I could have opened this piece by dropping you into an overly dramatic description of what it’s like to do stand up comedy.
The bar reeks of smoke. The host, slightly drunk, tells you that you’ll be going 17th. You sigh, and retire to an empty booth to wait for your five minutes of stage time. As the hours go by, you listen to comic after terrible comic. You swear you’ll walk out if you hear another mediocre Kim Davis joke. Finally, the host tells you that you’re next. You approach the stage, really just a corner of the bar with a microphone, and pull your notebook out of your back pocket. The host mispronounces your name, but the three remaining audience members don’t know that as they muster what little enthusiasm they have left. The microphone is cold and the cord is tangled around the stand. “So, how are y’all doing tonight…?”
For one thing, that’s super lame. Any good stand up knows that they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. I mean, we’re telling jokes, not curing rocket science. And second, that isn’t all that stand up is. Sure, comics have to do a lot of bad shows, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great ones along the way. I could have written that same dramatic opening like this:
The theater smells of pine. The owner, dressed sharp, tells you that you’re on in five. You sigh, taking another handful of complementary mixed nuts from the Green Room. The minutes feel like hours. You can hear the crowd roar as the first comedian finishes their set. There have to be over 300 people. Finally, the opener walks over and tells you that they’re a hot crowd, go crush ’em. You approach the stage, an actual stage, as your name goes out over the loudspeaker. The crowd erupts as you take the stage. The microphone is wireless. “How are y’all doing tonight?!”
Stand up is also hundreds of other things, like driving, waiting, and listening to podcasts while driving and waiting, but I don’t even feel qualified to talk about what else stand up is. I’ve only been doing it for three and a half years, which might sound like a lot to you, assuming you aren’t a comedian. If you are a comedian and you’re reading this, I’m sorry to tell you what you already know. If you’re Brian Regan and you’re reading this, why aren’t you writing this article instead of me? I am such a huge fan of your work. I mean…wow.
Before continuing I should say something about Brian Regan, considering he was the reason I got into comedy. If you haven’t seen or heard any of his stuff, stop reading this right now and go take in as much as you can. I promise you’ll laugh way harder than our bodies were made to. He was the first comedian I ever saw live.
I was in sixth grade and his show was on the same night as my first ever middle school dance. To give you an idea of how great this show was, I slow danced with a girl for the first time and it wasn’t even the highlight of the evening. We drove downtown and met my two uncles and grandfather in a Wendy’s parking lot because it was really close to the venue and their parking was free. The theater was old and musty, but I remember it having a certain air of “I may not look like much, but magic has happened here.”
We sat down in creaky red seats, perched on the balcony’s front row where we could take in the entire venue and the audience that filled it. The show was remarkable, less so because of Regan’s material, which we’ve already established is phenomenal, but more because I got to enjoy it with my older family members.
I felt like a grown up for the first time in my life. This wasn’t my dad laughing at the jokes in a Disney movie that are peppered in for the parent’s sake. No, we were laughing at the same jokes, and it felt really great. We bonded over his material, and probably reminisce about that night at least once a year. We also got to meet Brian that night. It doesn’t matter how it happened, but what does matter is that he was cool enough to take some time to take a picture with a blossoming comedy nerd like me.
Back to my story. I’m not going to wax poetic about stand up. (Is that even the correct way to use “wax poetic?” I’ve never used that before, it just seemed like the right thing to say. The fancy thing to say. I majored in English.) There are enough articles that do that. I’m just going to tell you my Athens comedy story, which is what I was asked to do.
The first time I tried stand up was April 2012 at an open mic called OpenTOAD. My friends and I had been watching shows downtown for most of our Freshman year before we finally convinced ourselves to try it. Back then, you’d be lucky to see two shows a month. Now, almost four years later, two shows in a week feels light.
I didn’t want the other comics to think I was under some delusion that the key to comedy was in the outfits you wore. All I knew was that you were supposed to wear pants. At every comedy show I’d been to in Athens so far, the comedians wore pants. Except for a few, but they weren’t very good. I wasn’t used to wearing pants and on the walk from my dorm to Flicker Bar I worked up a decent sweat. Luckily, I’d doubled down on deodorant in anticipation. If I bombed tonight, it wouldn’t be for lack of Old Spice.
When we got there I checked in with the host. I must have been visibly nervous because he asked me “Are you nervous?” I admitted that I was and he gave me what is probably the best advice I’ve received about comedy since. He said that as long as I prepared material, I’d be fine. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people get up there and try to figure it out as they go. In the few years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve tried to discipline everything by that advice. Always prepare. Whether it’s writing material, emailing comedians about getting on open mics, posting about shows on Facebook, or encouraging other comedians you meet along the way, preparation will set you apart.
The host that night was Caleb Synan. Caleb has since moved to LA to be a stand up comedian full time. He was on the most recent season of Last Comic Standing, and had his late-night debut on Conan a few weeks ago. He’s doing really great things. I run Open TOAD now, along with another super talented comic named Shaunak Godkhindi, which I guess could be called “full circle.”
As important a moment as it was, I honestly don’t remember it that well. I remember the jokes I told, getting some laughs, and that it happened. Because, honestly, that moment was just the doorway to the three and a half years of amazing moments I’ve had doing stand up. I’d done it. I’d ripped off the Band-Aid that would allow me to do more shows without the anxiety of it being my first time.
This already feels too long and I’m not even to The Good Stuff. That’s the name of the show that I co-host with Shaunak Godkhindi, the same comic I mentioned before. Another thing that I’ve learned about stand up is that there can always be more shows. Comics will never be upset to hear about a new open mic. Everyone wants as much stage time as they can get, and there’s only one way to increase the supply.
As cliché as it is to say, the Athens comedy scene is a family. When you’re seeing the same people 3-4 nights a week, every week, you’re bound to grow close. It wasn’t until Shaunak and I started hosting our show that this “family” feeling really set in. It’s like being in a circle of friends and always going to other people’s houses to hang out. You’d feel like you were friends, but until they’ve all come over to your house and seen how you live, it just isn’t complete. So that’s what hosting a show has been for me – inviting people, fellow comics and audience members alike, into my home.
But then again, that’s really all stand up is. You get up on stage and invite the audience into your life. Your interests, your ambitions, and your insecurities, all out in the open for people to laugh at with you.
I know I need to wrap things up, but I feel like I haven’t talked about the Athens comedy scene nearly enough, nor made it sound anywhere near as good as it is. It’s weird talking about my story because I honestly don’t think that it’s any more special than anyone else’s that’s highly involved in the Athens comedy scene. To go back to the family thing, no single member of the Athens comedy scene makes it great. Instead, we become something wholly unique and wonderful when we come together and share the stage over the course of a night.
Even if they don’t continue pursuing comedy, the drive and determination they’ve learned from comedy will bring them success where ever they end up. People like Caroline Schmitt, Abigail Stevenson, and Chris Silcox were the Freshman year friends who helped me try stand up for the first time. People like Lawson Chambers, Cherith Fuller, Walker Smith, Sahima Godkhindi, and Brandon Varn pushed me to work harder because they always were. Finally, Shaunak Godkhindi was my first real stand up partner who showed me the importance of collaborating and fellowshipping with someone on a one-on-one level. Each of these talented performers has a story about their experience in stand up, all of them just as important as mine.
Every comic has those people that I just described. Their “day ones,” their inspirations, and their partners. You’ll find those same people in whatever it is you do, and I’d encourage you to seek them out. I’d thought about ending this with a big call to action encouraging everyone reading this to get involved in the Athens comedy scene, but I have to remind myself that stand up isn’t for everyone.
If it is something that you want to try, please give it a shot. The Athens scene is so welcoming, and is always excited to see new people hungry to learn. But for everyone else, whether you’re going to become a hotel clerk or a botanist, I’ll say this: remember to find your family. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned from finding mine, and it’s the only way I know how to sum up my story.
Look for the people that will make you better and that you can help make better too. Look for the people that you won’t mind driving five hours to Mobile with for only fifteen minutes of stage time and a free drink. Look for the people who will make you say “This is the best thing ever,” and you’ll know that it’s because they’re there.
I feel pressure to end this on a funny note. I’d like to think I’ve kept the joking to a minimum throughout this whole thing.
Instead, I’ll end this like I end every one of my sets.
“Alright you guys, that’s it for me. Thanks so much for listening. Enjoy the rest of the show!”