As I've intimated before, open mic nights are rare, transient things. Not quite a century flower, more a colleague's fart that topples a polystyrene cup.
In Shepherd's Bush, I went to the Knock 2 New night at Bar FM, a weirdly clandestine cocktail bar full of leather sofas and disco lights that rolls up its blue security shutter and emerges like the head of a tortoise every night, just after 6pm. Before it opened, I watched an overweight, bearded Danish guy plod up and down outside, apparently baffled. He wore a wide brimmed hat, khaki shorts and brown leather sandals, and he was sweating like a doughnut in hot Tupperware, his t-shirt dark with perspiration. I leant against the wall and quietly judged him, feeling superior because I was hiding my confusion beneath a facade of indifference.
At about twenty past six the blue shutter rolled up to reveal a stairway leading downwards off the street, and a sign with the bar's name on. The street was busy and, perhaps because of the fair taking place on the common, seemed to be riddled with arseholes and sketchy nutters. Some teenager was standing in the middle of the road, mates either side of him, sounding off at the top of his voice.
'Did you see that? That guy just fucking gave me two fingers! That guy in the fucking car!' He was spazzing like a Revivalist. 'He fucking disrespected me! I'll fucking kill him! I should've slung a brick through his window!' He mimed hurling something, with a motion that suggested more of a weighted sock than a brick. 'Where's he gone? I'll fucking kill him!' He was marching up and down the pavement, shrugging off mates who touched his shoulder. His volatility made me feel nervous. I was lugging my huge backpack and my ukulele. I felt suddenly vulnerable. I imagined he might turn on someone he felt was looking at him the wrong way. Already, on the way to the venue, I'd encountered a big guy in a baseball cap, stripey vest and gold chains approaching me on the pavement. I moved to the right so as not to bump into him, and he moved the same way, and when I kept moving right he kept moving, as if to intercept me, looking right at me. Just as we were about to bump into each other, I felt a whack to my backpack, and some stringy skinhead thumped past both of us, through the narrow gap between my side and the railings, and went sprinting on up the street, weaving in and out of pedestrians.
In the end, I felt so uncomfortable I binned the last third of my chicken, bacon and avacado bagel so I could go into the club early.
Now I read that sentence back it sounds like the most middle-class sentence ever. Please don't judge me as a prejudiced snob. I'm not a snob. Just - in some situations - cowardly.
It turned out that this night was to be the last Knock 2 New ever. I was present at the death of an open mic.
'We just don't get the audience,' said Alex, the evening's compere, as we sat at a table in the corner, before things kicked off. I was drinking a 16oz highball glass of pineapple juice and lemonade that had cost me three quid. 'We do another night with established acts, you know, proper big names, and it's packed.' He swept his hand across the empty room, implying a bobbing vista of enthusiastic punters.
I can understand why paying to watch a dozen or so strangers learn public speaking live on stage might not sound like a promising use of one's time, but the more stand-up open mics I go to, the more I feel like they've got something genuine to offer the more adventurous punter. Whereas professional comedy club circuit gigs usually cost well over a tenner on the door, and there's a nagging inauthenticity to the apparently spontaneous 'antics' that take place (if I have to watch one more professional compere go through ten minutes of that 'what's your name, sir? And what do you do?' flatus, well... I won't be very entertained, that's for sure), at open mics all bets are off. And I just don't mean in the sense that sometimes someone does something eye-gougingly wacky - 'There was this geezer, right, and he gets up on stage... No wait, wait... Oh mate I'm cracking up just remembering it... So this geezer gets up on stage, right... and he's only wearing a chicken costume! A fucking chicken costume! How mad is that?' - but in the sense that some of the most interesting stuff that happpens isn't comedy.
In a comedy club, a significant amount of money has changed hands, and it creates an implicit contract between the audience and the performers, and quite a strong dynamic. Tactics for 'setting up a room' get shared between comperes until they're pretty much uniform anywhere you go. At a stand-up open mic, the contract is often far more hazily defined. Often there are audience members who've come to support a friend, and who maybe have never been to a comedy night before. A lot of the audience will be other acts, who are sometimes quite nervous and preoccupied with what they're about to go up and do, sometimes very keen to be supportive and make the night feel warm and friendly, and occasionally actively hostile towards the other acts.
A lot of open mic acts don't write gags so much as mine their life for anecdotes that usually go down well with mates. Most people have got a sort of 'greatest hits' of their most awesome, surefire 'well, there was this one time...' themed stories that go down well at parties, and so their set seems to sort of branch off from those. Unfortunately, because these events really happened, people tend to forget to edit, so you get rambling odysseys absurdly frontloaded with irrelevant contextual details, leading up to a denouement, 'and, no word of a lie, my actual response to him, was: "Don't be such a silly goose!"' and then the person grins proudly to the audience, as if they've just spunked their name onto a chocolate cake.
But sometimes, although these anecdotes aren't funny, (and, presented as stand-up, 'mildly entertaining' becomes 'aggressively, grief-inducingly unfunny') they're interesting and compelling in their own right. Under the mantle of stand-up, people go up and talk about their failed relationships, their awful jobs, their loneliness, in a way I suppose they imagine will come across as hilarious and self-deprecating, but, to me at least, often comes across as bizarre and unique and really human. Sometimes the least funny comedians are the ones I enjoy the most, because they're the ones who adhere least to the reductive constraints of stand-up, and end up talking about, you know, actual stuff, rather than seeding their entire monologue with artificial 'twists' to trip the audience's laughter reflex.
The Knock 2 New audience ended up being almost entirely acts, with a large contingent of people who I assumed were friends of the landlady, (this may just be me being an ignorant racist - I assumed they were her friends because they were the same ethnicity as her. They seemed chummy, but they may, of course, have been total strangers) sat off at a table near the back, drinking, chatting amongst themselves, and totally ignoring the gig.
Alex gamely got on stage and tried to soldier through 10 minutes of the generic comedy compere's 'talking to the audience' schtick, even though, with the crowd mostly composed of other performers, he had pretty much nobody to talk to. I got the impression that he had mentally committed to doing a 'proper' compere routine before arriving at the gig, as part of an ongoing effort to develop the craft.
I was genuinely riveted, watching his expressions and body language as repeated attempts to establish a rapport fell flat.
'So what's your name fella? And where are you from? Ooh, [town x]. And how's that?' He didn't really have any material to riff off what people were saying, but also, fatally, nobody wanted to talk to him. Not just in the supposedly funny shy-reluctant way that some comperes try to exploit, but in an actively hostile 'stop fucking talking to me' contempt-filled way. A guy called Darren, who I saw do a set in Manchester back at the beginning of the month, pretended not to be an act, and rather cruelly set about stringing Alex along.
'What's that fella?' said Alex. 'You're not an act?'
'No.' Darren was sitting just behind me.
'What's your name fella?'
'And why've you come down here tonight?'
Darren clapped a hand on my shoulder. 'I'm here to give moral support to my good mate Tim.'
'Oh that's great. And where you from?'
'Manchester? So what do you make of London?'
At this point, Darren slapped his palms together and began rubbing them. 'Oh mate, it's too big. I can't get my head around it.'
Some other people in the audience, who knew Darren was a performer, started giggling. Alex started smiling too, apparently believing he'd struck gold with a gauche, talkative audience member - the platonic ideal of compere-fodder.
'You think London's very big,' Alex repeated, then shot a glance at the rest of the crowd as if to say get a load of this rube!
'Yeah, and what about the Tube, man? It's always so busy.' The other acts who were in on the joke were by now sniggering and guffawing uncontrollably.
'You don't enjoy that?'
'When I get in a tube train, I feel like I'm inside a giant metal coffin.'
'Like you're in a coffin? So... so what song would you want played at your funeral?'
'Um... probably Will Young, I Think I Better Leave Right Now.' This got the biggest laugh of the night so far. 'Actually, I'm an act, mate.'
'What?' Alex's face fell.
'I'm an act. I'm Darren, I'm on later.' The audience all laughed, at, rather than with, the compere.
Alex looked at the floor, and made a loud 'huhhhh' noise, somewhere between a sigh and an anguished groan. This would become his signature move over the next seven or so minutes. He trudged across the stage and tried to keep going, calling to someone towards the back: 'Are you an act too, mate? You're not? What song would you have played at your funeral?'
'Kill the DJ,' said a chap with little librarian specs and chin length hair in a greasy centre parting.
'Kill the DJ. Good choice,' said Alex. He nodded. 'Good choice.' There was a pause.
'Hang the DJ,' shouted someone from the other side of the room.
'What's that fella?' said Alex.
'It's "Hang the DJ".'
You could almost hear a dozen people flinch as they simultaneously thought: no it's not.
'Very well pointed out, fella. Hang the DJ, is of course the name of the song.' There were some brief, aggravated mutterings amongst the audience. 'What's that? Oh, right. Yes... also known as Panic.' A kind of stagnant indifference settled across the crowd. Alex looked down at his feet. 'Huhhhh.'
I feel I ought to point out that I didn't think Darren was very gracious, and when I went up in front of that odd, vaguely irritated audience I withered in a laughless desert too, but I found it absolutely fascinating to watch the psychology of someone struggling on stage. If that seems a bit dehumanising and sadistic, then I'd concede that there's an element of the latter, but given that I've been putting myself out there as well, and given that, ultimately, these are events of very little consequence - unpaid nights in front of vanishingly small audiences - I reckon watching people die is a fairly harmless form of entertainment and elucidation. It reveals far more facets of a stranger's character than a slick set in front of a packed, roistering comedy club audience.
I wonder, somewhat idly, if what I've been watching is a form of live reality television. It has the same advantages of thrift and spontaneity, and offers a peculiar antidote to the homogeneity of the supposed experts. Watching clips of the Gong Show from the seventies, you can practically see Variety's tattered corpse give its final twitch before disgorging the ravenous chestburster of Reality TV. Slick professionalism may work for inducing Shock and Awe, but it's the strange, uncomfortable, arresting intimacy of fear, of live failure, that wins over Hearts and Minds.