We go to Great Basin’s open mic comedy night to ask: Why do people want to be funny?
I’ve tried stand-up comedy exactly once, and that was for two reasons: I thought trying stand-up would make for a good story; and I am an absolute moron.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I have never been more nervous in my life than I was the day I made my stand-up debut at the Reno Hilton’s Improv comedy club. It was quite a challenging experience, one that I have no real desire to repeat, at least for the time being. And looking back on how I did, all I can say is this: The Improv is now a bingo parlor. Coincidence?
But that’s not the point. The point is that my experience with stand-up comedy got me thinking about something: Why do people feel the need to be funny? Why are so many people drawn toward being the class clowns of the world? And what would possess someone to disregard that No. 1 fear of the modern human race, public speaking, to try stand-up comedy?
In an effort to answer these questions, I headed down to the Great Basin Brewing Company in Sparks on a recent Thursday night. This is the place and time for a weekly open-mic comedy night that has been going on now for about three years, says Great Basin owner Tom Young.
Sometimes the folks who get up to the microphone do well. Other times … well, let’s hope they don’t try to turn the Great Basin into a bingo parlor.
“I call it the good, the bad and the really ugly,” Young says.
Joining me are photographer David Robert and RN&R contributor Mike Price, who is a valuable resource for several reasons. He’s been doing comedy for longer than I’ve been alive; he teaches a course at Truckee Meadows Community College on how to do stand-up comedy; and he helped get the weekly open-mic nights at Great Basin started. As a matter of fact, the final exam for his students is to perform at this very venue.
I ask Mike my question: Why do people feel the need to be funny? Why do they feel the urge to do stand-up comedy?
“Lemme put it this way,” he says, looking me straight in the eyes. “I became a stand-up comic for one reason—I wanted to have sex. That, and the money. Romance, the excitement of show business—that’s sex. And the money.”
Price then tells me he’ll get “serious,” although he sounded pretty serious in the first place.
“People want people to like them,” he says. “Most people use [humor] as a defense mechanism growing up. Ergo, we see a lot more little comics than big ones.”
I am 6-foot-2 and built like a linebacker. No wonder the Improv is now a bingo parlor. Anyway, Price continues.
“The people who want to be liked, well, it’s a way for them to be liked. Lemme tell you an anecdote. On a cruise, the comedian performs on Monday and Thursday. But the cruise departs on Sunday morning. Nobody knows you [the comic] for two days. But on Tuesday morning: Then, the world changes. ‘Where ya from? You were great! Lemme introduce you to my daughter.’ The crew’s nicer to you. You have a better class of people feeling you up. Then, after a while, it tails off. But Friday morning, you’re a hero again.”
Price fills me in on how the open-mic night here will proceed. People fill out slips of paper saying who they are, and they give them to the host, who is Adam Stone tonight. Stone will warm the audience up and then start calling people to the microphone. Each person generally has five minutes or so, although the flow is really up to the host. I learn later that some comics get less than five minutes if their act is, in Tom Young’s words, “really ugly,” or more if it’s good.
As the 9 p.m. start time approaches, I find Stone. I ask him my questions. Why do people want to be funny?
“Personally, it’s an ego thing,” Stone says. “Honestly, it helps keep me sharp.”
Price chimes in with some information about Stone. “Ya know, he’s a carpenter, by the way.”
“Yeah,” Stone says. “So, I need all the sharpness I can get.”
Fair enough. Why do you do stand-up, Adam?
“Accolades. And chicks.”
Let the comics begin
Seven comics have signed up by the time things get underway at 9:11. Five of them are former students of Price’s class, one of them isn’t, and the other is Price himself.
Stone gets some laughs with his opening. He wants to know why people don’t put down Regis Philbin as their Phone-a-Friend on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He then acts out a scenario in which a contestant calls Regis and gets told the answer is “C.” The contestant hangs up, answers “C"—and learns that the answer is actually “D.”
“Don’t call me at work!” Regis shouts.
The first open-mic comedian, Don Kennedy, is called to the stage. He tells jokes about topics including politics, one joke involving a Bush and a Dick and Colin. You’ve probably heard it. Anyway, his material doesn’t go over too well. Price whispers in my ear.
“If you do a political line, no matter what it is, it’s gonna piss off half the audience,” Price says.
After a joke about Sun Valley that, as we learn later, signals a theme for the evening, Kennedy finishes and Stone returns to the stage. After a few jokes, Stone calls up Dave Lorayne.
Earlier, I had asked Lorayne my questions of the evening. Why do people want to funny?
“I personally want to be funny because I can’t play the guitar, and this is the next best way to get chicks,” he says.
“I’ll be serious on this part,” he says, although, like Price, he seemed pretty darned serious in the first place. “Most of us, we were always the guy who people told, ‘You’re so funny.’ Then, you get up on a dare, and if you get one good laugh, you’re coming back. It’s a rush. It’s better than sex. But then again, at my age, I think chili dogs are better than sex.”
I ask Lorayne his age. He’s 32. I suddenly fear my not-so-distant future. But back to Lorayne’s act, which goes over quite well. He tells about some recent health problems he’s had, and how he spent some time at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center.
“I never realized how seriously they take their religious affiliation [at St. Mary’s],” Lorayne says. “Every doctor who looked at my chart said, ‘Holy shit!'”
After his act, I ask Lorayne how things went.
“I feel really good,” he says. “I haven’t done this in three months. This is a great club. … It’s always a good crowd.”
Lorayne is followed by Mike Milton, who comes up wearing a fuzzy, pink, cow-patterned, fishing-style hat. The audience members don’t respond as well to Milton as they did to Lorayne. Milton’s best joke is one of his early ones: “You think I look like Gilligan. If he were a pimp.”
Later, he talks about spray-can cheese, including a label on one brand that says, “For Best Results, Remove Cap.”
“Where do they test this stuff?” Milton asks. “Sun Valley?”
That’s two comics to blaspheme Sun Valley.
Milton sits down and Stone takes the stage, immediately becoming the third person of the night to mock unfortunate Sun Valley, predicting that a tornado will soon be hitting there for obvious reasons. I go up to Milton and ask him how he felt his act went.
“It was a little rough, but, hey, it’s no big deal,” he says. “A venue like this is tough, very up-and-down. Not everybody is here to see comedy. But it’s fun and relaxed.”
I ask Milton my questions of the evening. Why funny?
“Because [humor] makes people happy,” he says. “If they’re happy, things are always better. It helps them forget their woes.”
“It’s hard,” he says. “You have to think—laughter’s an involuntary reaction. To make people laugh who don’t know you, that’s hard. But once you get people you don’t know to laugh, it’s addictive.”
After Stone finishes picking on Sun Valley, the master himself gets up: Mike Price. He tells me before he goes up that he’ll start off by setting a funny tone.
He wanders up, wearing a goofy-looking, multi-colored sweatshirt. He just stares, looking kind of out of it. Then, he speaks.
“What? Ya never got stoned and went out and bought yourself a shirt?”
People laugh, some even applaud. The tone is set.
He does nearly a half-hour of material, mostly based on his age, which is somewhat more advanced than that of the other comics and most of the audience. He also skewers Woody Allen ("Have you heard [Soon-Yi] is pregnant with Woody’s next wife?") and gives us alarming insight into his personal life, involving his butt, some salt and a petting zoo llama named Doris.
Price sits down to much applause and is followed by the one comic of the night that Price doesn’t know. He merely wants to be introduced as “Spartagus.”
The new guy
The young man, I learn later, is really named Kyle Archuleta. It turns out that tonight he’s trying stand-up for the first time. His act, which consists mostly of sexually charged jokes involving the word “Yahtzee,” goes over well at the table he was sitting at, presumably occupied by many of his friends. But the response from the rest of the bar is muted, at best.
Spartagus is followed by Randolph Belmes, who entertains the crowd with jokes about masturbation, back hair and—you guessed it—Sun Valley. Belmes mentions that he’d somewhere heard that Sun Valley is one of the methamphetamine capitals of the nation. He then delivers a message to the residents of Sun Valley.
“You’re not sleeping!” he says. “Come on! Clean the place up! Do some chores!”
This joke becomes the first Sun Valley-related laffer of the night to get big laughs. After Belmes finishes his act, I approach the 27-year-old bartender and ask him how he felt.
“This was a pretty good night for me,” he says.
I launch in with the questions of the night. Answer to the first question: “Humor’s a great way to connect with someone, to make them feel good. There’s nothing like the sound of applause.”
Belmes’ answer to the second question: “We’re all a little neurotic,” he says. “Because [stand-up] is such a challenge is why it’s so rewarding. For me, there are thoughts I want to express … It’s just pure. It’s just me and my brain.”
The final comic of the night is Gabe Jurado. Wearing a cap that casts a shadow over his eyes and holding a guitar that he never plays, Jurado tells jokes with topics ranging from his dream job of being a private chef for an “anorexic broad” ("How ’bout I fix you an olive?") to why Blues Traveler’s Jon Popper decided he needed to lose weight ("He got tired of washing his own fat creases.").
The audience reacts to Jurado’s routine with some laughs—and some groans. As he finishes and Stone thanks the audience for coming, Jurado comes up and starts chatting with Price. Meanwhile, David Robert brings Archuleta up and introduces him to me. Turns out they’re old friends.
I ask Archuleta how he felt his first stand-up experience went.
“I am happy. I made some people laugh,” he answers.
Archuleta says he loves making people laugh because of his father, whom he calls “hilarious” and “his inspiration.”
Price and Jurado finish talking, and Price ambles over to Archuleta and me just as I ask “Spartagus” why he decided to try stand-up.
“Why?” he asks and smiles. “Pussy.”
After I finish my conversation with Archuleta, Price turns to me.
“Isn’t that funny?” Price says. “All the people who were honest with you said they do it for sex.”
Yeah, Mike. Funny indeed.