I rode my bike to North Avenue Beach, which sits on the shores of Lake Michigan on the north side of Chicago. It was Friday evening, August 22, 2008. In my pocket were two folded-up sheets of paper. One contained a comedic poem I’d written called “Food Diary.” The other contained the details for the 7 p.m. “Beach Poet Series” open mic night at North Avenue Beach.

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I arrived at 6:50 p.m. and found the specified location—a particular outdoor area on the beach.

No evidence of a poetry open mic night could be seen. There were people playing volleyball, people playing chess, people reading novels, people lying on towels … no people reading poetry or preparing to read poetry. I asked several people whether they knew anything about the poetry open mic; none of them had any idea what I was talking about.

I reached into my pocket and took out the “Beach Poet Series” information that I’d printed from a website. And indeed it had a complete weekly schedule for several Fridays, including Friday, August 22, and the scheduled host for that night was a Cathleen Schandelmeier. And it was very specific about the location. And yet there was clearly no poetry open mic happening.

Eventually, well after the open mic night should have begun, I gave up hope and biked back to my apartment. I got back onto the website from which I’d gotten the information, and on a different page on the website, I noticed a reference to 1997.

I checked a calendar on-line and discovered that, indeed, August 22 was a Friday in 1997 as well as in 2008.

No wonder all of those people at the beach had no idea about a poetry open mic night. I was 11 years late. Exactly 11 years late. To the minute.

Sometimes I tell my writing students that the best way to start writing is to start writing.

A few weeks ago I began applying that principle to the pursuit of stand-up comedy.

For many months, I’d wanted to start doing stand-up. Though I’d done a bit in the late 1990s, during the 2000s my comedy had all been group-oriented work: improvisation and sketch comedy.

And though I eventually started wanting to go out on my own to do stand-up, I kept putting it off. After a decade of working with others on stage, the thought of doing comedy on stage alone was petrifying.

Finally, in August 2008, after a year of wanting to do stand-up comedy, I followed my own advice. The best way to start doing stand-up comedy is to start doing stand-up comedy. I made a personal commitment to perform stand-up comedy at least once per week for a full year. I began a blog called “52 Open Mics” at the website of Siblings of Doctors, the Indian-American comedy trio consisting of Rasika Mathur, Danny Pudi, and me.

In the months since, I’ve experienced failures and successes.

Failures have involved several instances of showing up for open mics that did not exist or were canceled for that night. For most of these (though not the one on the beach), I had brought along my musical equipment—a large keyboard, a keyboard stand, and a boom mic stand. Lugging these items onto buses and trains to traverse Chicago is a real chore. As I’m walking, I have to stop every 50 feet or so to set the items down and rest. And I usually have to take two or three buses or trains to get to a venue. Some people would say it’s not worth all of that effort to perform for five minutes at an open mic. To me it is worth it. But when the open mic turns out to not exist, the sense of demoralization is palpable.
Failures have also involved nights when I’ve performed and received virtually no reaction from the audience. Silence is a comic’s worst enemy, and that enemy has greeted me several times in the past few weeks.

Successes have taken the form of several performances in which I’ve had the audience laughing enthusiastically. On some of those nights, other comics have approached me after the show and said they really enjoyed my work. I even won some cash at one open mic when the audience voted me the best act of the night.

I am slowly climbing the learning curve in terms of stand-up comedy. Here’s one bit of evidence: After several weeks of doing 3 to 5-minute sets at open mics, I am now starting to get booked for longer 8 to 10-minute sets at showcases. (At an open mic, anybody can sign up and perform. A showcase is one level higher in the stand-up hierarchy; you must be booked in advance to perform at a showcase, and you usually get a longer time-slot.)

I am still doing plenty of group-oriented comedy. In fact, I’m currently co-writing two new sketch shows that will open in January 2009: one with Siblings of Doctors, and another with Cupid Players, a Chicago-based musical sketch comedy troupe.

I have no plans to stop doing sketch comedy and improvisation anytime soon. There is and always will be something wonderful about writing and performing with people you love.

But now I’m gaining an additional prize: What started out as the fear of performing alone is now becoming the joy of performing alone.

Visit Ranjit’s blog, “52 Open Mics.”

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.

 

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