This one’s mostly for the Boston comics who have passed through Sally O’s over the years, but I posted it here in case anyone else is interested.
For the past three years, I have hosted the comedy open mic on Monday nights at Sally O’Brien’s in Union Square, Somerville. Before I ran the show, Myq Kaplan was in charge. Before Myq, Dan Hirshon (who started the show) hosted every week. Now that I’m moving, I’m leaving it in the capable hands of Shawn Carter.
Here’s the secret about performing at Sally O’s: It’s kind of horrible. It’s a 7:30 show on a Monday night that takes place a legit twenty minute walk from any train stop. The audience is a collection of other comics, mostly. Sometimes unsuspecting bar patrons get hoodwinked into sitting through comedy while they eat and drink. Even sometimes-er, some real audience members shuffle in.
But that’s part of it. Standup comedy is a rewarding pursuit at any level, but it can also be a lonely, alienating experience. Long stretches driving out on the road alone. Shows that don’t quite go the way you planned. Working hard night after night and seeing only tiny, incremental progress.
The open mic is a microcosm of the standup comedy experience. The risks and the rewards both. There is little more satisfying than going up in front of a quiet room and breaking them open with the new bit you’ve been working on.
I am not a master of comedy. But Sally O’Brien’s is where I learned to be competent at comedy. Before Sally’s, I could write jokes and tell them. But I couldn’t go up onstage and feel comfortable in front of an apathetic crowd. Even at an open mic, I didn’t have the courage (egoism?) to feel like any idea I thought was funny was worth saying. I didn’t realize that some nights it’s okay to feel like you did your best even if the audience doesn’t carry you out on their shoulders (which, in fairness, is a thing that has never happened to me). I learned this all in a bar room in Somerville with minimal feedback and zero stakes.
I’m really grateful for the tough nights starting out. When more experienced comics I’d met week after week didn’t remember my name and who rarely watched as I struggled to wrangle meager laughs out of audiences. It was hard onstage and off. In Boston, like I imagine it is in many cities, no one hands anything to you. You have to earn whatever you get. And it takes a while. And it stinks.
But then, as you keep on, you realize that the “gatekeepers” didn’t mean anything personal. They’re just trying to safeguard the institution that means so much to them. Most folks who try standup probably stick with it less than a year. It’s not something you’re great at the first time. It takes practice. Most folks don’t have the time/patience. They drop it in favor of work, or kids, or Breaking Bad. That’s understandable. Which is why now, in retrospect, it makes sense why people who were already years in didn’t want to spend their time getting to know someone with barely a month under his belt.
If you stick with it, though, you’ll earn the acknowledgement then the grudging respect, then the friendship of the other folks on the scene. That’s what I’ve observed.
The open mic is the most brutal womb, but when you need it, it gives back. Like when a more experienced comic asks you to do a weekend gig for the first time. Or when your friend that you started with talks you out of quitting after a couple of rough barroom shows.
Last night was my last time hosting Sally O’Brien’s. And last night gave back. Friends I started comedy with, friends who started before me, and friends who started after me all came together to eat pie and hang out and take a night off of doing comedy to send me off. It was exceptionally generous. And I am grateful to have started comedy in a scene full of talented, hard-working people who care about what they do.
Thanks to everyone who came out last night. Thanks to everyone who texted or e-mailed. A special thanks to anyone who brought a pie or said nice things. It’s a pleasure to work with all of you.
Keep supporting Sally O’Brien’s every Monday in Union Square.