Naked desperation played out in front of a crowd of five. Souls bared and each of them ugly. Lives plundered for a laugh, a titter, Jesus a smile, anything. The audience sit at small tables eating sudo-mexican food. I’m at a comedy open mic by the way. In a takeaway on Melrose Street, LA. It’s Monday, 1pm. Buy something to eat and you get five minutes to perform.
Skinny jeans sit loose on scrawny legs. Slogan t-shirts tight around pot bellies. Heavy prescription glasses magnify eyes strained by backlit screens and porn marathons.
‘You look like someone.’ Says the host. Imagine a more intense Tom Cruise, hands that wring themselves, eyes of a racoon that’s truffled a bag of speed.
LA folk have a fetish for telling you who you look like, and it’s not small talk. You try and join the conversation mid-comparison and they’ll click their fingers and grimace like they’ve tasted fart.
‘Who do you look like?’
I feel my nostrils flare,
He starts clicking and does the face – see what I mean?
‘English actor, kind of slow, who is he?’
My hands turn fisty, this is the fourth time today my face has been evaluated by a stranger.
‘I don’t have a clue.’ My voice comes out especially Scottish; the equivalent of a snake coiling.
He’s about to click again when his pricky ears prick up,
‘Oh my god, where is that accent from?’
He’s clicking again,
‘No, no, no, let me guess… ooh, ooh, I’ve got it, the ogre, the swamp, Shrek!’
He’s dancing on the spot now, the voice in my head says bite him,
‘Say something like Shrek, please, you must.’
He steps back,
‘Shrek doesn’t say that, does he?’
Until today I had only seen good comedy. I’ve not always found it funny, but it’s had to pass a quality check before it gets to me. Even Raw Meat, a weekly open mic in Glasgow, has an auditioning system. I used to think everyone should be allowed a shot. Not anymore. End freedom of the arts I say, tighten up those audition processes. I don’t want to experience the untalented again, for the same reason I don’t want to see your ugly baby’s first steps. Come back to me when it’s running the hundred meters in under 10.
‘Hi guys, I’m Tainer, and I’m going to use my five minutes to talk about poop, hahaha, and it won’t be funny. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha…’
Tainer isn’t funny. He’s lonely, desperate, and as charismatic as parboiled rice. Usually lonely desperation is quite funny but he’s found a way to ruin it. All the acts have been tedious, charity advert without gratuitous misery tedious, that one colleague that tells you what he had for breakfast everyday (bran flakes again was it Peter, cool) tedious, repeated warnings from your doctor that the ketamine is about to rot your bladder (as I’ve already informed you Doc, here for a good time) tedious.
The front door ting tings and in walks a pale man with casual clothes that fit well. All eyes turn on him, sharp intakes of breath fill the room. Celebrity.
‘Oh hello guys, am I too late for a spot?’
Racoon Cruise is on his feet shaking the guests hand before the door has closed.
‘Of course not Mike, of course not, don’t be silly.’ He looks at his sign up sheet, ‘You can go on now actually…’
‘Hey.’ Protests Tainer.
Cruise’s face crumples in pure rage,
‘Shut the fuck up and get off the stage.’ he takes a breath, then smiles again at Mike. ‘On you go Mike, the stage is yours.’
Tainer slinks back to his Barbacoa burrito. He looks like a puppy caught peeing against the couch.
Mike hops on stage with a stringy energy,
‘Hi guys, I’m Mike Hinkelman, but you knew that didn’t you.’ – His smile would make any allegation difficult to play down – ‘I’m going to try out some new material today you lucky people.’
Mike performs a set about Netflix and Trump, same as everyone else in the room (except outlier Tainer). Mean, obvious observations, all from the perspective of someone sitting alone getting mad at the tv.
Creatively urged folk from around the World gravitate to Los Angeles for the same reason kids who fancy a kick about go to the park. If you’re going to get a shot, this is the place. I’d assumed the defining characteristic of an LAer would be talent. Not so. What unites the city is a need for admiration. A need few receive and less deserve.
‘What are your plans now?’ asks Mike, ‘You must come to the next one.’
There are at least six open mics in a row on any LA day. So if one hour of desperation and body odour isn’t enough, you can keep the fire burning.
We head to an Italian cafe on North Vista. To enter you have to buy a drink. Everyone else has bottled water – they’re at work. I though, am on holiday,
‘Voddy, double please my man.’
‘Would you like a tab sir?’
I’ve never had a tab before, but when in Rome (themed cafes). As each act plummets, my glass keeps filling. And it works. None of them are funny, but now I feel warm instead of tense. And this warmth makes me sentimental, I care for these poor flightless creatures. I want to help. So I study each act, trying to root out why they aren’t funny.
Have you ever bitten into a cake where the sugar’s been forgotten? You soon realise all you’ve got is a slutty piece of bread. Each comedian I’ve seen today has forgotten the funny sugar – surprise. They haven’t added a gram of the stuff. I’ve heard what they have to say before. They’re all doing the same act – person comes to big city, big city isn’t friendly, person binge watches Netflix, person ends up on stage in front of me. Each of them deliver painful one liners from this perspective. None of them tell a story. They should, everyone has a good story in them. The last act finishes as I drain my glass. I feel floaty.
One of the damnedest things, I’m now on stage with the mic in my hand.
As much as everyone has a story in them, something about being on-stage makes brain function difficult. I can’t remember how to stand normally. A choir of eyes blink at me, ready for truth bullets and bombs of amusement. I’ve got nothing.
‘Say something.’ Someone shouts.
Yeah, thanks, very helpful. Panic gushes through me like a damn release. I look at them, the army of anti-tainment, this is their fault. If they had done their job I wouldn’t be in this mess. Panic turns to resentment,
‘None of you are very funny…’
There is a shade of black that’s 10 times darker than average black. Looks the same to the human eye, but somehow you just know it’s darker. The room was already silent before I say this. It’s now that darker shade of silent.
‘It’s because you haven’t found your voice, you’re all doing the exact same thing. You should have stayed in your small towns for longer, developed something unique. Instead you’re all a bit boring…’
A blonde woman, mid-thirties, had talked about big city blues and Netflix for her five minutes, stands up and yells at me,
And do you know what? She’s right.