There is one coffee shop in Fairbanks. I mean, there are a handful, but there is really only one true coffee shop. By this I mean a place that has in it’s employ at least one condescending barista, (who tried to sell me psychedelics with my first cup of coffee) a horn-rimmed, stick-and-poke barista, and ambient music provided by obscure Canadian prog-rock bands or sensitive indie heroes.
This is Venue Coffee, in Fairbanks, and I spend a fair amount of time there. To be sure, much of my desire to go there is to drink good coffee, but the other half is to attempt to socialize with people that have not had their humor, goodness, and general zest for life frostbitten off by too much life in Alaska.
As I just finished having a conversation about non-linear time with horn-rimmed, stick-and-poke barista, I found a flyer on the counter advertising a stand-up comedy night. They were seeking additional comedians.
“I could do that and not dishonor myself and my family.” I thought to myself.
At that time in my life (which we can call B.C: Before Comedy) I had often entertained ideas of wowing an imaginary crowd with my very incisive, off-the-cuff dangerous rock-and-roll brand of comedy (that was also spiritually enlightening, socially conscious, and slapstick). I had watched enough HBO specials to get the basic thrust of stand-up comedy: You get really high on the audience which bolsters your sense of self, sending you into a sort of charming whirlwind of cocktail-party stories that need not be planned, only to be told with zeal. Not anyone could do that, but certainly I could do that. And so I called the person listed as the contact and made told him I was interested. I had made contact.
The Line-Up For Stardom/Destruction
A few days later the organizer, Levi, texted me asking if I wanted to be a part of the “line-up” and I said sure, deciding that I should really just dive head-first into the shallow waters rather than wading in. Committed, I began to sporadically think of things that were funny or conceive of very meta bits I could do, but I decided that the best course of action would be to just get on stage with nothing, like a man fighting a bear in the nude, and the adrenaline would carry me into stardom.
At the week whittled down to just a few days, I began to wonder if maybe now wasn’t the right time for my burgeoning career in making sad Alaskans laugh. My life was quite full of working, meeting people from China, playing music, and writing, I reasoned, so there was little need for me to take this on. It wasn’t that I was anxious, it just simply wasn’t practical. I wasn’t anxious, please stop suggesting that, because I wasn’t.
But my phone rang the day before the show with a number I didn’t recognize and I answered.
“Hello, this is Mike.”
“Oh, uh, yes, I’m planning on coming.”
“Oh, okay, I’ll show up around 8:45.”
I had agreed to make it official. I was locked-in. In 36 hours, I would be on-stage, bathed in spotlights where I belonged. I would be spreading joy and consciousness, as dictated by the cosmos.
Choose Your Identity
Gradually, I began to wonder if maybe I should have some loose idea of what my talking points would be. I realized quickly that with no previous stand-up experience, my comedic identity was still unwritten. Would I be a prop-comic, taking the stage with a large stuffed trout? Maybe I would be a race-oriented comic and talk about white people and their various social failings? Or would I do impressions, perhaps of obscure 19th century poets? The possibilities were limitless.
As I continued to not plan my set in any way, I concluded that talking about my lack of preparation to the audience would be the funniest course of action. I would at once strip away pretense, revealing the universal skeleton of the nature of comedy. I would present them with the core of the apple, the utter kernel of delight from which all comedy springs forth. I would just talk about my neurosis and lack of planning in a big-picture sort of way. I generally envisioned talking about this, and in my visions, the audience loved it, and I was very comfortable on stage. It would be a success. No one had previously dared to do what I was planning.
But despite my lofty ambitions, I began to wonder if I could easily fill the 8-minutes I had agreed to, and that maybe I should have a few fall-back talking points, just in case. I should not have any planned jokes or punchlines, no, that was beneath the transcendent nature of my performance, but I could jot down some funny observations and aspects of my life that were noteworthy. On a piece of paper I wrote:
-I live in a hut
-Fairbanks is your abusive spouse
-Don’t share Snapchat with me/dreams
I concluded that these bullet points would be enough to get me through in the unlikely event that I needed direction. But I would freely float like a jazz song, I was certain.
I arrived at Venue Coffee at about 8:45. My sense of the event had been a handful of about six rickety chairs facing a poorly lit stage. I had completely forgotten that in the winter, people are so desperate for contact and entertainment that they will literally do anything for fun, including pay $10 to see a line-up of comedians that includes me. There were probably 60 people in the club. Every seat was taken and clusters of people stood on the back wall and in the doorway, eager to watch the unfolding comedy.
My visualization had not included this many people, nor the fact that this was a paid event. It was fine, I told myself. I would be carried by my charisma, and planning was still something that was beneath me, a poor tool for weak-minded regulars.
There was an improv troup on stage doing a “sneak-peak” of a show later on in the week. They were surprisingly good, given that most improv makes me nervous and uncomfortable as I wait for the inevitable calamity of a scene stalling-out and crashing.
I found a free wall-space in the back once they wrapped up, before the stand-up line-up began at 9:00. I was second-from-last with about 6 or so comedians ahead of me. Going on later, when the audience was drunker and warmed-up would be an advantage, I thought.
The first comedian took the stage and immediately I knew I was in trouble. He was funny, well-rehearsed, and had lots of good material. He was, like, a real comedian. His set lasted probably 20 minutes, spanning from good anecdotes about working in Disneyland to being a minority in Fairbanks. He engaged with the audience charismatically, and was jus tthe right amount of deprecating. I became nervous.
Fortunately, things very quickly spiraled downward. Each subsequent comedians seemed objectively less funny than the last, or at least more high. Thankfully, this downward slope would reach it’s logical terminus: Mike Long, completely without experience or plan in front of a large, paying audience.
Curiously, even the comedians that were awful (by which I mean, mostly talking about their penis or spending a full 40-minutes telling adolescent weed-centric stories that would probably only be interesting if you had been directly involved) still got decent laughs, because they all seemed, to my eyes, fairly confident.
But it became apparent fairly quickly what Fairbanks comedy, or Fairbanks, generally, is all about. Topics more-or-less rigidly adhered to:
-How people in Valdez don’t understand fish biologists
-Living in a dry cabin
-The lack of women in Fairbanks
Even as the bar continually dropped, my nerves were fairly high, because despite whatever judgement I could throw at each comedian, they were all having fun (except for the guy right before me who just seemed kind of depressed as he talked about masturbating in national parks).
Here is a quick snippet of each of the comedians, along with a nickname I have given them based on their style and content:
Fish Biologist Comedian: 7/10
Native American Comedian With Awkwardly Direct Jokes 5/10
Creepy Young Comedian Who Should Continue Therapy First 2/10
Comedy Destroyer: M Long
After almost two hours, the audience had thinned and Levi, the host, began to introduce me. It was very surreal.
“I’ve never actually met this next comedian…” he was saying. But for some reason, my body was already in motion, and as he talked, I was staring up at him from the foot of the stage like a intoxicated vagrant.
Then my body got on stage and hugged him. I cannot explain any of this.
As I felt my body turn to face the waiting crowd, alternating waves of panic and excitement shorted-out my consciousness, and most of interminable string of blathering on is beyond recall to me at this point.
I thanked them for coming to my HBO special and the rest is kind of a haze of generally asking myself what the hell I was doing in Fairbanks, talking a LOT about Chinese people, then kind of backtracking and having to defend the fact that its not about Chinese people in particular, it’s just that I mostly interact with Chinese people, and then continuing to talk about Chinese people. I talked a lot about China. I had to ask people at the end if I seemed racist; ALWAYS a bad sign.
Inadvertently Super Racist Comedian: 4/10
I quickly realized how important real jokes are for comedians, especially in the beginning. Probably if you’re an old pro you can just casually talk to an audience and riff, but jazz musicians are created, not born. I should have been playing twinkle, twinkle, and instead I tried to improvise a symphony. Most of my stories were fairly well-told, but there was no joke, no punchline to carry me confidently into the next story. Instead, there was a dark abyss at the end of each story, a pointless hole that I tumbled into before trying to slowly climb out after awkwardly looking down at my useless notes.
I tumbled ever-downward into loose concentric-circles, attempting to reach the magic of the punchline, but like a toilet that never quite flushes, I mostly just spun idly. Eventually, I think I said “Okay, that’s all.”, and then just stopped talking. I haven’t watched a TON of comedy, but I’m pretty sure announcing “COMEDY OVER” is not a well-trod exit-strategy. I vaguely recall that people applauded as my body lurched off the stage.
After I got off stage some young people told me “good job” and high-fived me, and the stoner comic said:
“Dude, I get what you’re saying, for sure. It’s not that Chinese people are bad. It’s just Chinese TOURISTS.”
I started to explain that no, that wasn’t really it, either, but before I could, he started talking about how much he hates German tourists, and he seemed pretty high, so I just nodded appreciatively, still in a daze.
Where Does Jazz Come From?
The real point is that like music, we need danger and safety in proportion. Everyone knows free-jazz is the worst, and everyone also knows Mozart is the worst, and everyone knows a sweet guitar solo over an established rhythm is the best. If I ever again take to the stage, I will carry this lesson and probably solo my way into the hearts and minds of dozens of adoring fans.
Stand-Up comedy, like so many things, was ruined by TV. Having watched a few HBO specials and episodes of Seinfeld, it seemed so plain that the whole thing was just an easy ticket to laughter and free adoration. All one has to do, it seemed, is talk about life in an endearing, enthusiastic fashion and not alienate everyone with too many racist jokes. Easy-peasy.
As it turns out, all those people on TV are well-practiced and what appears to be improvisation is at best, sometimes improvisation, but is more likely just well-practiced storytelling.
I guess what I’m saying is that I blame TV for my failings and also it was late, and also I didn’t really feel like being funny.