Here’s a thing about me, if you don’t know: I genuinely try to not be a dick, most of the time. Feel free to pat me on the back, next time you see me.
It was that desire that led me to introduce myself to a dude on Friday night. I was at The Creek and the Cave, which is an awesome place, for a lot of different reasons. Basically, it’s a restaurant/bar in Long Island City (just across the water, east of Manhattan) that has open-mics and comedy shows, 7 nights a week. It’s a home away from home for comics here.
I was there on Friday, waiting for a mic to start, when I saw a guy that looked nervous and a little lost. It was a look that, after enough open-mics, you recognize immediately: he was a comic with nobody to talk to. I’ve been that comic, and it sucks, so when I see it, I try to engage that person.
I asked where he was from. “San Francisco.”
Cool. Did he move here, or is he just visiting? “Just visiting.”
Cool. How long has he been doing comedy? “One year. Though - I’m headlining The Purple Onion next month. So.”
I forget what he said after the “So.” But I think he let it hang in the air for at least a second or two, in a way that was almost desperate for me to be impressed. But that’s honestly being too kind. He wasn’t desperate for me to be impressed. He said it like he expected me to be awed. Like I was going to be intimidated by him all of a sudden.
What was pretty hilarious, now that I look back on it, is the immediate thought process I had. When he said he’d been doing stand-up for a year, but that he was headlining the Purple Onion, I didn’t think “Wow, this guy must be amazing!” My first thought was, “Wow, I guess that’s not as big a deal as I thought.”
Oh! I didn’t mention this part yet - the dude was wearing a bow-tie. Like a bright white, ironically-clashing-with-my-goatee, doing-this-as-a-gimmick-because-I-don’t-have-faith-in-my-material,-and-everyone-who’s-done-stand-up-for-8-months-sees-100-percent-through-this bow-tie.
I don’t make this next observation to be mean - I say it because it’s accurate: He looked like he was a shape-shifter, except instead of becoming an animal, he was changing into a clown. And he was about 8 percent through the process. Like 92 percent normal person, 8 percent clown.
That’s actually cracking me up, now that I’m writing it. This dude was a figurative clown, but he also literally looked a little bit like an actual clown. That shit is hilarious to me right now, for some reason.
Hahahahaha. I bet when he gets dressed before shows, his one arm puts the bow-tie on, just like the dude’s arm does the Heil-Hitler thing in Dr. Strangelove. Hahaha like he wants really bad not to put the bow-tie on, because it gives his clown-ness away, but he has no control over what his one arm does. Hahaha like this is him getting ready for his shows.
THAT’S the best thing about comedy in New York City. There’s a real aversion to gimmicks here. And beyond that, there’s a real aversion to unearned respect.
When I first got here, it seemed like nobody in the scene here wanted me to rise up. It seemed like everyone was in it for themselves. Like they were blocking and closing off the avenues to success.
But I was wrong. I understood the actions, to an extent - but I misunderstood the reasons.
I can’t speak universally for all comics here in New York. But I can tell you that I am speaking for the vast majority, and I can speak for the nature of this city as a whole: If you’re good, people want you to succeed here.
When you first get into town, there is a genuine thing that happens, where the comics are reluctant to let you climb past them up the ladder here. That’s real, not imagined. But that’s not because they don’t like you. It’s because they want to make sure nobody slips through the cracks undeservedly. If you’re honestly better than us, then we’ll step aside. Sure, seeing you will make us question whether or not we actually have what it takes to make it here, and so we may get weird around you. But that’s not because we hate you - it’s because in a way, you’re making us consider hating ourselves. It’s not something we’re excited to acknowledge, but - if you earn it - we’re okay with you passing us in line.
But in exchange for that fairness, we’re going to make sure nobody gets to cut unless they deserve to. It’s selfish, but it’s also for the best of the scene, and its reputation. Nobody here wants bad comedy to be rewarded. Now that I understand the motives, I think the seemingly standoff-ish nature of the comics here is pretty damn understandable.
Being a comic in New York City is like being in an ER waiting room. None of us would be here if we didn’t have a reason to be here. And we all feel like our situation is urgent.
Would it make any sense for someone to just walk into that waiting room, say they had an emergency, and then everyone who’s been waiting for hours just says “Yeah, cool, go ahead!”
No. Of course not. But at the ER, if someone comes in with a bone sticking out of their leg, most people are gonna say “You know what? My swollen lymph nodes can wait.” Because you understand your pain, and you understand that they’ve probably gone through even more than you, and they are more deserving - right now - of getting help.
For a year, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why New York is an amazing place for stand-up comedy. And that douchey bow-tie dude finally made me realize it. In New York City, stand-up comedy is merit-based. Everyone here wants good comedy to succeed. There are so many things in New York that make you confused, and make you question what the hell is going on in the world. It can be a confusing, frustrating, literally maddening place to exist.
We don’t want the right comics to make it. We need the right comics to make it. If only so something about this place actually makes sense.
Arrogance suffocates here. It doesn’t survive. It gets broken apart and disintegrates here, like a meteor entering Earth's atmosphere. Maybe in other scenes, or in other places, you can do comedy, and the question is “What’s your thing?” But here in New York, the question is always “Are you good?”
So, if you move here, can you make it? I don’t know. But I know that if you want to know, deep down, whether or not you’re a good comic - New York City is where you want to be. If you’re not afraid of knowing the truth about yourself, New York City is where you want to be.
And if you don’t? That’s honestly fine, too. But just don’t expect this city to be impressed with your bow-tie. It takes a little more here.
(Couldn’t quite make it through the shoot with a straight face)