Arts

So this is what it’s like to make people laugh

Jon Mael at the Riot Theatre in September.
Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
Jon Mael at the Riot Theatre in September.

Normally at 8:57 on a Thursday night, I’d be getting ready for bed. My job as a school teacher doesn’t allow for a lot of late nights. But here I was instead, nestled among a crowd of young professionals and flannel-clad hipsters at a Jamaica Plain comedy club, wiping sweat from my brow and waiting to take the stage for my stand-up debut. I was feeling nervous, but weirdly at home too. Was I really as funny as I thought I was? Would I die onstage? Was that girl in the third row looking at me? Was that a stain on my shoe? (It was.)

From the time I was young, I’ve loved performing, though I’m not particularly good at it. That didn’t stop me from giving a memorable rendition of Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” at my eighth-grade talent show, or gaining the role of Antonio in “Twelfth Night” in high school, only to lose it to my understudy. All of my friends are legitimately gifted performers — in music, theater, dance. I’ve spent years going to their shows and envying the applause and accolades they receive and the camaraderie they share with fellow performers. In short, I’ve always wanted to get in on the action in a real performance in front of a captive audience with real stakes, and a comedy open mic night seemed the perfect way to do it.

I consider myself to be funny, and I’ve been told the same by plenty of people — mostly my grandparents’ friends, but that still counts. But whenever someone suggested that I give stand-up a shot, I brushed them off.

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As a school teacher, I have no issue with public speaking, and I often get laughs from my students. Last year, my class was shut down for five minutes when someone asked if I was an avid birdwatcher and I replied, “I wouldn’t say I’m an avid birdwatcher, but if a bird comes into my area I’m going to watch it.” Obviously, you’re probably going to get bigger laughs from 17-year-olds hoping for an A on their next essay than you might at your typical chuckle hut, but that moment helped me turn a corner; I started to think that maybe I could pull off a live performance.

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Open mics are the proving ground for comedians. It’s where young rookies get comfortable performing for a crowd and seasoned comics try out new material. In Boston, dozens and dozens of people take the stage every week at venues all over the city looking for the rush that an entertained and grateful crowd can bring.

Jeff Medoff, a Jamaica Plain comic I met recently, is one of them. He performs at up to seven open mics each week. “There’s never a time where I’d rather go home and watch Netflix or something,” he says. “Even when I’m in a bad mood there’s no place I’d rather be.”

For my debut, I picked Jamaica Plain’s Riot Theater because it doesn’t serve alcohol and it’s strictly about comedy. Its “Stand Up Break In” open mic happens on the last Thursday of each month, and rookies are invited to fill some “break-in” slots alongside experienced comics. I put my name on the list for the next one.

With the show rapidly approaching, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, so I reached out to David Thomas and Danielle Andruskiwec — two experienced comics who host the open mic — for some much-needed advice. “I think what’s most important in doing stand-up for the first time is delivering your material with confidence and talking about something you want to talk about,” Thomas told me. “I go with the approach of getting the crowd on my side and hopefully ‘liking’ me early.” Both hosts stressed that if a crowd knows it’s a comedian’s first time, they’ll be receptive — and more forgiving.

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They’ve seen debuts that range from the triumphant to the borderline illegal. “Sometimes new comics try to start off with aggressive or shocking material and they’re just screwed,” Andruskiwec told me.

But the hosts assured me that the Riot was a “warm room,” and if I was relatable and authentic, I would get laughs. When I asked them what I should wear, Thomas suggested a flannel shirt and jeans since I was “a white guy with a beard.” I followed his advice.

With that, I started writing material. Thomas said many rookie comedians initially lean on some combination of online dating, drug use, or pornography for their topics. Sadly (or not), I’m not well-versed in those things.

I settled on telling stories. I focused on teaching and some cringe-worthy tales from my tumultuous teenage years. I had no idea whether I should write the bits out and memorize them or if I should have outlines in my head, recite the stories from memory, and give myself space to ad-lib. I chose the latter approach. I didn’t really feel a need to rehearse the stories or try them out on anyone because I had told them so many times at dinner parties, family gatherings, or awkward run-ins with former high school classmates.

I prepared a joke about teaching Greek mythology to my sixth-graders; they laugh at anything I say, so you can imagine how they reacted to the story of Gaea and Uranus. I thought that would kill (it does have the word “Uranus” in it, after all). I also planned on telling a story about how my mom once confronted a McDonald’s manager about a messed-up order by saying “there’s been a McStake.” I figured that bit would get me at least four dates.

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The night of my show, I was feeling some nerves and wondering whether I should have memorized my bits after all. I arrived shortly before showtime and managed to walk right by the Riot Theater — it looks like a convenience store from the outside, with no marquee or box office. If this was a comedy video game, I’d be on level one. Inside, a crowd of approximately 25 sat in folding chairs in front of a small stage with a black backdrop.

I prepared a joke about teaching Greek mythology to my sixth-graders; they laugh at anything I say, so you can imagine how they reacted to the story of Gaea and Uranus. I thought that would kill (it does have the word ‘Uranus’ in it, after all).

Thomas and Andruskiwec started the show by sharing the only strict rule — after four minutes, they’d shine a flashlight indicating you had one minute to go. Five minutes and you needed to be done.

I would be the fourth comic of the night. The first was a twentysomething who told a story about being from a mixed-race family and how he used it to pick up women. The third guy went on an expletive-laced tirade about having chips in tuna sandwiches and then segued into an odd bit about admitting immigrants based on how they eat Munchkins. I watched them intently, a bit disheartened because their styles differed so drastically from my own. I never would’ve had the guts to throw out 50 swear words in a five-minute span.

Then Andruskiwec introduced me, and I was off. I started by explaining to the audience that I would be writing a story about my stand-up debut for the newspaper and lamenting how hard comedy is. Then I launched into a story about the off-the-wall questions my students asked me when they learned I was Jewish, which garnered big laughs I hadn’t expected. It was a raucous start and I was feeling great, so much so that I almost forgot to tell the story about Gaea and Uranus. I kind of wish I had forgotten it because the joke drew only a smattering of giggles. I figured the audience was just being nice, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I pressed forward.

Next came a bit about the first time I saw marijuana (and ran away frightened). It didn’t get any laughs. I could feel sweat starting to form on my forehead and face but I played it cool, promising the audience that it would all be over in a minute, which got me back on track. As I prepared to launch into the finale, the story about my mom at McDonald’s. all of a sudden I saw the dreaded glow of the iPhone flashlight and realized I wouldn’t have enough time to tell it. A minute later, I left the stage to healthy applause, and I felt great, but I think part of my euphoria was knowing it was over.

After my outing, I stuck around and watched other comics. Medoff excelled with a bit about having a transgender ex. But a comic who received loud groans and awkward silence for a distasteful joke about Harriet Tubman had me thinking, “I’m so glad that isn’t me.”

But that’s what’s great about open mic nights — if something doesn’t work, it’s better to find out in front of a warm crowd of 25 than an expectant one of 500.

Having a crowd laugh at my jokes felt rewarding; it made the preparation, spot booking, and forehead sweat all worth it. While I’d never compare myself to the brave comics who are trying to carve out their niche in a tough and crowded industry, I did cherish the opportunity to experience what they must feel, if only for five minutes. I know I’ll never look at a comedian the same way again.

Jon Mael can be reached at jmael2014@gmail.com