Mike Lebovitz is fantastic Chicago based stand-up and a Bentzen Ball alum. He’s also a member of the Comedians You Should Know collective. -ed.
Stand-up is a scary business. It’s a fear-based medium, actually. The first time you say jokes at a live microphone is more terrifying than any dream you ever wet the bed over. And that fear never really goes away. In time we learn to control it, overcome it, harness it even, but it’s always there, lurking in the shadows. The fear of not getting a laugh might seem small or even petty, but to someone who calls himself a comedian it represents nothing short of total annihilation. If I can’t get a laugh, then I am no comedian. In which case I am nothing at all. That’s where the phenomenon of “laugh ears” comes from–a condition that causes bad open mic “comedians” to persist in gigging for years after they should have hung up their Moleskine. The comic is so deeply in denial, the silence after their punchlines is so painful, that their brain will actually hear laughter where there is none. It sounds crazy but in a sense, every time we tell a joke we are fighting for our very survival. That’s why it’s called dying when you don’t get a laugh and killing when you do. It’s very stressful. But it’s a productive fear, a useful one. It’s what keeps us hunched over our laptops and pacing around the hotel room muttering to ourselves. The fear is what keeps a notebook in our back pocket and a pencil behind our ear. It’s the reason so many coffee shops are in the black. It keeps us sharp, honest. Without it, none of us would be any good.
See, here’s a little secret: I am not actually “funny.” It’s all tricks. That’s why they call it an “act.” A lot of people think of comedians as neurotics. But we’re not. We’re perpetually petrified, but it’s not irrational. We spend our days–quite reasonably–in a state of near-panic that some person or sequence of events will expose us for what we are. To this day, when I get off stage after a well-received performance I sigh and think to myself, fooled ‘em again… But when you first start out, you can’t even fool ‘em. So you have some real dogshit shows.
So… when I set out to write up my Nightmare Gig, I had a lot of candidates to choose from. I did my first set almost by accident seven-and-half years ago and have performed in some capacity nearly every day since. I’ve done shows at bowling alleys, art fairs, rooftop patios, gyros shops, french restaurants, community rec centers, house parties, and one time at an airport bar. I’ve performed between bands, in a sports bar during the World Series with the all TV’s on and at a public park at noon to an audience of squirrels and dogs. One time someone I respect invited me to do a private show for all his rich friends at their country club. I tanked so hard, I can’t imagine he still golfs there. Suffice it to say, the field of possible Worst Shows I’ve Ever Done is competitive.
One that jumps to mind is the biker bar in Joliet, Illinois where the patrons reminded me loudly, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that I “suck.” They were also kind enough to clear up any lingering questions about my sexual orientation. Even more soul-crushing was the biker bar in Berwyn, Illinois where the audience were attentive, smiling, rooting for me even. They wanted to laugh, but my “comedy” wouldn’t let them, so they just sat there in polite silence for twenty minutes until the headliner came to the stage and got them rolling instantly. And of course, I have to give at least an honorable mention to the biker bar in Rockford, Illinois (are we noticing a pattern, setting-wise?) where I called a woman in the front row a cunt too many times, and her 350 lb boyfriend rushed the stage. I’m not sure what the right number of times to call someone a cunt is, but I definitely overshot the mark…
But as bad as all of these gigs were–and they were all really bad–none of them is truly my Nightmare Gig. The settings sucked, sure; but so did I. That’s not a nightmare, it’s reality laid bare. A painful reality, but not a new and terrifying one. And they don’t portend anything ominous about the future, the way nightmares sometimes do. They just allowed some light to shine on some unpleasant truths that down deep, I already know. If these were “nightmares,” afterwards I would have just said, “thank god that’s over,” shaken them off, and moved on. But when you accept these experiences as reality, you have to process them, learn from them, and then incorporate those lessons into your approach to comedy. So really, all these experiences have been beneficial; I’ve learned from them and am a better comedian for it.
My true Nightmare Gig is something far more ordinary, as mundane as it is odious. And it happens all the time. That is to say, my Nightmare Gig is a recurring one. The most recent time I had it was just a couple weeks ago on New Year’s Eve. Initially, my New Year’s plan was to do a show at the Laugh Factory in Chicago, ring in the New Year with my friends there and then go home and be with my wife and boys. To spend the Holiday with loved ones, and to do a really fun show. But I got a late offer to do a show in a small town in Minnesota for a bunch of money. I went for the money.
I drove to the gig, not knowing what to expect. It was a long, very boring drive, so I called a buddy of mine to kill some time. We chatted for a bit (you know how girls do…), and eventually it came out he had performed at the spot I was headed to. When I asked him how it was, he said, “yeah, I don’t know what everyone is talking about, when I did the show it was… fine.” High praise, I thought. I wonder if my experience will be like my buddy’s or more like “everybody’s”? When I arrived and saw the bar was a honky-tonk, I smiled. At least it’s not a biker bar, I thought.
The show was… fine. The crowd were good-natured and attentive. They were into some of it, not all of it. There were no major interruptions or awkward moments. I did an hour and got off stage. They applauded. I went to the bar and collected my money. The waitress complimented me and bought me a drink. I leaned against the bar for a while and watched people dancing to the band that followed me. Then I mingled a bit. I talked shit with the bouncer. Midnight rolled around and I counted down with everyone. Then I drove to my hotel and went to bed. In the morning, I fired up the car and started the long drive back home. That’s it.
That’s the Nightmare Gig: nothing remarkable. That’s what really scares me. My greatest fear is not that I will fail spectacularly; there’s something beautiful about a fiery explosion. I don’t worry that people will hate me, I worry that people will politely tolerate me. And I worry that I’ll be fifty and tired, with an aching back and a delinquent mortgage and I’ll have to drive eight hours to open for a country western band to just pay my bills. We all want to be professionals but none of us wants to feel like we’re punching a clock up there. I don’t mind all the shit shows, but I do need to feel like they mean something. Because if they don’t, what the fuck are we doing? All the dogshit–the drunk hecklers, your parents worried looks– it’s only worth it if we’re doing something special. If we are really reaching deep into ourselves to bring joy and laughter into people’s lives. If we are making a real connection with strangers so we can all forget about the problems in the world and our lives for ninety minutes. That’s why we were drawn to this. To do something remarkable. So anytime I do a show that’s… fine, that’s my Nightmare Gig.
Nobody gets into stand-up for the money, but some people lose sight of that along the way. Maybe they want to get out, but the hole in their resume is so deep and so wide that they feel trapped. Either they have have lost that fear of not getting a laugh or it has finally beaten them down. Whatever the reason, they don’t have the panic-born, quasi-neurotic compulsion to hone the act, to improve and develop and evolve it. These people are perfectly content to tell their Robert Blake jokes or go through the motions of their Monica Lewinsky routine and then collect their check. Could that happen to me? That’s what I’m really I’m afraid of; that one day, I’ll no longer be afraid. That over time, stand-up will be just a business. That’s scary.