My First Open Mike

“Here’s the one thing I miss about all the shitty comedy in the eighties were the open mikes, the fucking open mikes… Anyone could walk on stage. Anyone. Anyone! And you got to see three things.. One, people who were clearly going to be good comedians… Two, people who were funny but who gives a shit? … and the third thing was the most important thing and it needs to come back: fucking lunatics.” — Patton Oswalt, from his album Feelin’ Kinda Patton

After my first Comic Strip bringer, the host Jeannie suggested that I go to Gladys’s Comedy Room to get some more stage time. She introduced me to Gladys and handed me a flyer.  Gladys had actually opened the show with her tight five consisting of insinuations that her ex-husband was gay and Monica Lewinsky jokes (this was 2000) and her showstopper, her calling card bit about her tiny little hand (I won’t ruin it for you. I think she still runs rooms, so, go check her out for yourself.) As she will tell you in her act, she is four foot ten. She has wavy brown bob-length hair and reminds me somewhat of the archetypal agent character, not unlike Joey Tribiani’s agent Estelle in Friends.

I was reluctant because after having done this once for five minutes, I thought it was clear to everyone that I was, well, pretty talented and I should be in clubs. So, open mikes were, well, probably a little beneath me? (FYI: to date, I have yet to pass at any comedy club in New York City or anywhere else for that matter.)

But then I figured, sure, I’ll go just to see what else is out there.

Gladys’s Comedy Room was a room in the back of a restaurant called Hamburger Harry’s on 45th Street right off of Times Square. Hamburger Harry’s was just that – a hamburger restaurant. It looked like it had been nice and new in 1985 and not really kept up since then. The tables were blonde wood, the walls were mirrored, and there were faded posters of gourmet burgers in plastic frames on the wall. I walked to the back and through a short corridor that had headshots on the wall, which made me think, “okay, this is probably legit. I don’t know who any of those people are but you can’t just put headshots on a wall if it’s not a comedy club. This place must be like an underground comedy gem, like a speakeasy kind of thing. You have to know to go into the back of a hamburger restaurant to find it.”

To be fair, this wasn’t all attributable to naïveté. Gladys’s actually was a place that several New York comedians started. It was the first place that they got consistent stage time before getting passed into larger clubs. Dave Attell and Greg Giraldo used to host shows for Gladys. Jim Gaffigan would stop by to do sets even in the early 2000’s. I once saw Judah Friedlander pop in and pop out just to say hello. Zach Galifianakis talks about starting in the back of a hamburger restaurant. Gladys’s was it (“God, he was so dirty when he started. So dirty.”)

It was split down the middle lengthwise with one half of the room – including the stage – elevated by about five feet. You paid five dollars and Gladys, or one of her assistants, wrote your name on a slip of paper and put it in a bucket to be drawn for your five minutes of stage time. If you went last, you got to go first the next week.

The comedy was often underwhelming but what was striking was the dark current running through the comedians themselves.

Gladys started the show. She did the exact same five minute set that I had heard at my first show. When she got to her big joke, people shouted the punchline along with her.

And then the show started and I was properly introduced to the world of open mike comedy. Looking back, I see it cinematically. The camera closes in on my young innocent face as I look at the stage. There’s a quick cut to my hand scribbling notes, then back to my face, slightly more nervous.

I had no idea what I was in for.

The open mike crowd in New York City is a veritable who’s not of comedy. In the subsequent weeks, months, and years of going to Gladys’s and shows just like it, I would join their tribe. Gladys’s and The Parkside Trainwreck (co-hosted by Joey Gay, who is one of the greatest guys you could meet in comedy, and Damian, who was Joey’s co-host) became the nucleuses around which my comedy world and education revolved. I saw some good comedians but very few actually broke out of the open mike scene to go any further.

When the show Last Comic Standing, ostensibly an American Idol for comedians, premiered they showed the audition process in the first few episodes for the people who would be contestants on the show. Then they had another montage of hopeful auditioners. The narrator said, “and we had to sit through several comedians.” They proceeded to show all of the bad comedians. I recognized half of those faces. Those were my people. The open mikers.

I remember a few of the comics I saw that first night at Gladys’s and, regardless of their jokes, I thought that they were the next generation of stand-ups. One lady was middle aged and wore workout clothes on stage. She had a joke in which she imitated an Asian lady telling her, “you so uuuuugry.” Another guy got up on stage with a harmonica and began his song about big fat titties. I heard jokes that night that I would hear over and over again. “I just got laid… off.” “What’s the difference between a hooker and an onion? When you cut an onion, you cry.”

The comedy was often underwhelming but what was striking was the dark current running through the comedians themselves.

I remember the son of the suicidal gameshow host who enjoyed taking out his balls on stage. The former crack addict who I once accidentally heard berating himself in a stall in the bathroom. The older nurse who worked with cancer patients and, in her shrill New York accent said that she didn’t care if they die. I saw a guy do a set in which he said that the best way to beat your wife hit her on the inside of her legs so no one can see the bruises. There was an obese comic with an endless supply of what he must have considered jokes about his own penis. (He did an impression of Jesus Christ on the cross. He held his arms out, took a beat and said, “hey, lady, my dick itches.”)

I remember one comedy friend, Jeff.

I believe Jeff was at that first open mike at Gladys’s. He had started going to the open mike a few weeks or months before I did and was already known. He was thirty-ish, Jersey-ish, blond with a goatee, and a little overweight. We had a similar sensibility. He smoked and I would bum Marlboro Lights off of him and we would compare notes. He was a comedy friend. A comedy friend is like a comedy co-worker. You see this person at shows and you generally get along but it takes a lot of momentum to see each other in the real world. Jeff and I would do many shows together, both open mike and weekend shows. He was a good guy.

The thing about open mikes is, you have to move on from them.

Years later, after Hamburger Harry’s was sold and turned into an Irish pub and I lost track of where Gladys was doing her shows, I would run into another comedy friend from those days, Paul. Paul looked like Dustin Hoffman and had good jokes. I got the impression that he actually made a decent living from voice overs and the occasional acting job and he did open mikes just to get up.

I ran into him in Union Square only now he had a cane with him. He had been in an accident of some kind. He was also a comedy friend so I couldn’t ask for specifics. He told me about Jeff, how he became obsessed with a female comic that we both knew and how it culminated in Jeff chasing her outside of the club and screaming at her, “don’t you know I love you?!” I never saw that. (To my knowledge, the female comic was unharmed, though shaken up.) I had no idea that it happened but I also wasn’t surprised that someone who would do this thing was troubled and had demons lurking just under the surface.

I had to go so I held out my hand. Paul said, “I can’t really shake anymore so how about a fist bump?” We fist bumped and I said it was good to see you.

I wonder about him sometimes. I wonder about him and Jeff and all the rest of them. A couple of the good ones from those days, Ray Payton and Michelle Dobrawsky, passed away.

Gary Marinoff who passed away last year was another open mike lifer. The last time I saw him do a show it was at Happy Hour Story Hour in which he talked about everyone on 30 Rock thinking that he was retarded (his word). It was actually kind of funny and got us on his side. He then went on to describe a hunt for sex with a crack whore (his words). That’s when he lost us.

The thing about open mikes is, you have to move on from them. You go there to try new things but ultimately, you have to seek out and get booked on other shows. If you don’t, you end up a fixture and you don’t do prepared material because it never gets laughs at open mikes. The only jokes that work in the room are the inside jokes among the other regulars.

The guy I mentioned above who liked to take his balls out? He was actually a master of open mikes. He was incredibly funny about how bitter he and all the rest of us were. Truly. He raised open miking to its own art form. He sticks out in my mind for another reason, though. Once, I was hosting an open mike in the basement of a Bleecker Street bar (yeah, I got to host sometimes!) and he was there. He got up and out of frustration took out his balls once again.

I didn’t know it then but that was my break with stand-up. I did a few more shows here and there but, after that, I decided to focus on improv.

This whole journey was ahead of me, though. At this first mike, I was getting my bearings. I waited and I listened to other comics. Eventually my name was called. I went up and did my five minute set. It was pretty quiet throughout. What had gotten laughs at my bringer got chuckles or silence at this mike.

I went home defeated but I came back the next week and the week after that.

It would be years until I was granted the privilege of handing out flyers in Times Square – barking – for stage time on Thursday nights, then Fridays, then Saturdays, at first going last, then fifth, then first, second, or third. Years until Gladys might say, “watch how Rob Penty does it” to an open miker who just started out.

Those years also brought a kind of pride. I believe that you aren’t a comic until you’ve tried to make three uninterested people laugh hours after a show should have reasonably ended and squeezed at least one laugh out of them.

Storytelling has brought me back to open mikes but these mikes are like five star hotels compared to the projects of open mikes in the aughts.

I remember one night at The Parkside Trainwreck, I went up late, among the last four or five comics, which means I had been there for well over two hours, drinking over two hours worth of beer. I looked out into the crowd of five or so people who weren’t laughing and were looking at their own notes and said, “what are we even doing here?” I stepped offstage after my set and Joey Gay came up to the mike. Before he called the next name he said, “you know what we’re doing, Rob Penty? We’re following our dreams.”

It was one of the nicer, more genuine moments I experienced at an open mike. But I can’t help but think of Gary’s crack whore story, too. I take those two moments together when I think about open mikes. We were always striving but, damn, it was some ugly striving.

3 thoughts on “My First Open Mike

  1. Rob, this was an awesome slice of nostalgia for me. I was also a regular at the Gladys show at Harry’s in the 2000-2001 timeframe. Still think about those days once in a blue moon, how raw it was and how everyone knew everyone else’s bits but still couldn’t wait to see them. The ones that jump out at me are the guy who did the gay song and dance about borrowing his boss’s stapler, the “duece is loose” guy who did all the impressions and the other guy who took his speaker on stage and prank called Chinese restaurants. Those were some damn good times. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Hey Geoff! Thanks for reading. How did you come across my blog after all these years? Looks like you’re down in DC? I hope all is well with you!

  2. This is great. My first open mic was at Hamburger Harry’s in the summer of 2000. Thanks for all the detail! You reminded me of a lot of stuff.

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