by Chris Davis
Go ahead, be jealous.
I spent about a month working on this week's cover story about Memphis' emerging comedy scene. I visited a lot of shows and open mics, and talked to a lot of comics. And then, one terrifying Thursday night at the P&H Cafe, I even attempted a stand-up set. All I can say about the experience is this: I've been an actor, an emcee, a TV personality, a performance artist, a public speaker, and a honky tonk singer, but never in all my years on stage and in front of cameras, has my heart pounded harder than it did that night. That's what I get for wanting to know what it feels like to stand in the glaring spotlight, trying to make jaded Memphians laugh.
Tommy Oler, who hosts open mic at the P&H tried to warn me off. He said I should maybe try Dru's or RockHouse Live first, and work my way up. "P&H is a monster for new comics," he said. "It's actually the biggest and best open mic in the state, but it's also the meanest. I know cause I've been to, and done every one."
P&H audiences don't really turn on you— or at least the ones I've experienced don't. They just turn to one another and start talking. When a comic is dying on stage the room gets loud with chatter. I told Tommy I didn't think I had time to develop a set and hone it. I just wanted to go up cold for 5-minutes, with no prepared material, and the tougher the room, the better. Reluctantly, like I might be marching off to slaughter, Tommy put me on the list right behind Benny Elbows, and just in front of Richard Douglas Jones— two quality comics. Talk about a recipe for a shit sandwich. I wanted to be funny, of course, but this was the kind of research where flopping big could be every bit as edifying. And boy was I set up to flop.
There's nothing scarier than knowing that you're on in 5-minutes, and you've got nothing prepared. I figured it was probably best to tell true-ish stories and I hoped I'd seen enough standup over the years to know how to introduce and frame the material.
"And now, I'd like to introduce Memphis Flyer writer Chris Davis," Tommy said. Clapping happened, and the pressure was on.
"So I received a letter just a couple of days ago," I said. "A reader wanted to know how many blowjobs I have to give my bosses every week just to keep my job."
"That's more of a perk than an obligation, isn't it? I like my performance reviews. It beats making up a bunch of bullshit about where I see myself in the next five years, don't you think?"
That part went well, so I decided to stick with work stories for a while. I talked about the Elton John impersonator I'd spoken to earlier that week. And about the person impersonating the Elton John impersonator. When I ran out of work stories I talked a bit about the time in my life where it seemed like I couldn't go anywhere without discovering a dildo of unknown origin: "A lot of people find a dildo of unknown origin and are like, 'EEEWWWWWWWW!' I'm like, 'I need to show this to somebody!'"
Not everything got a big laugh, but nothing really bombed either, and a couple of comics even gave me the business afterward, swearing it couldn't have been my first set, and encouraging me to keep it up. The collegiality felt good, but I was done.
Yeah, it's fun being funny. When you're in the middle of a room and everybody's doubled up because of something you just said, the laughter kicks like a drug. And when the laughter's gone your cells get junk sick and crave more. It's easy to see how people get hooked on the stuff, which is one reason why it's probably best to leave funny business to the professionals. Besides, now that Patton Oswalt's consummated the relationship by liking one of my Tweets, I can die comically satisfied.
And speaking of professionals, it's Memphis Comedy Festival weekend. Go see some.