can do the work, do the craft, and most of all for the Great Maybe. Maybe they’ll impress somebody important. Maybe they will quit their day job. Maybe this show will finally be the one that blows everything up. And this crowd never turns on them, not once. They might be strangers this time and apart from the community of open mics where every house papers itself, but they too have optimism in their hearts and anyway it was cheap to get in. They laugh when they can and they laugh a lot. I laugh so much rocking forward big hearty laughs that I push my chair back into the folks behind and I have to scoot forward twice. One of the faces from the wall comes down for a set and later, after making sure she wasn’t wasting it on a comic, she hands me a flyer with Kellye Howard written all over it. Gotta come out, gotta keep working, gotta keep pushing, no matter what walls you’ve been painted on. The last comic does his thing and I’ve gotten my money’s worth and then some. There are door prizes, big bottles of liquor and tickets to a show, but like a fool I’ve lost my stub and I have to convince myself that the unclaimed winner wasn’t meant for me. It’s dead quiet when I get outside and the red line home smells like cigarettes.

* * *

I don’t want to do this. It’s Thursday, the week is wearing me down, and all I want to do is stay home and take it easy. It is hard to get up off the couch and to put off the procrastination. I pick a place close by this time, the Driftwood, and I get on my bike anyway. The night air feels great and wakes me up a little makes me feel better like the kids I pass playing ball in the street. My tires are quiet on the road and I just coast along followed by my red flashing safety light. I’m in no hurry to be anywhere and I get there soon enough. A friendly guy who looks a bit like Tommy Lee lights up and makes some conversation while I struggle with my lock. He turns out to be the bartender and he makes me right away as a newcomer here for the open mic. The legal pad’s at the end of the bar but I don’t sign up for this one either. There are dogs everywhere waggling tails and sniffing butts. This bar is playing metal with angry guitars and there is a pool table clacking in the corner. I feel at home right away and my last stubborn resistance melts. I grab a stool. The TVs keep showing two clanging free throws over and over. The Bulls are done. No matter. I’m feeling good and warm and I’m thinking about buying a dog. The place fills up slowly and it’s easy to spot the comics entering one at a time and sitting alone with the usual notebooks. They notice me too and I disappoint every single one by not being one of them. No one seems to know when this thing starts. The bartender makes periodic reports assuring us the host is on his way. I don’t care. This is enough.

There’s a broken Bluetooth on the floor that everybody ignores and a giant stuffed bear getting fisted that everybody watches. The Bulls lose again. Some people talk on the muted screen, and then they lose once more in slow motion. I turn to face a black dog sitting on the stool next to me. I say hello and his tongue flops out but he doesn’t stay long and instead wanders off looking for more interesting smells. I don’t mind that either. The host shows up but not much progress is made. Maybe it’s because a dart game has broken out where the stage is supposed to be. It’s finally the Lakers turn to lose although nobody knows that yet and the regular crowd is here in full force drinking and shouting not really watching anyway. The dogs keep piling on everyone and each other impossibly excited. I have a great conversation about Maine and learn a couple things. People really do love coffee brandy and Moxie cola. When your job is baiting a lobster pot you should pack a lunch you don’t need to touch with your hands. It’s my turn to stammer about my Midwest upbringing but it is like a fish describing water and I can’t think of what to say. The music quits and the MC jumps up and the show begins, giving me relief from social embarrassment. Maybe ten or a dozen of us give a damn in the whole place. Even my Maine friend finds something else to do.

The host is game and loud and prowling back and forth barking into the mic. Every single joke falls flat. This crowd is viciously indifferent, cruelly ignoring the lonely cluster by the dart boards. If anything they’ve moved further away, packing around the pool table and talking louder to make up for the sudden lack of music. The TVs are still on. The pool table still clacks. The show must go on. The MC rants, mixing advice with jokes and imploring us not to give a damn either but to let it out try something new who cares. It’s obvious very few comics are surprised at the scene. But they came here anyway and waited with me two hours just for the chance to shout into a crowd that is aggressively ignoring them. They get seven minutes for this. No one has brought seven minutes of material. Each one wipes sweaty palms and stands up in front of two literal targets and tries their best. I love them all. I want to give each one a hug. I want them to feel loved and safe and proud. Ten or a dozen of us our own little tribe in a foreign country. They are terrible. Maybe it’s the room but nothing is working. Three four five minutes pouring their hearts into the void. Everyone’s got a shitty day job, but everyone is still broke. I recognize one high school kid who hits all the spots from far away south side desperately trying to find something funny in a drive by. There’s a woman who would be a stereotype suburban ex-housewife if she weren’t here forcing bitter laughs at her own depressing jokes without punchlines. Then they stop and ask about the time and look dejected. Two more minutes in front of a firing squad that isn’t interested in anyone’s last words. The guy sitting next to me plays a bar top video game like the rest of us aren’t even there. The host gets up and finds a bright spot from each set to riff on. He puts his own body on the line and tries to lift spirits but each one must stand up there alone to face the truth that everyone needs artists in general, but no one needs you in particular. People pass us on the way to the bathroom and look disgusted to be near us. Some dogs start to wrestle and they grab more laughs than anyone onstage and when the comic sees this he plays along and probably gives himself credit. I say let him have it.

They need it real bad to come here and fail so prodigiously. But that’s the only way to do it. You’ve got to pile up mistakes and stand on them and rise a little. And maybe you don’t have to do it alone. I am here too, wincing with them and laughing and taking notes of it all for a project no one anywhere has asked for. Still, I love it, and the increasingly rowdy din from the bar behind us only drives it home. This is why I came here to the Driftwood, to Chicago, to The City. To find in this great sea a school I can swim with, to find others fighting the same fights and one day maybe possibly hopefully I can look back and be proud. The tacos next door are pretty good. When I get back things have degenerated into a shouting match between drunks. I’ve had enough for the night. It’s just as cool and beautiful on the ride home. The click of my spinning gears bounces off stolid rows of three flats and fills the whole street.

Micah Hofferth makes things in Chicago. He tweets here.

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