Chasing the laugh
Sacramento’s open-mic comedy scene draws the good, the bad and the just plain weird
Latin America is bombing.
No, that’s not a reference to our neighboring country to the south and some unreported military campaign. It is, instead, a rather apt description of how an amateur comedian with an unusual stage name is faring inside a sparsely populated Folsom bar on a particularly tricky All Hallows’ Eve.
But I’m botching the setup.
Every Monday night, come rain or shine, a rotating cast of aspiring stand-up comedians descends on Po’ Boyz Bar & Grill in Folsom to hone their craft in often soul-deadening conditions. The patrons range from indifferent to absent, leaving the comics in attendance, from working stand-ups to what-the-hell first-timers, to stare into the spotlight abyss saying funny things to a dwindling audience.
As far as tough rooms go, this one’s Margaret Thatcher.
“It’s strictly a workout room,” says Cheryl Anderson, a Folsom comic who hosts the Monday night open-mic sessions here. “[It’s] just for new comics to practice over and over and over again.”
Determination in the face of impossible odds—and a good amount of stone-faced apathy—is what sets the serious comedy acolytes apart from the smart aleck tourists, and Sacramento’s open-mic comedy scene is where one can watch them try, fail and try again.
There were no other Monday night comedy rooms in Sacramento when Anderson started the weekly Po’ Boyz event a few years ago. These days, industrious comics squeeze in practice sessions here and then flit over to the Boxing Donkey in Roseville. Laughs Unlimited is first-come, first-serve the first Tuesday of the month, the T2 Nightclub & Lounge in Arden-Arcade offers one on Wednesdays, and there’s an undiscriminating open-mic at the Coffee Garden, every Thursday in Curtis Park.
“It’s about honing your skills,” says Willie Mac, a Folsom comic whose girlfriend Stana records every set. “It forces you to write.”
The unpredictable conditions—in Po’ Boyz on this night, one female patron flirts a bit too loudly with the bartender as the rest of the not-so-captive audience leaves to smoke—force aspiring jokesters to develop mattress-thick skins as they test new material and refine their personas, Anderson explains.
Not all of the comics enjoy it.
“This is like doing magic in front of magicians. This is bullshit,” cracks Sean P., a gigging local comedian who spends the bulk of his stage time practicing crowd work, which mostly consists of teasing the woman, who calls herself Latin America, about the mannequin buckled into the passenger seat of her pale yellow Volkswagen bus parked outside.
“If you live in Japan, it’s quite normal,” the artist currently known as a geographic region suggests.
“I want to know which way you’re going home so I can go the opposite direction,” Sean P. says to chuckles from his fellow comedians.
“Go East, young man,” she tells him. “Go East.”
Zen and the art of bombing
The stand-up comedy profession is strange enough to begin with, and the Sacramento scene definitely has its peculiarities among the local indigenous fauna. It’s an alternately supportive and Darwinian world, say comedians, with a growing number of performers vying for a static amount of stage time and microphones.
“It’s made some people real ugly,” says comic Shane Murphy, who says he takes a Zen approach to moderating open-mic sessions at Laughs Unlimited in Old Sacramento, giving different comics a chance to perform hosting duties each month.
“We’re all brothers on the same road. You know, I try to be Buddhist about it—help a man up instead of keeping him down.”
In that vein, Murphy is sympathetic to the few disgruntled comedians who approach him outside after the show, complaining that they didn’t get a slot.
With a smoldering cigarette between his teeth, Murphy squints and punches buttons on a small black cellphone, telling the comics to return in a couple weeks for a Tuesday night showcase, an invitation-only affair that rewards (and pays) those who bring their own audience to the open-mic.
It’s a constant hustle, and some respond better than others.
“I’m tired of doing this shit for free,” comic DJ Sandu groans to a sympathetic assembly outside Laughs following one of the night’s better sets.
According to Murphy, the natural order dictates that a comedian must get some open-mic hosting time under his or her belt before booking a feature gig at a venue such as the Punchline or Laughs Unlimited. He tries to spread the wealth, but others grumble of the “politics” involved in getting picked for such a career-boosting, if thankless, gig.
Earlier this month, Murphy turned over hosting duties to Hannah Hossford, a Lodi comedian who has a tough go maintaining a consistent tempo and keeping comics from going past their time. This is just yet another way to build resentment in this kvetchy profession, Anderson says.
Speaking of Anderson, the comic kills during her Laughs set with the persona she’s honed over the past five years—a Midwestern soccer mom who’s both sweetly naive and capable of saying some very raunchy things about men’s penises. Her set includes the first joke she ever wrote.
“It’s my closer now, because I do a whole series of dick jokes,” Anderson says of the bit. “It’s kind of my bread and butter now.”
The crowd eats it up, and it’s a marked difference from the church-mouse quiet at Po’ Boyz the night before.
Anderson stumbled into the profession five years ago when she attended a comedy class she thought would help with her blog writing. As soon as she made her instructor laugh, Anderson was addicted. Before her first performance—during a now-defunct open-mic session at a hotel in north Sacramento—she told her family she was going to Target because she was too embarrassed to admit the truth. Now, Anderson says, she’s been “chasing the laugh” ever since.
The night before, Anderson adeptly played the very different role of host. Throughout the evening, she playfully cajoled bar patrons to stick around and teased fellow comics between sets, saying of a young Fairfield comic who just finished a polarizing, sharp set about abortions and obesity: “Chris Turley, making fans of all the ladies in the room.”
“She’s a comic’s comic,” says Steven Bloom, who runs the website www.americascomedy.com. “She’s like a mom to everyone.”
The tone she sets informs the rest of the room, which is largely devoid of testy competition. Most of the comics who take the mic in front of a brickwork facade on this night are regulars. They’re intimately acquainted with the spirit-sapping effects of performing in near silence, so they compensate by demonstratively reacting to each other’s sets.
A lot of the best lines, however, get no reaction from the club’s small audience.
For Diego Curiel, who adds to his effete stage presence by wearing a scarlet smoking jacket with a zebra-print trim, a clever bit about vegetable pedophilia gets a so-so reaction while an obvious Precious analogy prompts a loud cackle. An incisive ad-lib—“I’m sorry, I’m in Folsom. No one got that Precious joke”—is met with silence.
Latin America attempts a bit revolving around homeless survival tips, pulling a pair of women’s underwear from her pocket at one point to demonstrate how it can be repurposed as a brassiere.
“Dear God,” someone mutters.
The Latin America persona is a relatively new creation, she says, conceived to be the “Martha Stewart of the homeless.”
But the name?
“What’s it spell backwards?” she asks coyly.
I look at my pinched cursive and draw a blank.
“‘A criminal,’” she answers.
No, it doesn’t.
“It’s an anagram.”
No, it isn’t.
“Because that’s how we treat our homeless,” she says by way of conclusion.
OK, she may have a point there.
The reasons people go into comedy may be unique, but they’re almost uniformly unfunny.
There are comedians such as Murphy and Mac, both of whom stumbled into the profession after reeling from their own personal tragedies. Mac, a Folsom comic recognizable by his cowboy hat and penchant for middle-aged sex jokes, got up on stage at Laughs Unlimited four years ago to avoid dealing with a crumbling marriage.
“I didn’t want to go home,” Mac reveals.
For Murphy, it was the loss of his son to cancer seven years ago that first made him consider telling a joke to a roomful of strangers. Entombed in a deep, black depression, someone suggested that the public-speaking averse Murphy give stand-up a try. Moments before he took his first stage, Murphy says he barfed in Laughs’ grungy bathroom “like Eminem in 8 Mile.”
He has since opened for Robin Williams and toured across the country.
“The best comics turn their pain into comedy,” he says, citing Richard Pryor as a chief example. “Comedy is rebelling against tragedy.”
Which is fitting since starting out in the comedy game can sometimes play like a farcical tragedy. A number of first-timers try to mine humor from fresh-wound unemployment tales, getting nothing back but uncomfortable silence. Still others take the stage without writing an act, mistaking the tossed-off approach of their favorite comedians as a lack of preparation.
“A lot of it is poise and presence, and the fact that they actually take the time to write material,” says Bloom.
“Good comedians make it look very, very easy,” he says. “Comedy and comedy writing is an art in that you have to take someone who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your background, doesn’t know anything about you and [make a connection for them].”
And then there are aspiring stand-ups such as Troy Nelson, a stringy 17-year-old in loose clothes and a backwards ball cap swallowing his head. He’s a hormonal, punky whirlwind on the Laughs Unlimited stage and does what most young comics do: takes a derivative subject such as horror-movie survival tips and puts his own spin on it.
Tonight is only his second time in front of an audience.
“My name’s Troy Nelson. I’m on Facebook. I don’t want to go to college, you guys,” he says in a fit of blunt honesty.
After the show, Nelson approaches Murphy with family members in tow to see about getting on the showcase playbill. The kid is hungry. When he gets home, he posts a euphoric message to his 40-something Facebook followers: “That moment when you do something and you know right away that you want to do it for the rest of your life … yeah … that happened tonight.”
Best of luck, kid. Comedy is no joke.