By Kolbe Nelson
Ever since I was little, I’ve been infatuated with the art of comedy. I absorbed everything from reruns of Saturday Night Live on Comedy Central to the infomercials for the Best of Johnny Carson. When I was in 6th grade I used the money I earned from detasseling corn (I REALLY AM A SOUTH DAKOTA BOY!) to buy an old 19” TV and a VCR. I used those tools nightly to record episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien and I would review the shows over and over out of pure enjoyment. Unless my mom has thrown them out, you could probably still find some of those old tapes in my closet back home in Alcester.
It may shock many of you, given the information provided in that last paragraph, but right up through high school, most of my friends were not hot girls. That was ok, though. I managed to convince myself that love and sex would be too big a distraction from my duties as a spot-starter on the JV basketball team.
I did standup comedy one time in junior high. It was at a talent show on the final night of an FCA golf camp I was attending in Sioux Falls with some friends. My act didn’t consist of too much substance, I basically made fun of a buddy of mine who lived down the street from me and a counselor at the camp who I thought looked like NFL head coach Jeff Fisher. Somehow, being an asshole and insulting people really made my peers laugh and I won the talent show. My prize was a bag of Doritos. I felt like king for a day.
Despite that background, I never really trusted myself to get up in front of a group of people with the sole purpose of trying to make them laugh. The mere thought of it made my stomach turn. So that one night in junior high remained the only time I’d ever actually tried standup. Then I moved out to New York.
For those who don’t know, an open mic night is basically karaoke at a bar. The difference is, instead of people wandering up to a stage to drunkenly belt out their favorite track from Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, people wander up to a stage to drunkenly tell jokes. For me, the idea of trying an open mic night came while watching an episode of Louie, where the star of the show, Louis C.K., winds up at a comedy club that’s hosting an open mic. After listening to the performers I immediately thought to myself, “I could do this and be ten times better than those guys.” So I got to work writing some material.
By the way, it should be noted that when I’m sitting on my couch, snarfing down ice cream, almost anything seems possible to me. I usually come back to reality though when I look down and realize I have nine ice cream stains on my shirt… Let’s move on….
I wrote some stuff and messaged it over Facebook to a few friends. They gave me some feedback and told me to go for it. That’s how I wound up onstage in Greenwich Village telling strangers about the trials and tribulations I went through the night I lost my virginity. The audience found quite a bit of humor in my ordeal and I had the place laughing pretty hard. It was a rush. When my five minutes were up, I left feeling very satisfied. The emcee for the evening added me on Facebook the next day, telling me he thought I did a great job considering it was my first time doing standup in that kind of environment and that I should stick with it. So I kept writing material.
I tried to go back to the same open mic with new pieces of comedy a few weeks later. Unfortunately, I found the bar had been rented out for a private party. I tried again the next week and got the same result. In the interim I attempted going to a few other places to try out my stuff, but didn’t have much luck since their shows were during the week and I wasn’t getting out of work in time to get a spot in the lineup. My last chance to make it happen for quite a while would come the weekend before Christmas back at the original bar where I had done my first open mic. I got in touch with the emcee to confirm the show was still happening and I was on my way.
I knew this night would be a rough one the second I got off the ‘1’ train at Christopher Street. My stomach was starting to squirm, but not because of nervousness. No, this was much worse than nervousness. This was a bowel movement, one of those extreme ones that’s usually only brought on by stomach flu or a real greasy burrito. I scurried toward the bar, not knowing what to do. I was running late, but this was an unstoppable force running through my intestine. I needed to find a bathroom fast. I looked up and saw an ice cream shop. Peering through the window I saw a sign that said ‘Restroom For Customers Only.’
“Fuck the rules, this is an emergency,” I muttered to myself as I speed waddled through the doors and straight to the back of the establishment. I cannot describe the relief that washed over me as I found the bathroom unlocked.
The funny thing about a moment like that is how your mind races through the events of your day trying to figure out exactly what food you ate to put yourself in that situation. It’s human nature to find something to blame. I knew my culprit almost immediately: a spicy hot dog from a street vendor that I had for lunch. Those bastards get me every time.
After I unloaded I walked out to find the most gorgeous girl ever waiting to use the bathroom after me because of course she was. I didn’t see any Febreze that I could spray to soften the blow for her so I politely said I was sorry and shamefully walked to the counter and ordered a bottle of water, thus fulfilling my duty as a ‘customer’ who used the bathroom.
I finally made it to the bar and got signed up for my spot. I would be the second to last person to go that night. The cool thing about the open mic night at this bar is that, for the most part, the lineup consists of halfway decent comedians who are trying new material out. You pay $5 for five minutes of stage time and because of that, you get a pretty respectful audience and a safe environment for a new guy like me who’s trying to figure out how to be funny. That being said, they’re not going to give you easy laughs, which I was about to find out the hard way.
As my turn drew near I went over my material in my head, but as the emcee went up to introduce me he dropped a bombshell, “Hey Kolbe and Jess, you two are the only ones left, but we’re over on time and there’s some people who need this room. So I’m gonna give you your money back and you can have two minutes on stage. Ready? Go.”
Son of a bitch.
I ran up onstage, now completely flustered by what was happening, and started to fly through my material, butchering the delivery.
“Hey, what if your dad was trying to spice things up and he tried to send a sext message to your mom, but accidentally sent it to you?”
One guy laughed. Just one fucking guy! And he stopped laughing when he realized nobody else was laughing and he was going against the grain! I started to sweat and my hands started to shake.
“I mean on one hand, you’re happy that your mom and dad are keeping things fresh and still have love for each other, but on the other hand, you have a very inappropriate picture of your father burned into your brain forever.”
No response. The silence was deafening. I heard someone cough. Oh dear God there is nothing worse than hearing silence pierced by one guy with allergies clearing his stupid throat.
“Hey, do you guys think it was scary for the first cave-people to have sex? I mean, think about it, there’s no sex education, no porn. Really the only example they had to go off of is what they might have seen dinosaurs doing in the woods.”
Still no laughs. I looked like a moron, I sounded like a moron. My brain started to scream at me inside my head: HOLY LORD KOLBS MOVE ON TO SOMETHING ELSE!
“Hey if you were an airline pilot would you mess with people? I mean you could just tell passengers you guys almost crashed, but you saved the day and they wouldn’t know any better.”
The kiss of death: airline jokes. I might as well have thrown a ‘what’s the deal with that’ in for good measure. I unceremoniously wrapped up the set by muttering, “Alright, I’m done,” into the microphone and walked off stage to a smattering of claps. Slowly, I slinked out of the bar with my ego in tow, bruised to what seemed to be immeasurable levels.
Feeling lousy, I texted a couple of friends as I walked up Bleecker Street, seeing if anybody felt like getting drunk. There was no dice on that front though, everyone was either out of town or had early flights in the morning. I called up a girl I know in Queens to see if she wanted to hang out. After all, if there’s one thing that can make a guy who’s feeling sorry for himself just a tiny bit happier, it’s the company of a cute chick. Alas, she had already made plans with a friend from out of town and took a rain check. It just wasn’t my night. So I started to make the lonely trek back home from Manhattan, defeated.
I heard a lot about it when I first moved out here, the ability this town has to knock you on your ass and kick you in the teeth. A certain TV show set in the city even proclaims you’re not a true New Yorker until you’ve cried on the subway and not cared what anyone around you thought. While these statements have a strong amount of validity to them, they leave out one very important aspect: the city’s ability to pick you back up and brush you off.
As I stepped onto the uptown platform at the Christopher Street station that night I heard something beautiful. It was a man playing ‘O’ Little Town of Bethlehem’ on an old, beat-up violin. Huddled around him were a few people who, for a moment, had put their $250 iPods away and forgotten about the ‘1’ train they were trying to catch. I walked up, put a buck and some change in his case and took my spot in with the rest of the crowd, enjoying the sweet sounds that echoed off the subway walls. He played the final notes of the song just as the train came barreling into the station, we gave him a small ovation and he smiled and bowed for us as if he was playing Carnegie Hall. It was perfect.
You won’t get any better if you never screw up. And the small concert I witnessed on the subway platform lifted my spirits enough for me to remember that. I’m going to keep writing jokes, using that knowledge of comedy I gained from all those times I watched Letterman or SNL. And I know I’ll more than likely suck again before I ever get better, if I ever get better. It will all be worth it, though, if I can experience that thrill one more time, and have a room full of people laughing for me.
About the author: Kolbe Nelson is a South Dakota boy but New York City man. He’s written previously about his move to the big city and as a comedian he is available for bar mitzvahs, family reunions and high school sports banquets.