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How to Survive Your First Open Mics

So, you’ve decided to try stand-up comedy.

Congratulations?

As you begin to find your feet, you’re sure to be struck by several questions. Why is no one laughing? What does that bright flashing light mean? I got to this open mic four hours early, why am I going up at 3 in the morning?

Navigating your early open mics is a lot like doing heroin: it can be intimidating, the highs can leave you blissful, the lows can be crushing. Also, there’s usually heroin available for purchase (tip your bar staff).

Open mic comedy is a place to fail. Luckily, no one is paying really close attention to you. The failures which seem large to you are usually not memorable for anyone else.

This guide is to help you avoid the other failures, the ones that tend to stick to a comic.

How to not be a gaping butthole at open mics.

It is a near-universal experience for comics.

You’re new to the scene and you want to demonstrate that you’re a hot young go-getter. You arrive at the bar ninety minutes before signup. You pull out your notebook, casual but conspicuous. You make fleeting eye contact with everyone who walks in, hoping for a moment of recognition between comrades. After a while, a harried figure slouches through the door. Other patrons gather around them like ducks looking for a piece of bread. They make their way through the throng and set out that great Doomsday Book of open mic comedy: the list.

You duck and weave to get to the front of the pack, after all, you were before any of them. You even manage to scratch your name high up on the list. Someone borrows your pen. Then someone else. It is no longer your pen. Let it go. If you truly love it, it will return.

The show starts. You know your name is fourth on the list. The second comic is onstage, and the host comes tantalizingly close to your seat before tapping someone else on the shoulder. The show goes on. An hour passes. People you know got here after you are going up. The person who was in your four spot already left. Another thirty minutes goes by. Your water glass sweats. The room is almost empty before the host signals you that you’re up in two. The host never tells you what you did to wrong them. Surely that can be the only explanation for this miscarriage of justice.

Welcome to the first hard thing most comics must learn about open mics.

The order in which you sign up on the list is almost never the order in which you will go up.

I say “almost” because I’ve seen it happen only a couple times. Once when the host had swine flu and another time at a mic so bad I never went back to it.

This is a good place to point out that I’m speaking specifically about Denver here. In the larger scenes—New York, L.A., Chicago—bucket systems or stricter first-come-first-serve systems are more popular. In a mid-size scene like Denver, hosts are left with a difficult balancing act. There are enough comedians that shows can stretch for hours, but the scene is tight enough that hosts are at least familiar with most of the comics on their list. This opens the door for a curated-list system, which, short of limiting who can sign up for an open mic, is the most surefire way of putting together a reasonably watchable show.

On its face, this may seem fundamentally unfair. Like the host is letting their friends have the choice spots at the expense of your fresh new voice. George Carlin (or whoever else you loudly tell your co-workers is the greatest genius of our time) would never have put up with such treatment!

Here are some things you need to understand.

You are not good at comedy.

I’m sorry to be the first to tell you. But, between you and me, you kind of knew it yourself. That’s why you brought every one of your friends to your first shows. Social pressure means they have to laugh at you and tell you how great you were. If you have a friend who refuses to do this for you, they are a sociopath. But you brought them there as a buffer, right? A safety net? Because you know as well as everyone else that you’re not good at this.

And you shouldn’t be! You don’t need to be! You are brand new at this. Who do you think you are that you can just be brilliant at it without ever trying? It sucks to bomb. I know because literally everyone has done it, probably dozens of times.

Since you are not good at comedy, the host of the open mic rightly decided to not put you in the front half of the show.

Portrait of every single person who has ever started doing stand-up.

Portrait of every single person who has ever started doing stand-up.

All comedy shows, to paraphrase my friend Zach Welch, are designed for the venue to sell drinks, food, or loose cigarettes. Yes, yes, comedy is an art and above crass commercial considerations, et cetera. A comedy show on the other hand is a business investment on the part of the venue. They’re betting that they will sell enough drinks to cover for the cost of the show, and maybe tick up their average sales for that time. Comics should buy drinks or food, but they often don’t. This means businesses have to rely on civilians being willing to stick out an open mic comedy show to make up the bulk of that investment.

A good comedy show will always be better for the venue than a bad comedy show.

Those comics taking up the best slots before jetting off to another show? They’re not there because they’re the hosts friends. They’re there because they know what they’re doing. They will keep butts in the seats and at the bar for longer than you could right now.

It may not seem like it if you’re waiting from sunset ‘til midnight for your chance to test your jokes, but this arrangement benefits you too.

In an actual comedy show, you theoretically build up. Each comic better and better until you hit the headliner. At an open mic, it’s sort of reversed. If you have stronger comics, comics more likely to succeed with their new jokes up front, that warms up the crowd. If you had their spot, the crowd would be lost early in the show, and no one after you would even have a chance.

It’s not your spot in the line-up that prevents you from crushing, it’s you.

Yes, usually the crowd is fading by the time you get up anyway. But if things were reversed, you would go up early and bomb (but maybe more mildly than you would otherwise), the crowd would be disappointed and leave, and a more seasoned comic would go up later to a dead, empty room. Literally no one enjoys themselves in this scenario.

Instead, a more seasoned comic (who probably got there well after you) went up and got a decent reaction from a crowd who enjoyed themselves and were therefore more willing to stick around and enjoy more of the show. This gives you a fighting chance to not have a terrible set.

Everyone, at some point, gets this reaction from a crowd.

Everyone, at some point, gets this reaction from a crowd.

Is it ever appropriate to ask the host when you’re going to be going up? Not really. They have enough on their plate. You will get up eventually. If you have somewhere else to be, plan better. Or go up and offer to take yourself off the list. Usually a host will try to accommodate you or remember you for next week (and appreciate that you were not a dick about it).

If you are so convinced that the open-mic host has done you wrong by making you wait that you feel the urge to complain to the bar staff or manager, you are the whitest person ever.

You would rather risk the possibility of depriving comics of a resource (and a host of income) than wait or go somewhere else? You need to re-evaluate your life more than you need to do comedy.

Also introduce yourself to the host so they know who you are, try to remember that jokes have punchlines, and don’t run the light.

I can’t guarantee you success in comedy. I can only advise on some ways you should behave if you don’t want to be immediately ostracized from the community you hope to dominate be a part of.

The most basic way to succeed at open mics is the most basic way to succeed in every other aspect of your day-to-day life.

Don’t be a gaping butthole.

If It Bleeds

Note: I wrote this about a year ago for an assignment. I haven't tried to publish it yet, but given the events in Annapolis, I wanted to share.

In 1989, my father received a phone call from the FBI. His name, Kevin Flynn, had been on the byline of newspaper stories for fifteen years at that point. For the past five years, he had been covering a Denver murder, and uncovering the network of right-wing terrorists behind it. He had been threatened before. When one of his stories exposed an embezzler in New Jersey, my father got a call from the embezzler telling him to back off, or else he might get killed. This threat was different. It came from a confessed killer, with a wide network outside of prison walls. And unlike the earlier threat, my father now had three children. With a phone call, my father found himself a serious target of violence, a threat which hangs over journalists around the world.

 Sitting across from my father today, even all these years later, I’m shocked by the casual tone with which he recounts that call from the FBI. “Oh we just want you to know, blah blah blah blah blah, make sure you look under your car before you start it until we let you know it’s okay,” he says with a laugh that’s not entirely forced. He pauses before answering questions and his fingers tug at the graying ends of his moustache. He crosses his legs and stretches his arm across the top of the overstuffed couch. His posture asks me to believe he is as relaxed as he sounds, but the way he knits his eyebrows gives away more complicated feelings.

We talk in the modest suburban home that his career helped pay for. A shock of fear shoots through me as I look around and realize just how easily this could have all fallen apart. How, with a wrong word in a story, we may have been robbed of a parent. For the families of many reporters, though, that fear is a reality.

The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks not just the murders of reporters around the world, but physical assaults, threats, and arrests. Their database only goes back to 1992, but in that twenty-five-year span, seven journalists have been the victims of targeted killings in the United States. The worldwide total in that time is 1,246 journalists murdered, 18 of those so far this year. They are killed for a range of reasons. Many, like David Gilkey and Zabibullah Tamanna of National Public Radio, get caught in crossfire while reporting from war zones*. The vast majority of the victims are reporters native to the regions they cover, and they don’t receive much attention from Western media. Deaths in war zones are the most common among journalists, and Afghanistan and Iraq are two of the three most dangerous countries on Earth. The third of those is Mexico, where journalists are targeted for intimidation and revenge. These are the most common motivations in the United States. They’re the kind that robbed seven families of loved ones in twenty-five years. The kind that my father found himself targeted for in 1989.

I had always romanticized my father’s work. There’s a cultural image of the journalist as a roguish figure. The person willing to probe, antagonize, and follow a story down any alley. When you walk through a newsroom, though, you see the people who actually produce the stories. They work at desks decorated with family photos and favorite clippings, and the mental wall which separates “reporter” from “person” dissolves.  They still chase stories where they may lead, they still prod and provoke, but they’re not invincible paragons. They’re people like Chauncey Bailey, from the Oakland Post. He was killed in 2007 while investigating a local organized crime network. He and his ex-wife had one child.

As I listen to my father talk about his career, I struggle with my admiration of the profession. I applaud journalists for their doggedness, but I wonder how I would feel about that if the worst had happened. Would part of me wonder why he couldn’t have backed off? As it is, I grew up perceiving the threats faced by journalists as a distant, almost abstract phenomenon. I only began to grasp the danger inherent in the profession as I got older. “The things that journalists write can be not only embarrassing to people, but embarrassing enough that they get angry and hostile and want to lash out,” my father explained when we sat down together. He had thirty-five years on the job in order to come to terms with that. As children, we were kept isolated from that as much as possible. I reached my sister by phone after I interviewed my father, and she said that as a child always had the idea that our father chased criminals. We loved seeing his name in the paper. So when I told her the full extent of the threat made against him, she was surprised enough to shout, “Holy fuck!” It made her reexamine the way we celebrated the book he co-wrote about the case that put his life in danger.

 In 1984, radio talk-show host Alan Berg was murdered in the driveway of his home just off Colfax Avenue. My father was one of the reporters on the scene and, based on a tip from a Denver police officer, quickly started investigating a man named David Lane as a suspect. Lane had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and was currently part of a racist terrorist group called The Order. Lane frequently called into Berg’s radio show to argue with and provoke the outspoken Jewish radio host. Berg wasn’t a journalist, but he was a media figure who worked closely with reporters. The newsroom of the Rocky Mountain News reacted as though, “a kindred spirit,” had been killed, according to my father. The members of The Order were arrested a few months later. Soon after, my father and his partner, Gary Gerhardt were tipped off that Lane had made a proffer to the prosecuting attorney in order to avoid the death penalty. After they published the story, Lane was furious and terrified that the story would brand him as a snitch. He placed several calls from his jail cell saying he wanted someone to plant a bomb under my dad’s car. This was after my father and Gerhardt conducted several in-person and telephone interviews with David Lane, the man who wanted them dead.

This happened in 1989. If it happened ten years later, anyone could have pulled our family’s address from an internet search. Everyone’s information is more accessible than ever, journalists aren’t alone in this. On top of this, the proliferation of fringe media allows people to cherry-pick news that appeals to their pre-existing beliefs. This leads to a distrust of journalists, especially if they occupy any part on the ideological spectrum other than one’s own. A recent poll conducted by National Public Radio found that 68% of Americans trust the media either, “Not very much,” or “Not at all.” That same poll also found that 24% of Americans feel that freedom of the press has been expanded too much. Two days before I interviewed my father, the President of the United States posted a video on Twitter which depicted himself body-slamming a person with the CNN logo superimposed over their face. In May of this year, then-congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, after Jacobs asked him a question. The next day, Gianforte won his election.

It’s often difficult, legally speaking, to determine when someone is inciting violence. In a courtroom, one must prove intent, and deniability is the tool used by generations of inciters to protect themselves. Looking around though, the intentional delegitimizing of the news media is clear and troubling. The mass of that 68% of Americans who distrust the media would likely never consider committing an act of violence against a journalist. It’s worrying to think, though, of those individuals who are already on the edge and just how small of a push they may need into threats, intimidation, or outright violence.

Every day for months, before he drove anywhere, my father got on his hands and knees and checked the underside of our family’s brown Toyota Corolla. I assume the FBI told him when it was safe to stop checking, but it’s also possible he came to that conclusion himself. As far as we know, our whole family remains on a Ku Klux Klan hit list, a fact which we’ve come to regard as a morbid joke. David Lane remained in the federal prison in Florence, Colorado until his death in 2007. My father recounts those months under threat as the scariest, most imminent danger he faced over the length of his career. Even still, he says he considers the environment today worse than ever before. He still stands by his dogged journalistic principle that the truth is the truth and deserves to be known. “Water is still wet, no matter how many people say it isn’t,” he tells me. But he also has said repeatedly that, if given the choice, he would not go back to working as a journalist anymore.

Before I leave his house, I ask the question that has been at the back of my mind since our interview began, “what precautions did you take to protect the family?” I don’t ask it to make him feel bad, or because I think he left us vulnerable in any way. Rather, not knowing what was happening at the time, I wanted a full picture of the events. When I ask, he hesitates for the first time in our hour-long conversation. He stares somewhere far off and finally answers, “I guess I could have done more.” I never suspected we were close to real danger, I don’t think he did either. But for a few seconds, we realize our luck that we avoided the path thousands of families have been forced down.

*Since the original writing, new reporting has emerged which shows the killing of Gilkey and Tamanna was targeted. See the link. 

Front of House

     The tornado siren rings, even in the basement.

     Their bodies settle in, fill in the gaps, steer clear of the damp concrete wall. A sweaty arm brushes against a sweaty back.

     The loud man jostles his way over to me. I realize I’m still wearing my apron.

     “I spilled my cappuccino on the stairs.”

     He expects me to say something. I keep my mouth pinched shut. I don’t want to have to deal with this. This should have been my break. I told you to leave your things behind.

     Over his shoulder, I see a bald man hunched over a bagel like a squirrel. Do none of you understand tornadoes?

     The floorboards groan over our heads. Wind howls in the ducts.

     “I’ll be happy to give you a refund.”

     He nods and squeezes between bodies around the basement, trying to find a cell signal.

     I imagine walking back up the stairs. I picture the entire shop being blown away. Only the tip jar is left behind.

     Sirens fill the basement and I’m on my break.

I Thought Anthony Bourdain Saved my Life

I’m in my mother’s kitchen, stirring egg into flour. It’s 2008 and my mom is dying in the next room. So much of this week is a blur. I just know the kitchen is a different room. A room where I had a larger sliver of control.

I’m making fresh pasta. A simple, good thing. I have to roll the sheet out with a rolling pin. She never had a pasta roller, and I left mine in my college town when I packed, bleary-eyed.

My family hovers around the hospital bed which has been uprooted and set down in the living room. In my head, the meal is a binding act. A bringing together. We were all lost in the fog then.

That’s what he preached about food, and it gave me hope.


It’s 2009 and I’m interviewing to enroll in culinary school. The bald man looms beside in a magically white chef’s coat. The administrator leans across her desk. Her face is warm and solicitous, and I worry my distress is less buried than I think.

“What kind of cook do you want to be?”

“I’ve always wanted to be a Bourdain type.”

I mean the type who sees something soulful, something essential in food. I wonder if they thought I meant the type with a TV show.

I leave with a good feeling about getting into the school. I drive home across a rural stretch of Colorado in the spring night. I go home, shut myself in my room, and think about dying.


Suicide isn’t like any other kind of dying. Death is a lightning bolt—no matter how long the storm builds up, the strike is always an instant. Suicide is the gap between the lightning and the thunder. The silence and the rumble on the other end of it. The internal five-count, and the creeping fear that the lightning is closer to you than you want.

I can’t hear about a suicide without thinking about the way my own urges rose up in me. How they’re hidden away, the serpent in the sea-cave, the dragon in the ruined tower.

I went to culinary school. I cooked, I fed. It didn’t make me feel better. The fact that it didn’t make me feel better made me feel even worse.

At night, I would watch No Reservations. Anthony Bourdain presented something so life-affirming. I could see it. I could taste it. But I didn’t realize then how different that was than having it.


In my twenties, I credited a lot of things with saving my life. Food, family, stand-up.

All these things helped: food let me build something tangible, something people needed when I was feeling the most worthless. My family stood by me when they didn’t have to. Stand-up has given me direction, passion, and discipline.

But none of these saved my life. They gave me a reason to save myself.

That is all I believe we can ask of anyone or anything. Give us a reason. A reason seems smaller, more humble than the grand gestures we’re so fond of. It is, to borrow a Bourdain phrase, a simple, good thing. And when you are in the dark, it may be the surest lifeline you can grab.

I used to think Anthony Bourdain saved my life. I know I got something from his work. Something vital. And I am thankful.

The Denver Scooter Invasion

Denver is under siege.

For five days, invaders have run through our streets, even in broad daylight.

Lime Bike set loose 200 of their electric scooters on Memorial Day without permission of the city, according to Colorado Public Radio. Since then the scooters have been wildly popular among the same people who camped out for Shake Shack.

The scooters cost just one dollar to start, which is bad planning because Denverites have proven we will pay way more than that for some brunch-ass shit like this.

Denver will find a way to smother this in green chili and hollandaise. ( Photo source ).

Denver will find a way to smother this in green chili and hollandaise. (Photo source).

In just the last few days I’ve seen scooters weaving in and out of traffic, barreling down sidewalks, and clogging up bike lanes. They’re being left outside of bars, because the only thing more embarrassing a DUI is getting one while riding a child’s toy.

Denver Public Works has already started removing scooters parked in the middle of sidewalks (thanks, Fox 31 News). The Lime app instructs users to park near bike racks and other manageable locations. They forget that their customer base is mostly assholes.

Lime Chart.png

According to the company’s blog, the rollout of the sharing program, “comes after weeks of careful planning with community leaders and City Counselors.” To whatever extent this is or isn’t true, Denver Public Works seems to have been kept in the dark. So was I, which is more upsetting.

Denver needs more ways to get around. More access, more coverage. This isn’t it. This is a toy for the same frivolous Chads and Beckys clogging the waitlist at Snooze.

So until the day DPW scoops up the last of the Lime locusts, that’s what I’ll tell myself. For everyone tooling around on a rented meance, that’s one less person I have to deal with in Trader Joe’s parking lot.
 

First update!

Hey everyone! I guess this is the page where I'll start posting my upcoming shows and my anxious thoughts.

I just returned from a trip to New York where everything other than the comedy was a complete disaster.

Our flight circled LaGuardia for an hour because of a storm. We ended up landing in the sixth borough, Cleveland, Ohio. 

When we finally made it to New York the next morning, we were stranded. Our hotel cancelled our reservation (despite assuring us over the phone that they would hold our room), and every hotel we contacted was completely full. I assume many people were visiting Long Island City for the 39th annual Decay Convention.

We eventually figured out accommodations, but after two days of travelling and two hours of sleep, it was time to head back to LIC for the show at Creek & Cave. 

Barely Making It was so much fun, I can't thank y'all enough for getting me up at the last minute. Sitting in the dining room at that place is crazy intimidating. The wall is lined with photos of so many great comics. They stare down at you as you try to figure out a graceful way to eat a tostada (there isn't one). 

We crossed off a total of zero items from our New York to-do list. I did manage to avoid making eye contact with anyone, so it was an authentic experience. 

Frustrated, we moved up our return flight to Denver. That flight was cancelled because of rain in Cincinnati. Taken out of context, that doesn't make any sense. But in an airport, you take everything said by someone with a microphone for granted.

We spent the night in an airport hotel and finally made it home yesterday. Not before I spent $16 on a bagel. I can't say way, but when I paid, I said out loud, "Fucking DiBlasio." It's one hell of a town.

Anyway, catch me guest hosting Queen City Companion on June 7th (at Mutiny Information Cafe in Denver).
I'll be on New Money on June 13th (at License no. 1 in Boulder).
New episodes of The Revisionists every other Saturday!