The first time Kelsie Huff performed stand-up in Chicago, she was greeted by two comics who were drunkenly vomiting outside the venue. Once inside, things didn't get much better—another comic she attended the show with went onstage first and stole all of Huff's jokes. The ordeal was an experience that almost made her quit comedy altogether, but as time passed she came to terms with the fact that everyone starts by working the painful and awkward rooms of open mikes.
The new Chicago-based webseries The Open Mic—created by Huff and fellow stand-up Daryl Moon—follows the pair as they start their own open-mike night at Gallery Cabaret, the Bucktown bar where all the episodes were filmed, which hosts open mikes five nights a week. The cast is made up of local comics dealing with issues that amateur stand-ups often face, like handling the guy who loves telling rape jokes, sitting through hours of bad jokes at 11 PM on a weeknight just to get three minutes on stage, and recovering from a laughless set.
"We wanted to really focus on failure," Huff says. "You can't become great if you don't eat shit. Hopefully this is something that will reach out and be like, 'Hey, you're not alone. We're all dealing with some crazy shit, we all feel like failures. We're all in this together.'"
I asked the cast of The Open Mic to share their real-life open-mike stories and their go-to spots in the city for trying out new material.
Go-to open mike: Just Dicking Around at Hydrate
I was at an open mike with nothing but straight bros, and they all called me out as the "one women here." The comic right before me didn't do a set at all, and instead just hit on me in a very graphic way. The host just said, "Welcome to being the only girl at an open mike!" and laughed. Then, after doing my set and doing well, the host said, "Wow! She was actually pretty funny!" Actually?!
Go-to open mike: Cole's
One of the few times that someone was given the hook at Cole's was when a guy in his 50s in a tracksuit decided to use one of the handles on the back of the onstage piano as a phallic prop, which he slowly stroked while making graphic moaning sounds. Once you've seen a guy jerk off a piano, you can never really unsee it.
Go-to open mike: You Joke Like a Girl at Volumes Cafe
The worst, I hate to say, was when I did an [open mike] and made a reference about my body image. I was wearing a black low-cut dress that fit me really well, but this female comic came up to me and said in a snide tone, "Your jokes would be better if you didn't look the way you do." It was so painful. At that point, I had been hit on and made fun of by many male counterparts, including a guy who told me that he's never fucked a MILF (I'm a mom). But having a woman talk to me like that broke my heart.
Go-to open mike: Irish Eyes
My first night of open-mike comedy I was 15 years old and my mom drove me an hour and a half to Chicago from the suburbs. It was a Tuesday night, and we went to the Noble Tree Cafe, which has since closed. There were three comics that signed up on the list, including myself. The first open-mike set I did was in front of two comics and my mom. Horrifying and a success at the same time.
Go-to open mike: The road
When I was still within my first couple years of performing and still living in Des Moines, another open-mike friend of mine and I drove down to a comedy club in Kansas City for their open mike. I called the club that morning and was told we were on the list. When we showed up, the local "road comic" who emceed told us that we were supposed to also call his phone to get on the list. He sighed and muttered something inaudible, but which clearly contained "fucking open mikers." He said that since we drove so far, he would get us on the show at the end. The show started and a seemingly never-ending cavalcade of terrible comedians marched through the room. After what seemed to be the greater part of the 20th century, the host thanked the audience and said the show was over. When we ran up to him, he said the show ran late and we got bumped. Now seems like the appropriate time to mention that we had to pay ten dollars each to perform. He told us tough, that's comedy. That was my last time ever paying to perform comedy.
Go-to open mike: The Chaser at ComedySportz
When I was starting out, for a while I would purposefully sign up later on lists so I would go at the worst times, like at 1 AM and everyone's drunk and tired, because I'm a really wordy, history-reference-joke comedian, and I wanted to make it hard for myself. If I could get a laugh then, I could get a laugh in better conditions. Like training with weights on.
Go-to open mike: The Riff at Gallery Cabaret
My worst open-mike horror story is doing an open mike with all straight white men. My gay-lady comedy didn't go over very well at all. Crickets. v