SOMERVILLE — On a Tuesday night in March, club owner Rick Jenkins is at his usual table at the back of Union Square’s Comedy Studio at 7 p.m., a small light illuminating his open notebook.For the next four hours or so, he will watch more than 50 comedians do roughly three minutes of stand-up each. Barring bathroom breaks or a quick discussion with a comedian, Jenkins will stay at that table for the evening and take notes on every comic. This is the night the club affectionately refers to as “Comedy Hell.”
That evening’s host, James Huessy, doesn’t even take the stage. To save time, he sits at a table stage left and announces who’s next. Most of the comedians are just starting out, trying to find a voice. Others have been around for a few years and are trying out new stuff. Some performers will find a calling, some will do it once and never come back.
After the first couple of hours, it’s fair to wonder who this is for. “Comedy fans,” Jenkins will say later. “People who are into the process and like seeing the development.”
The learning process is laid bare for those paying attention. Comics get a yellow light from the soundboard at two minutes, and a red light at three when they are supposed to wrap it up. Many take a few seconds before they address the audience, which seems like an eternity in a three-minute set. The majority start with some variation of “Hi, how are you doing?” It’s time wasted that could have been spent grabbing the audience with a joke. Some blank on their material and struggle to get to the yellow light.
Others, like Colleen Riley, establish who they are immediately. Her approach stands out. She tells the crowd she is the mother of four children. “I don’t want my husband to die,” she says. “He has really bad life insurance.”
At the end of one recent Tuesday night, a man wearing a hat that reads “dood” gets up second to last, takes a minute to set up his phone to livestream his set, and starts to tell a raunchy joke that sounds like something out of a cheesy book. He keeps going past the red light, and then gets all the way to the line before the punch line before he notices the stage lights have also changed to red. He leaves without finishing the one joke he came to tell.
“He told . . . a joke you would hear on the street,” said Huessy. “And it’s like, all right, if he’s serious about this, he’ll learn. If he’s not, well, we all got to see that for three minutes.”
Sitting in the Variety Lounge out front after the show, Jenkins says he doesn’t see too many total flame-outs anymore. “Nowadays people have more of an idea of what stand-up comedy is, so you don’t see as many novelty acts,” he says. “You don’t see as many people working out ‘issues.’ ”
The slogan for “Comedy Hell” is taken from an open mic George MacDonald started at Stitches (now the front room at the Paradise Rock Club) in 1985. “Where the show business pipe-dreams of a handful of road-happy comedy bozos can soar as high as the bright lights of Broadway, or crash and burn in that bottomless chasm of despair known simply as ‘Comedy Hell.’ ”
But it isn’t meant to be a freak show. It’s meant to be the comedy equivalent of going to the gym, a means to get stronger. Unlike many open mics, this one has a paying audience, albeit with a cheap $5 cover. It’s a chance to play an actual comedy club, even if you’re not a professional yet. “When you’re starting out, your big job is to get the audience’s attention,” says Jenkins. “That next step is: What am I going to do with the attention now that I have it? Our room gives them the attention from the start.”
Usually a few comics each night will ask Jenkins about his notes. He’ll get as specific as whether someone’s Michael Jackson reference felt dated, but he keeps the focus broad. “I keep the notes very general and technical,” he says. “Mostly it’s, ‘you seemed not comfortable with this’ or ‘that joke seemed to not fit your persona.’ Very technical, conventional wisdom stuff. Because again, it’s up to the artist to decide, well, that’s what I wanted.”
Doing well consistently might lead to a spot on a showcase show at the Comedy Studio. Jenkins will sometimes refer to his open mic notes when booking comics. Putting in time and making a noticeable improvement are key, says Studio general manager Sasha Go. “If you come into a comedy club, any comedy club, and you put on a mediocre performance, why would they want to book you again?” she says. Bookers just want to put up the best show they can. “They’re going to try to get the comics who have potential,” she adds.
The next week, the lineup tips the scale at 63 comedians and three hosts. The front lounge is full of comedians socializing and trying to get on the list for the first 15 spots for the next week. Tony V. and Chance Langton, pros who have been around long enough to have played Stitches, drop by to try out new stuff. Established comics get bumping rights to go on earlier, but they still have to keep to the time limit.
For Tony V., this feels strange. “I haven’t done three minutes for any reason in forever,” he says after his set. “Usually when I’m headlining a show at a club or something, I’m not even out of first gear in three minutes. I’ve just set up who I am and what I want the people to think. Here, you gotta get to the joke.”
Sam Ike, who cohosts “CitySide Comedy” in Brighton, says three minutes is just about enough time to speak a couple of thoughts out loud. “I’m probably trying to work out two jokes that I thought of this morning or last week and I need to hear what it sounds like,” he says. “I need to hear what it sounds like in front of people. It’s different than me writing it down and saying it in a mirror. I just need to be in a live room.”
Everyone comes to the open mic with a different experience, and different reasons for doing comedy. Welder and Arkansas transplant Mason Smith, 28, talks about how he suffers from being chronically grumpy. His wife has a less print-friendly word for it. He has only been doing stand-up since October, but he’d like to make it his full-time job eventually. “From what I can tell, it’s like a minimum of 10 years before something really happens. So I’m in no hurry or anything. Just really trying to get better.”
Katlin McFee, 25, has already made an impression at the Studio in the six months since she moved from Indianapolis. She’s been doing comedy for just three years and was on a recent audition for Comedy Central at the club. She had prepared material, but wound up ditching it to improvise, joking how Tinder is getting so competitive it’s starting to feel like LinkedIn. “They were laughing at a riff I did so I just kept talking about that,” she says. “I do that a lot at open mics, because some of my better stuff will come from things that I say just off the top of my head.”
Julia Corsetti, 27, took a job as the lead bartender in the lounge in part so she could restart her comedy career, which she had paused for a couple of years after college. If her set doesn’t go well, it can be tough to face customers at the bar afterward, but it’s worth it when it works. “When there’s laughter, it just makes you feel warm and like you’re doing well,” she says. “It’s like the highest high I’ve ever had when it’s going well.”
Miguel Perez, 31, started comedy as a birthday present to himself six years ago, and was hooked despite his lack of success. “I said, ‘That was the worst experience ever. I can’t believe I did this. And I can’t wait to go back again next week.’ I did. I went back the week after that and the week after that and the week after that.”
Toward the end of the night, there are only two people left in the audience. They get up to leave, notice they are the only ones left, and decide to stick it out to support the remaining comedians. Sylvia Romy, 37, and David Nagy, 35, had been to the Studio on a Friday night, and their tickets from that show got them into this show. “I’ve been going to comedy clubs for years and I never saw that format,” Romy says.
The verdict after seeing 63 comics in one night? They would sit through “Comedy Hell” again. “I think that there’s a lot of good potential,” says Romy. “Some of the guys you can tell are more experienced than others. Some of them really have it in them, they just need to get that confidence. Everyone’s at a different stage.”
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.