When I tell my friends that I love watching comedy open mics, they look at me like they’re waiting for the punchline.
“Congrats for sitting through an open mic,” one of my friends — a comic himself — texted me the other day, after an evening of Comedy Underground’s Monday Madness. “You deserve a medal.”
I mean, I certainly wouldn’t refuse a medal. I’ve put in countless hours watching Seattle’s comedic hopefuls try out new material — and, more often, practice the same set over and over again — on basement stages in bars throughout the city. In San Francisco, I went to a midnight open mic on a first Tinder date, and we were the only ones there who weren’t comics. They invited us to sit onstage, which we did. I’d like at least a gold star for that.
Just don’t tell the awards committee this: I don’t tolerate open mics out of some noble love for the art of comedy, or unwavering support for the local scene. I just plain love them.
Masochistic, perhaps. But I think of comedy like Christmas lights: Big, fancy, displays are fun to see, but there’s something of a corporate predictability to them. When you go to, say, Zoolights, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. The same is basically true of booked comics, local and otherwise (some more predictable than others).
The Christmas light displays that I like most are the ones you see walking down a residential street: Someone’s perfectly arranged array of light-up Santa Claus figurines, someone’s hastily strewn, fresh-from-the-dorm twinkle lights. Honestly, I’m the kind of sad sap who gets choked up just looking at Christmas lights and thinking about the person who put them there. And it wouldn’t take more than a couple of IPAs for me to get bleary-eyed at the idea of open-mic comedy: People following their dreams and facing their fears, 30 completely different stories in a whirlwind two hours.
Yep, I feel the same way about open mics as I do about Christmas lights — even the ugly ones bring me a whole lot of joy. (Oh god, it’s so sentimental. I’ll never work in this town again.)
My friends who aren’t comics but like open mics anyway tend to be a little more on the … sadistic side. Unlike the polished comedy acts you see on Netflix, and the mostly polished feature acts you get at local comedy shows, open mics provide a unique opportunity to see someone totally bomb. Where else, other than middle school and private group chats, is it socially acceptable to yuk it up at someone else’s failure?!
I may not be that coldhearted, but I have a pulse, so I do get why that can be a good time. The camaraderie of making helpless eye contact with strangers when none of you can muster a laugh, tallying up the comics who are clearly too high for this (extra points when they openly admit “I’m too high for this” before they walk offstage early), the fever-dreamy disbelief of watching someone who’s not quite bad, but certainly more bizarre than anything that would make it to a self-respecting streaming service.
“I don’t know what that light means — I’ll just keep going,” I heard one comic say recently, near the end of a three-minute set almost entirely based on a time they pooped in their stockings. (The light, for the record, is an indication that the comic’s time is nearly up. Comics often disrespect it until they’re forced offstage by one of the varyingly gracious hosts.)
And, of course, there’s the simple pleasure of seeing someone make misogynistic jokes to a roomful of crickets — a pretty common phenomenon in Seattle, where open-mic rooms often have rules prohibiting jokes that punch down. “I’m in the wrong city to make that joke,” I recently heard a bombing comic lament. “Yep,” an audience member curtly replied.
There’s a weird sort of community that’s built around coming together in a dark room with beer-sticky floors and seeing a combination of sets that’ll never happen in that particular order in front of that particular audience again.
Just don’t leave the open mic early — you’ll never get your medal that way.
Here are some open mics worth cringing for:
Monday Madness at the Comedy Underground, every Monday at 8:30 p.m. — they’ve also got a Tuesday night callback show featuring Monday’s best acts, in case you don’t want to totally throw caution to the wind. 109 S. Washington St., Seattle; $6; comedyunderground.com
Comedy Nest at Rendezvous, every Tuesday at 8 p.m. — this show prioritizes women and trans comics, and is always careful to restate the rules: “no misogyny, racism, homophobia, hatred, or heckling.” 2322 Second Ave., Seattle; $5; therendezvous.rocks
Open Mic at Jai Thai, every Sunday, every Tuesday, and every other Friday at 9 p.m. (sign-ups at 8:30 p.m.) — perhaps the most casual of all the mics, you can slip in and out of the bar without being super rude about it. Which is especially nice considering that happy hour doesn’t start ’til 10 p.m. 235 Broadway E., Seattle; free; facebook.com/jaithaibroadway