I had no idea that I could ever sweat from the soles of my feet and palms! I was sweating from every pore in my body. The loud thuds from my heart were competing with the booming act-outs from the comedian as well as applause of the audience downstairs. I really should be fairly comfortable doing this. After all, I have come a long way since the 7th grade poetry recitation competition in school, where I totally bombed, and only managed to get the 1st line of the poem out, before walking off the stage in tears. Since then I have had a few years of Toastmasters experience under my belt, which definitely cured my stage fright! So, why this new anxiety?
It was the graduation show for the 6 week stand-up comedy class that I took at ACT II theater in Ambler. I thought I had done a fairly good job with writing and re-writing the material and practicing it over and over again. I had done all the exercises suggested in the “text book” by Judy Carter that was used for the class. I had even pasted cheat sheets onto the water bottle (in case I forgot my lines), as suggested in the class. But, there was something about bombing in front of an audience (especially based on my on-stage history) that was totally nerve-racking and had me pacing up and down in the green room.
Finally when it was my turn, I got on the stage and could not see any of the audience members because of the bright lights in my face. This was perfect, as I did not have to bother imagining the audience naked! There were over 60 members in that small community theater, whose stage was set for a play with performances scheduled through the week. Hence the strange looking bedroom set on stage (which I worked into my opening bits), for my debut stand-up performance. This had to be the friendliest audience that I will ever perform for, as they were all friends and family of the performers and would be giving us all the encouragement as well as pity laughs, if needed. I only had 5 members of my family there. I could not coax or bribe any more than that! The bulk of the audience was Sam’s (a fellow student in the class) friends and family and they were super generous with their laughter for all the performers. I am grateful to them for their encouragement during the show and afterwards as well. Thankfully and surprisingly, I did not forget any of my lines and the audience feedback was reassuring and calmed me down. I did not even need my cheat sheet (although with all the moisture on the bottle, the note was practically useless).
About a month later, just on a whim, I looked up stand-up comedy open mics in Lehigh Valley (where I worked). Luckily, it turned out Stout Laughs had an open mic that evening at Bethlehem Brewworks. Perfect! I stayed late at work and then showed up in time to sign up. Strangely, I did not feel nervous at all, maybe because I did not know anyone there. It was a case of, “what do I have to lose?” attitude. I did my best “5 mins” from the original debut set and was very happy with the feedback from the audience. So, just like that, I was a virgin no more (in the world of open mics)! Then in a quick succession, I did two more open mics back to back – in Northeast Philly and Lansdale, over the next two days. From then on, the open mics became part of my weekly routine. Folks at work used to wonder why I was hanging around after hours. The guy at the Vietnamese restaurant (that I’d hit before Stout Laughs) started recognizing me – “Chicken Pho, right?”. I also added a few more spots in Lansdale and Doylestown to the repertoire. I was slowly getting more and more comfortable with the mics. The comedians and the audiences were very friendly, encouraging, and receptive to my bi-weekly routine about “fish out of water” narrations covering India and immigrant experiences!
“Oh, the places you go… and the people you meet!”
The 5 min set I did at Stout Laughs on March 3rd 2020, was the last in-person open mic that I did before everything closed down due to COVID19. We all thought things would get back to normal in a matter of weeks. That was over 6 months ago! In mid April (exactly 1 year since my first stand-up performance), I tried my very first Zoom open mic. It felt great to be able to reuse my favorite bits (Indian stereotypes, Kamasutra, spelling bee, etc.) on the Philadelphia-based “Ill At Ease” open mic. By now I was between jobs and had plenty of time to feed this “mid-life crisis” hobby of mine! I found other mics – in Chicago and Omaha, which I started attending regularly. Then someone mentioned a Facebook group called “Displaced Comedians” which was created to help out just my kind of comedians who were all extremely thirsty for opportunities, networking, and resources. I joined the group and immediately fell in love with the mother-lode of compiled data about worldwide open mics at this site. Armed with this information, I went nuts -signing up for open mics throughout the world at all possible hours! I got a high out of performing in as many as 6 different open mics in one day, virtually hopping from London to Moscow to Salt Lake City etc. Sometimes I was using the same material at every mic, but fine-tuning to improve the quality and context. “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” references and specifically Yiddish ones do not work in Tokyo. Nobody outside the Philly area knows what Scrapple is… 🙂 .
I started seeing the same faces from all over the world at these different open mics. Within a short time, I was friends with a lot of them. We would give each other feedback – ‘pat on the back’ when the jokes land perfectly as well as constructive suggestions to make the bits funnier.
While doing these open mics, I got to do a few featured showcase comedy specials. These are typically an hour long with 5 or 6 comedians. I loved performing in these and having the opportunity to share the virtual stage with some very talented comedians. It was eye-opening to see the number of Indians who are into comedy! I had the pleasure of meeting and performing with Indian diaspora – of all shades and accents, not just the ones in India, but many from South Africa, Malaysia, US, and Canada. Some of these folks who are 2nd or 3rd generation Indians have never even been to India. Who knew that ‘funny’ was one of the spices that was innate to us all! Not surprisingly, what’s common to all of us Indians is the “desi-ness”** in our material – assimilation with local population, spicy food, strict and stingy parents, religion, sex-ed (or lack thereof), and other taboo subjects. That’s right folks, we Indians are not just coming for your spelling bee trophies and IT jobs, now we are even coming for ‘your’ comedy gigs 🙂
**(desi – Pertaining to the Indian Subcontinent. pronounced “They see”)
Stay in your lane
I heard that most seasoned comedians do not like Zoom mics and shows, for obvious reasons. Zoom certainly lacks the real-life touch and feedback, but for me it makes up for that in terms of convenience of sitting at home while interacting with and performing for folks all over the world. Since I was practically a newcomer to comedy before the covid pandemic hit, I did not have much to compare with, so I jumped into this world happily with both feet. I am thrilled to have connected and become friends with a lot of comedians and wonderful hosts worldwide through the open mics for these past 6 months.
My comedy primarily draws on my own Indian background and immigrant experiences. In addition to that, I do observational comedy. Some of my favorite bits deal with my “Italian-ness” and “Jewishness!” These were big hits and are now part of my repertoire. Some of my friends “playfully” urged me to stay in my lane and stick to “Indian” material, else they would be forced to cut into my “Kamasutra and Yoga” routines. Personally, I think it would be a boring world if we all stayed just in “our lane.” Recently, my Jewish friend’s daughter made “naan” (Indian flat bread) from scratch. I can guarantee you that not even 0.001% of Indians have ever made a naan! To return the favor, my daughter made yummy bagels from scratch. So… here we are having a ball while happily cutting into each others’ lanes.
It has been an absolute thrill ride pursuing my newfound hobby for these past few months. I hope to continue with online open mics for now and the in-person ones when the world opens up!
Epilogue : If you want to give it a shot…
As you might have guessed, there are no prerequisites to get into comedy. If I can do it, anyone can! All it takes is an urge to entertain people and an unlimited well of experiences to draw from, for the material. Here is a sampling of some resources that have helped me and could be of interest to you.
- Facebook group : Displaced Comedians, founded by Niko Lukoff, has a list of all open mics along with signup details. These are all free and anyone can sign up. Here are some that I have attended regularly.
- Villain Theater open mic (Miami, Florida)
- The PandeMic! (Salt Lake City, Utah)
- Backline Comedy (Omaha, Nebraska)
- Ill at Ease (Philadelphia)
- Suddenly Standup (New York City)
- Get on the Mic! (Tokyo)
- Stand-Up comedy classes (online and in-person) offered by
- Flappers Comedy Club
- Tao Comedy Studio
- ACT II Playhouse
- Off Mic Comedy School
- Writing Workshops – these are great resources for getting feedback:
- Stand Up Comedy Writing Mastermind
- Joke Shop Online
- “This Just in News” – Feedback Mic
- The Comedy Writer’s room presented by Hot Breath! Comedy Network