LA Stories

Barnaby Slater dips a toe in the Los Angeles open mic scene

I know the open mic game in London. It tends to go a little something like this: I rock up to a show around 6.30pm to bow down at the knees of a promoter/compere who I’ve met and performed for 17 times before. While waggling mitts with the long-haired, plaid-shirted behemoth, I’ll hear myself insecurely mutter…

‘Hey (promoter’s name), how are you? Was wondering if I could get on and do a short spot tonight?’

My momentary best friend’s apathy couldn’t be more resounding: ‘Ugh… I suppose so. You can open, or go 12th in the third part?’

I exude delight: ‘I’d love to open. Thanks so much. How long will you be doing up top?’ But before I reach the end of my yawn-some inquiry, I’m trampled over with the sentence that I knew was coming but so hoped would never arrive…

‘So, what’s your name then?’

As I said, the beauty of the London open mic scene is mainly that I know how to play the game, and smile my way through it. However, for two weeks only, I now am in Los Angeles. And the game here is about as clear to me as my uniquely stay-indoors-forever skin tone is to the legions of faux humanoids that make up this angelic city.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, 4pm, and I’m one of around 50 notebook-wielding comedy delusionists stood outside The Improv on Melrose Avenue, waiting to be let in the front door to try our hand at their weekly open mic show. A quick scan only fuels my inner maudlin: ‘He looks funnier than me. So does he. She has a thicker notebook than me. She must write more than I do. I must work harder. I’m not doing this. I’m leaving. Right now. Maybe in a minute. I’m retiring from comedy.’

Before I know it I’ve ambled inside and I’m sat in The Improv’s bar, filling out my name to throw into a hat with the surefire geniuses I see before me. In five minutes time, 20 names will be pulled out and if mine is one I get the opportunity to impress with three minutes onstage at 5.30pm. As we wait at separate tables, eyeing each other up, I notice the familiar open mic comedy cliques of comics who make you feel like they’re better than you just because they talk louder and more bullishly then you ever could in these situations. I bury myself in neuroses.

But suddenly, for the first time, I experience something that never happens at open mic shows in Britain, and that I’d only seen in the film Funny People and the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian. The comics in the bar start freely shouting out their gag ideas and asking their peers to judge each riff, and in some cases – bounce off them and improve the punchlines. This is something I’m immediately uncomfortable with. It seems, well… un-British. I bury myself in my notebook, in some strange, failed attempt at Moleskin camouflage. I have never looked as British as I do right now.

A few minutes later I find out that I’ve somehow made the cut. I look at the running order and think how my unusual name has never seemed so out of place as it does amongst this litany of Tres, Travises and the dude on first just called Munch. I’m on 21st out of 22. An amazing spot as I’d been told there were just 20 places available. I stumble to the main room apologetically, all the time castigating myself for still not having worked on my networking skills. Note to self: maybe sobriety wasn’t the best option this year.

My first impressions of the room are that The Improv is the perfect venue for comedy. Intimate yet not too small. Amazing PA system, comfy chairs – everything I’d come to expect having listened to numerous David Cross, Mitch Hedburg and Demetri Martin sets from these American clubs down the years. Sadly, the pressure I’ve put upon myself has become all-consuming by this point: will they understand my stuff? Will anyone even manage a titter? And most importantly… will I forget my own name while introducing myself like I did at one gig a few years ago?

As I sit through 20 comics doing their three-minute sets, I notice a few key differences from the London circuit. Firstly, and this sounds like an exaggeration but is not - at least 75 per cent of the comics on the bill concentrate on gags about smoking weed or getting high in some way or other. It’s a culture out here. Turns out they even have a marijuana day called 4/20. Whilst listening to this stream of endless bifta-based gag-making, I begin to wonder whether my bit on Richard Madeley might not fly. I quickly switch set lists in my mind.

Suddenly, my turn. Game face comes on. All the nerves fall away and I remember I’m a comic again as I brazenly storm the stage introducing myself with the phrase that I know can’t fail me: ‘Hello Americans!’

Nothing. I look out again. STILL nothing. I fill the pause…


I look out before me once more. Only then do I realize that of the 20 acts who’d been on before me, 19 have now left the venue and it’s just me, the MC and about eight stragglers left, all of whom wish they were elsewhere. Once upon a time this would have freaked me out and left me requiring a lobotomy to recover. But these days, I’m an open mic machine and suddenly the London circuit experience kicks in. I know how to make this work. Piece of piss. There isn’t even a dog in the front row to win over this time as there was that night at the Electric Mouse in Islington.

Three minutes later, and my gags have gone down as well as could have been expected in the circumstances. I get offstage, and the MC tells the room that one of my jokes was his favourite of the night. Justification! I have made it in America! I’m a big deal here now! Well, at least to these right people and one MC. Euphoria sweeps my entire body. First The Improv, next the world. Maybe.

I collar the MC afterwards and ask him to suggest other shows I could do around town. He says he liked my stuff and can get me a spot opening at The Comedy Store on Sunset on Friday night. Strangely, the wind blows out of my sails quickly.

The Store? Opening? That’s a whole other story. I feign delight in front of this new, even scarier plaid-shirted MC behemoth.

I hear myself whisper: ‘I’d love to.’

As I walk home to the apartment listening back to my three minutes of glory, my inner-maudlin sets in once again: ‘I can’t do it. I’m retiring from comedy.’

Published: 26 Apr 2011

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