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Naked on stage 

The masochistic joy of open-mic comedy in Atlanta

Every time I perform a set, I'm shaking. That should not be happening. I'm someone who has acted since I was a kid. I was a theatre major in college. Later, I performed live music for a living for years. I have been in front of crowds plenty, and yet, for some reason, just standing on stage trying to get people to laugh is the hardest thing I've ever done.

So why is it so amazing? And why do I keep going back?

I am still new at stand-up comedy. It hasn't quite been a year since I did my first set, on a Tuesday open-mic night at Limerick Junction in Virginia-Highland, and I have already wanted to quit many times. But I can't. If I do, that means I have given up on being funny, and funny is part of how I imagine myself. 

I was the class clown. I make my friends laugh. In fact, if it weren't for laughter, I would probably have never known the touch of a woman. I realized, though, if I'm walking around town calling myself a funny person, but I've never done real live comedy, then I am the worst kind of critic: the one who critiques other people's work, but himself creates nothing. I have no skin in the game.

Say you want to do some live comedy and try to earn your stripes. The city's vibrant live comedy scene offers outlets for amateurs and professionals alike. As I see it, there are two kinds: improv and stand-up. Open-mic stand-up can be found every night of the week at such places as the Atlanta Improv, Laughing Skull, and Limerick. Dad's Garage, Whole World, and Village Theatre all offer improv workshops to take you from rank amateur to pro.

Now, I love going to watch improv. Philosophically, however, as an art form, it doesn't speak to me. I'm a writer. Improvisers seem to be trying to have a collective meditative moment where the perfect idea occurs to them out of a clear mind. It is very hard. I admire the people who do it, but it's not for me. No, I want to sit at home, alone, in the dark, writing ideas down. Then I will speak them aloud only after I have memorized each word carefully. 

Have you ever played golf? It's horrible. You hit the round thing with the long thing, then search around in the bushes like Bear Grylls for a lost contact lens. Then you line up another shot, trying to compensate for the observed hooking motion of your previous swing, and slice the ball the opposite direction directly into a school building, which explodes. Finally, just when you're ready to snap your clubs over your knee and stab them into your body like gigantic acupuncture needles, somehow the stars align and you hit, with that classic snap sound, a shot that flies far and straight. 

Stand-up is like that. With each joke you hold your tender self-esteem out for the assembled listeners. You hope they respond with claps or laughter, which are cooling salves.

Often, though, there is disaster. Your joke is poorly conceived, poorly built, or perhaps poorly delivered. Many times it has all three problems. Last week I said this at the Atlanta Improv open-mic: "Sometimes people tell me I'm crazy, and I find the time when they most often say that is when I am just beginning to murder them." The crowd just stared blankly. In the back, a quiet cough was heard. Oh, how that cough hurt. OK, I guess these fine people can't relate to murder. Lesson learned.

But every now and then, I say the right thing in just the right way at just the right time, and people laugh. I doubt that there is any better feeling known to mankind. It is as though, in that moment, God himself has smiled directly through my upturned face and into my heart. 

Those are the stakes: possible horrifying quiet, possible life-affirming laughter.

And the grist is your life. Some people say that certain topics are off-limits, but I don't think that's true. You have to approach it just right, though.

You can certainly talk about everyone who broke your heart. As long as it's funny, you can whine for hours about your messy breakups, family dysfunction, the mundane yet poignant parts of your life.

Want to talk shit about your boss? Go right ahead! If he ever comes to your show, he will probably laugh right along, if you're funny. Got a neighbor who's a dick? Barky upstairs dog? Creepy uncle? Write a joke, go to an open-mic night, and talk shit about them. You'll find out in a quarter of a second whether you're funny or not.

Try it. Go to a club or bar and watch the other comics deliver jokes. If you catch yourself thinking, "Hell, I could do better than this guy," well, maybe you're right. Prove it.

There will be a microphone, probably a grizzled one. There will be a stand. Sometimes also there is a stool. The unlabeled water bottle is for celebrities, I've learned. That's all you get. The rest comes out of your soul. It might be hilarious! Or ... there will be silence.

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