To be a comic is to believe two truths simultaneously
Standup Comedy in Pre-COVID New York City Taught Me How To Live
It’s going to take a long time to return to what we once had
Jeff Simmermon hosts “The Reluctant Phoenix” podcast, available wherever the finest digital audio is distributed.
On April second, 2021, New York City comedy clubs will open to masked audiences at 33 percent capacity. While it’s a step in the right direction, the city’s filthy, frantic and fecund comedy scene is made up of much more than traditional comedy clubs and it may never be the same.
I released a standup album in May of 2020, and my last weekend of shows in clubs, bars and basements across New York before recording it didn’t just help me to grow as a comedian — it forced me to grow as a human being.
I quit a stable six-figure job six years ago because I knew I’d never forgive myself for not trying my hardest to be a full-time standup comic.
If I’m out of comedy after I record this album, I want to show my colleagues at my digital marketing job that I’m not some hobby-ass dabbler, a grey-bearded Michael Scott that did a few open mics and now coasts around the office on stolen comedy valor.
Most of my stage time is in New York City, 5–15 minutes at a time, stapled together in a patchwork of storytelling shows, open mics, indie bar shows and occasional club spots. Building an hour out of 5–10 minute sets is like carving a marble frieze with a toothbrush.
Real artists don’t wait for the right tools to fall out of the sky, they just pick up the tools they have and start brushing.
It is now the Friday afternoon of my last weekend of shows before recording and I’m sitting with my back to the wall at NYC Coffee and Bagel in Astoria and transcribing a set, wincing through my “ums” and “uhs” and kicking myself in the face every time I say “let’s see what else?”
I’m not transcribing this set because it’s fun and builds my self-esteem.
I’m transcribing this set because typing every word and pause slows my mind down enough to think about every syllable, word, and sentence. It burns the material deep into my cranial folds, and sometimes a new joke jumps out fully formed.
Nobody goes to NYC Coffee and Bagel in Astoria because the coffee’s fantastic and they sure don’t go there because they know how to make a hot sandwich the first time you ask.
You go to NYC Coffee and Bagel in Astoria because it’s “Cheers” for standups and it’s two blocks away from QED. The place is packed with guys that work the Cellar, career open micers who will never, ever improve, comics that inspire you to get better and sick pricks that get precious writing jobs despite an utter lack of onstage effort and an obvious personality disorder.
You can spend the afternoon writing, bounce a bit off somebody over coffee and then run two blocks down the street to test it out on a real stage. It’s worth it to me to take the 90 minute trip by subway from my place in Flatbush three times a week just to soak it up even if I never pull out my earbuds.
Something hits me that makes me snicker while sitting alone in a corner and I run out the door and down the street, fast-walking and gulping coffee until I get to QED’s awning. Then I dump my coffee in the gutter, walk in the door and buy a fresh one from the bartender as I sign up for the open mic.
Buying a few coffees I don’t need keeps the kidneys limber and helps Kambri pay the staff. She’s put every molecule of her soul into that place and God cannot help you if she catches you with outside food or drink.
The showroom is pitch-black and packed, vaporized sweat and droplets from forced laughter swirling and settling onto piles of coats and comics at tables scribbling sets by the light of a smartphone. The comedic challenge here is to use my new joke to knock the laughter out of a roomful of people who are kind of mad at the guy who’s onstage.
Every comedy open mic has a couple guys with backwards ball hats inside their minds who think they’re bold truth-tellers that aren’t scared of the PC police but are actually just broadcasting their own misogyny.
QED has the fewest of any open mic in NYC, but these guys are the hog’s rectums inside hotdogs — get rid of them completely and you’re paying for a whole different grade of meat.
I’m lucky enough to get up early and throw out my preferred open-mic combo move: one or two riffs on what’s going on in the room, polish an older joke that usually works to earn the comedic trust and then back-flip off the trapeze with the brand-new material. It cracks the room open a little further than it was when I got onstage and hot damn, I might just be a real comedian here.
I shake the host’s hand on the way offstage and grab my own breath-soaked backpack and head back into the cold.
Typically I try to stay for a few sets after my own to support the room but I’ve got a spot at Private Office (not its real name) and I need to try this new gem at a real, live comedy show. Plus, Erika — my fiancee — is coming to this one and bringing a few friends and I wanna show off my brand-new witticism.
Private Office is one of the best indie shows in the city, an Authentic New York Gem that makes you feel like you’re part of something vibrant and cool — you get buzzed in and go up some steep creaky steps and around a corner and all of a sudden you’re in a tiny bar that smells like Snoop Dogg’s tour bus. There’s a little table in the corner of the bar where a cheerful woman cranks out fresh Eggo-sized waffles infused with weapons-grade cannabis butter.
The show is a thrill and an honor but I find that I’m going to get a better read on my material if I go up in the first half. Otherwise, the weed waffles start hitting the crowd and everyone’s too stoned to move their faces when they laugh.
At least, that’s what I’ve told myself.
I catch Erika and her buddies and wave hello, crouch-running up for a quick smooch but I can’t sit with them. I have to sit outside and listen to my last set while scribbling notes and listening to old thrash metal in order to conjure as much adrenaline as I can while focusing on my material.
I like to think this preps the nervous system so the rush of the spotlight doesn’t completely flush away everything I was going to say, simulating a state-specific association that helps with recall.
Or maybe it’s just the one blue shoe I wear to the roulette table, a superstition that stuck.
Then The Guy walks in. He’s written and starred in a beloved network sitcom and if you’re producing a show it’s a thrill to have him drop in. The show producer is so thrilled to have him drop in that he puts The Guy up just before me, bumping me into weed waffle territory.
This happens all the time in stand-up. But I can’t believe it’s happening to me tonight.
“Hey, a set on a great show is still a set on a great show,” I tell myself as I shake The Guy’s hand on my way to the stage. The new joke doesn’t get shrieks and tears but it doesn’t flop either. The eyes in the front few rows seem a little glassy and the laughs roll up to the stage slow and low. I need heat and thunder.
To be a comic is to believe two truths simultaneously:
1) It’s your responsibility to consistently kill so hard the next comic gets nervous and if you don’t, you’ve failed at your job.
2) A roomful of people high on bespoke edibles aren’t exactly a solid control group.
Erika has perfected the art of texting me from the audience — she pretends to be searching for something in her bag and only does it when the host is onstage: “Wanna grab a drink w/us after?”
“Can’t,” I reply. “I gotta get in another set and if I leave right now Max Bruno might put me up at Cobra Club.”
She replies: “Yeah I get that — love U.”
In a perfect metaphor for Bushwick in 2019, “Cobra Club” sounds like a badass biker joint but is actually a dive bar with a community yoga studio in the back. “Live From Outer Space” is the weekly standup show in the yoga room every Friday night and it’s another stealth bar show gem — I don’t think it’s ever made a New York Media list, and I selfishly hope it never does.
Two audience members and two comics say “hey good set” to me after the show, and now I’ve got no idea what to think. The audience is never lying when they say it, but comics always are. Nobody from the show makes eye contact with me in line at the taco truck outside, and now I’ve decided I actually bombed.
Erika is asleep on the couch with the lights blazing when I get home, sleeping so hard she didn’t hear me at the door. I stand there, watching her breathe and wonder: why do I spend so much time trying to get strangers to like me when I have one person at home who loves me?
All my friends outside comedy have families now.
Testicular cancer and a divorce set my family plan back a few years and I’m just now with the right person. Part of me thinks that if I’d really buckled down I could have created a small audience of my own by now.
Erika stirs and awakens, saying “I waited up for you but I just had to close my eyes a little bit. How’d it go?”
“Eh, OK. Tough to get a read on the new bit, but it was good to run the other material.”
“Yeah, I liked the new thing you did tonight but I feel like some of the other stuff worked better other times I’ve seen it. We can go over your set in the morning.”
One of the luxuries of being a childless artist in New York is that the phrase “in the morning” means “around noon on Saturday.” Erika listens to all three sets with me over coffee in bed and offers detailed notes and I feel supported, understood and inspired to give it another couple tries tonight.
I’m doing the Liar Show at 6 tonight in a little room underneath Cornelia Street Cafe in the Village.The Liar Show’s premise is that four people tell a story but one of them’s lying and at the end, the audience interrogates the performers to find the liar.
And because it’s a story show, there’s no pressure to get laughs every thirty seconds — I can stretch out, build character and when the laughs do come they shoot through that submarine-shaped room and hit like cannonballs.
My challenge is to organically work the new joke into the story I’m working out tonight so that it doesn’t feel stapled onto the side. The crowd laughs at the new material in my story but stays quiet for other reliable laugh lines, so now I’m wondering if the older stuff still works.
My old friend Brad Lawrence hosts the show and he knows my insecurities well. He tells me afterwards, “you gotta remember that this crowd is listening intently to try and catch you in a lie, not focusing on the entertainment value. You did great.”
But did I? Or did I do “good enough?” I carry J.K. Simmons’ character in “Whiplash” around in my skull and he’s making a solid case.
I’m closing out “Big Break” at The Nest under Bluebird in Flatbush. It’s a ten minute walk from my house, I’m friends with the bartender and the hosts of the show and if I can’t win this home game, it’s time to quit the team and open a car dealership.
The problem with killing a show is that it always feels the same: like surfing a wave of liquid gold, validating every choice I made on that stage and every choice I made in my life that got me to that stage. I never learn anything from killing except that I’m periodically capable of it, but sometimes that’s enough to keep me in the game.
As a little reward for my competence, I treat myself to a chopped cheese and a ride home in the Dollar Van.
On Sunday night, I bump into Joe Zimmerman as he’s leaving New York Comedy club and he says “so, big taping in a few weeks! How’s it coming?”
“Man, I don’t even know,” I say. “I’m trying to get this stuff as perfect as I can get it but I’m starting to wonder if this is as good as I’ll ever get. I mean, is this gonna be my life, scrapping for sets five to fifteen minutes at a time? What’s the point?”
“Look man, I gotta tell you something about yourself here. You’re grinding hard, really putting in the work, and everybody can tell. And that’s great. But you’re gritting your teeth and giving off an energy that may be pushing away the success you’re chasing.”
“I’m trying my best here, what else can I do?”
“Just try to embrace any situation for what it is. If it’s a great night, enjoy the great night. But you gotta find something in the shitty ones to enjoy too. Like, appreciate the bad parts or else you’re just making yourself miserable.”
It’s good advice, though it’s hard to discover that you need help being even more self-conscious.
The corridor to the showroom at New York Comedy Club is narrow enough that I’ve got to turn sideways to let someone pass. On my way in, a woman bursts through the showroom door and squeezes past just in time to pressure-wash the floor and both walls with a powerful stream of vomit. The bouncer says “get in here quick, man, don’t leave the door open or the smell will get in!”
“Cool, Joe,” I think. “Is this the situation I need to embrace?”
The host brings me to the stage and I stick right into it. And it’s going pretty good — the crowd work at the top is fun and doesn’t go too long and my first real joke pops. The room’s on board and they’re ready to wring a little more fun out of a Sunday night.
From the stage, I can see the house staff setting up wet floor signs in the hallway and calling in a HazMat team to mop up the vomit. It’s a real Slip-N-Slide out there, a huge liability if anyone falls. A couple people get up to leave, but the bouncer sends them back to their seats. And the waitstaff can’t get in to drop the checks.
Then the host grabs my attention from the side of the stage and mimes stretching invisible taffy with his hands while mouthing the words every struggling comic loves to hear: “GO LONG.”
I’ve got a captive audience with no distractions and all the time in the world. I’ve got short bits and long stories and crowd work and finally, after a long weekend of beating myself up for every stupid syllable, I can relax and do what I came here to do: fuck around and have fun.
The Q train home takes an ice age on Sunday night. For once, I don’t dissect my set in my headphones on the way home. By the time the train groans over the Manhattan Bridge I’m not even thinking about comedy anymore. I imagine Daredevil fighting the Punisher on the rooftops in Chinatown, and see the Financial District glittering in the dark below.
I think about all the people in those buildings that come into an office every morning and pretend to laugh at the boss’s weak jokes just to make money.
Me, I get to go out every night and live.
It’s been about a year since that last hectic weekend of shows, a full year since I nitpicked every syllable of my own voice and begged for strangers’ approval while a woman vomited within earshot.
And it can’t come back fast enough.
Jeff Simmermon hosts “The Reluctant Phoenix” podcast, available wherever the finest digital audio is distributed.