Is there anybody out there...?

Linus Lee experiences New York's dead open mic scene

It’s 6:05 on a Tuesday evening in midtown Manhattan. A man grabs a microphone in front of two foreign comedians who, unlike the five or so local open mic acts and the sound guy, are too naive to have left early. ‘I haven’t really got much to talk about tonight,’ he relays to these strangers, ‘All I know is, I am sick of living in this city...’

It’s one of 20 open mic shows listed this Tuesday on, the go-to destination for New York’s huge open mic scene. This particular ‘night’ started at 4pm. The local acts have all left to get to the next sign-up at 6pm. A sign-up which my foreign compatriot and I have now missed to watch the last act finish his five minute spot. It doesn’t matter though, we’ll probably see a lot of the same faces at the 8pm show, or the 11pm late show somewhere across town or in Queens.

There are some cultural differences to be expected. For one thing Americans – or at least New Yorkers – don’t believe in intermissions. It doesn’t matter the length of the show or the quality of the venue – no breaks. That’s why often the worst act will close out at legendary venues like the Comedy Cellar: the dreaded ‘check drop’ as the bills are settled during the show. Of course, subject matter varies too across the pond: race and politics being favoured over class.

These were the differences I was expecting. What came as a shock to me, were the audiences. Or rather, the complete lack thereof.

To clarify, certainly there are audiences at the real clubs. But those 20 open mics happening tonight? Nobody is coming to watch. After doing more than 40 spots, the biggest ‘crowd’ I managed to see was two girlfriends of comedians. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. How can a city so famed for stand-up be unable to build an audience for new comedy, when open mic comedy is flourishing in London?

What follows is a completely biased and unverified account of comedy in New York City:

The problem in New York is that the old guard never left. Seinfeld’s generation of comedians who didn’t make Seinfeld money never left the clubs they started at. Therefore, the clubs are in no rush for young blood.

To get a five-minute spot at a club on a night when the booker might see you, open micers are asked to bring seven guests. Who must each buy tickets for $15 and two drinks minimum, plus tips. Haven’t got seven friends with $40 to burn? Like flyering? How about selling tickets (not just flyering – selling tickets) in Times Square? From 4pm to 8pm? You’ll get five minutes on stage in front of tourists! If you make the sale, that is.

So, in the face of this, young comics created a new, ‘alternative comedy’ scene. In New York this encompasses anything outside the major clubs, from open mics at the bottom, to hostel shows, to monthly showcases at independent venues, to venues like the UCB, the PIT and The Creek & Cave at the top. These are small, dedicated comedy spaces, with a mix of stand-up, sketch and improv shows throughout the week. Running all hours of the night, with tickets usually around $5, these rooms attract a different crowd than the mainstream comedy clubs: hipsters and comedy snobs.

But that still doesn’t really answer why there are no audiences for open mic comedy in NYC. It’s not due to a lack of talented comedians. I saw comics who’d made appearances on late night talk shows and guys with their own comedy albums playing dead open mic rooms to ten indifferent comedians. I met comics who’d been performing for ten years in their small city in Somewhere Else, USA, who had been headliners who were now open micers in New York.

It comes down to culture. London has the benefit of British pub culture, which has formed a symbiotic relationship with open mic comedy. Pubs and publicans want cheap entertainment. Aspiring comedians want audiences. Punters are happy to give it a go, even if it’s a bit shit, because – fuck it – it’s cold and wet outside, but there’s beer and cheap laughs in here.

Plus Britain’s still experiencing a comedy boom! Many may cry that it’s over, but that simply isn’t true. Over the course of a week in November in London, I saw no less than 12 different stand-up DVDs advertised in the Tube, with no individual station containing less than four). In the collective two months I spent in New York, I did not see one single stand-up special or DVD advertised in the subway. The closest thing to comedian’s face in the subway was Adam Sandler’s leering grin, juxtaposed with himself in drag (usually defaced by some civic minded vandal.)

The thing about New York is that the majority of people who live there have moved there for a specific reason. Nobody just happens to live in New York City. It’s the world’s favourite backdrop to film and television. People move there to achieve their dream or to get crushed in the process. If it’s the former, they’re too focused on their own thing – working late at the office, out networking, running to auditions – to have the time to watch comedy in a bar on a weeknight. But if it’s the latter, then why would they want to watch other people working towards their dreams?

New York is an amazing place to watch comedy. The standard is very high, even at an open mic level and you have opportunity to the greatest comedians in America perform at the established clubs and the ‘alt rooms’ any night of the week.

However, it can be a thankless place to perform comedy. I have no doubt that a number of comedians I got to watch performing in front of a handful of their jaded piers will be national headliners within the next decade. Many of them told me they wanted to be writers for sitcoms or Saturday Night Live, and New York is the talent pool from which those are selected. The rewards at the top of the spectrum are enormous, but the grind at the bottom is exhausting.

As performers, we’re reliant on audiences for so much – tough audiences to teach us, good audiences to nourish us – that the prospect of going without them is a daunting thing. In London, King Gong at the Comedy Store has become a rite of passage. How long can you last in front of 200+ people who have come out to watch you fail. New York poses a different, but equal challenge for new comics: how long can you last with nobody watching?

  • After starting comedy in London, Linus Lee currently lives and performs in Brisbane, Australia.

Published: 21 Dec 2011

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