excerpt from "The Open Mic" by Amanda Miller in Words After Dark
Dan’s making jokes about his dick. “I’m going to cum all over your face!” he yells, straddling the mic stand. I’m not sure if this is a punch line to a set up I missed or just something he yells when he feels nervous. I’ve only been half listening, sinking deeper into my seat, trying to disappear further and further into the dark so he can’t see my disgust. God, why did I fuck him after last week’s mic? Because of the booze. 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 7pm. The ten other people in Hank’s Bar’s tiny basement are drunk comedians, nine dudes and one other woman, all slouched either on the lumpy stained couch against the back wall or in the once white plastic lawn chairs scattered across the sticky floor. I recognize most of them from last week, and the week before that, and the week before that. Everyone is sitting as far back as possible, two rows of empty chairs lined up in front.
The door at the top of the stairs swings open so that the bar music gusts into the room before it’s re-muffled. Three younger looking guys and one girl descend, whispering and giggling to each other, their requisite one-drink minimums in hand (mandatory for performers as well). They don’t look sloppy or desperate enough to be comics; they must know someone going up tonight. Or they are drunk college students, checking out the New York dives. Those were the days.
This mic is like a group therapy session, but the worst kind: 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. 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 want to be more original than that to at least have a hair’s worth of a shot at being remembered.
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 dudes in here 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 show biz.
The host, Max, flashes Dan the light, indicating he has one minute to wrap it up. One more minute until I get to martyr myself. 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 go on Tinder. I don’t need to put myself through this. So why do I? It’s probably because I’m a masochist. It must have 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 have no idea what the hell he’s been talking about. Max gets up and shakes Dan’s hand, the two of them looking pretty 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.
“Next up, 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 finger me. Instead I rise calmly 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 through 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’ve prepared, knowing I can punish myself later. Stand up comedy might be the most 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, smoking weed, and taking an Ambien. But I swear those Cheetos are still a mystery.”
Silence. They hate me. I can make a run for it. Nobody would come after me. Just flee up the stairs. But I keep going.
“People in England seem nice. That accent. It’s so...polite. I’ve seriously been thinking about moving there, but I just can’t get up the nerve.”
Crickets…I hate myself.