Love & Wisdom

Live, Laugh, Bomb


By Julie Zack September 29, 2023

The author performing her comedy routine

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

As with many Tinder dates, things didn’t go quite as I expected. For example, I didn’t intend to have multiple guys I’d matched with in the same place, at the same time. Especially when that place was a comedy open mic that was going to be my first and possibly only attempt at stand-up.

After a bad breakup, I was back on the dating apps, looking to see if maybe this time, I’d do slightly better at finding a romantic partner. My likes fell into two broad categories: people who looked fun and people who looked interesting. As it turned out, everyone with pictures of themselves doing stand-up looked both fun and interesting, and I ended up matching with several amateur comics.

What drew me to comedians? Awe. The bulk of my childhood took place in the ’90s, and my parents introduced me to some comedy greats at a young age. I watched Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, and infamously, Eddie Murphy, who inspired me to drop my first F-bomb at the tender age of 7. The thing about great comedians is that they make comedy look easy. The truth is, as I quickly learned (and as Jerry Seinfeld has observed), it’s hard to make people laugh from a stage. It’s a different experience from telling a joke with friends or a funny story at a party. Stand-up is a skill, and all of us are fated to bomb as we gain experience, even the greats.

That first night took place at the Shanghai Room, a bar that somehow manages to be both grimy and charming. I was meeting Noah, who I had messaged on an app the day previously about my long-standing desire to try comedy, and he encouraged me to come to an open mic he produced. When I got there, I discovered Noah had a stage name: Dino Dad. I didn’t realize people had stage names and showed up wearing a dinosaur shirt and T. Rex earrings. He saw it as fate. I saw it as an unfortunate coincidence.

In another strange twist of fate, I’d been messaging a second comic and potential suitor who told me he was also planning to be at the Shanghai Room that night. And, to make things extra cozy, he was friends with Noah. Before I even got started, I learned my first lesson in the comedy world: It’s a small community and most people in the area know each other.

When we all met up, it was mostly fine. We laughed it off, but I felt uncomfortable in the moment. I didn’t end up dating either comic, but we’re all friends now. That night, none of us knew how it would play out, and the situation added to my palpable nervous energy. 

Everyone there, including my date(s), was encouraging. They wanted me to go up and succeed. Someone told me the unofficial slogan of the venue is “Nobody bombs at the Shanghai Room.” How bad could it be?

Stand-up comedy open mics are an interesting experience. The people who go up on stage are usually either novice comics gaining experience, or more seasoned comics trying out new jokes on an audience before they add them to their performances. The result is a mix of unexpected big laughs and dead silences, regardless of the venue’s bombing policy.

Before I went up, I was terrified, but admittedly, also had visions of grandeur. I could picture myself onstage, a virtuoso, killing on my first attempt. Most people start comedy as they start walking: with a lot of falls.

On my drive to the Shanghai Room, I went over what I wanted to say, practicing it out loud. The second I stepped on stage, I went blank. There were lights in my face and strangers staring at me. I tried to make a joke about the awkward situation I faced on a first date with another Tinder match in the wings, but it didn’t land. I continued to tell some of the funny stories I’d accumulated as a single mom trying to date again in her mid-30s, but I was floundering. I was about to give up, admit defeat, and walk off the stage when the MC threw me a lifeline.

“Tell us more about online dating,” he shouted.

Suddenly, I knew what to say. I told the story of a guy on Bumble sending me a link to his Instagram account before we met. It seemed innocuous, so I clicked. His entire Instagram feed was pictures of himself, in a Speedo, launching what must have been a 30-foot flamethrower. People laughed, and I left the stage feeling like I mostly bombed but was also maybe not a complete failure.

The comedians I’d met that night were encouraging. They liked my stage presence. They said I should try again, and that I’d already done the hardest part: going up for the first time.

“You’re in it now. You’re in the community,” someone said. I didn’t realize it then, but they were right.

I kept at it. I found that the audience matters. My third try was at a brewery in Bellingham, and that was the first time I had an audience with a real audience, not just aspiring performers. Comics aren’t always great audience members because they’re often thinking about their sets instead of focusing on the stage. When you have an audience of people who want to laugh and be entertained, it tends to go better.

That night I debuted a joke about a man who’d asked on our first and only date if I’d given birth via C-section or vaginal delivery. I mused about how small his member must be if he had to attempt to tacitly inquire about the state of my vagina, then went on to question his basic understanding of human anatomy and muscular elasticity. What, did he think I was walking around with a Hydro Flask between my legs postpartum?

People laughed. The set ended with a joke about attempting to seduce a pastor and being thwarted when a poorly placed candle lit the bed on fire. I asked the crowd if any of them had also been blocked by God, then walked off stage to laughter and applause. It was the first time I felt as though I was really doing comedy.

A week later I told the same set at a small open mic at a dive bar in Greenwood where the only audience members were a handful other comedians. I don’t think I got a single laugh. It was the worst set I’ve done to date, despite being the same material that had worked so well before. This was my second lesson in comedy: Jokes that kill one time can flop another.

The key is to try. Nobody is funny in a vacuum. If you can go up once, you can do it again, and eventually, someone will laugh. Am I any good? Sometimes. I’m currently testing out a set about the challenges of solo parenting two little boys who oscillate between being adorable snuggle bugs and feral beasts who sometimes slap strangers on the ass while shouting, “Bongo butt!” Like my comedy, my parenting is a work in progress.

I moved to the Seattle area two years ago and started stand-up this spring. For my first 18 months here, I couldn’t find a community. The famous Seattle Freeze left me frosty. At my last open mic, I walked in by myself without planning to meet anyone and was able to sit at a table with friends, including a past Tinder swipe (or two). After my set, another comic roasted me. I laughed so hard, I almost peed. Comedy can be weird and uncomfortable, but I love any art form that puts a premium on bringing joy.

‘If it Doesn’t Go. Well, Do it Again’

Tips from local comics on starting a stand-up routine

Adam Tiller: Comedy is like sex. Most people aren’t good at it when they start, and if they are, it’s kinda weird and doesn’t make much sense.

Dan Mills: Think about exactly what you are going to say before you get on stage. Consider if someone who doesn’t know you would understand the joke or story and adjust your setup/explanation to fit the joke. Also, just do the damn open mic. Pacific Northwest comedy crowds want you to do well, and the stakes couldn’t be lower. If it doesn’t go well, do it again.

Kate Carlson: Be prepared. Plan three to four minutes of material in advance. Winging it is a bad plan. Also, it’s never too late. Don’t let age stop you!

Noah Rubin (Dino Dad): Try to find a way to tell a story in one sentence and have fun.

Scott Coburn: I stood up for the first time because it scared the (crap) out of me. I like putting myself into uncomfortable situations and learning that I will be fine. Better to regret something you did than something you were too scared to do.

Amateur Hours

A few Seattle-area stand-up open mics

The Comedy Bar
Location: Capitol Hill
Open mics: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday; 9:30 p.m. Friday; 8:30 p.m. Sunday

The Shanghai Room
Location: Greenwood
Open mics: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday through Sunday

Tony V’s
Location: Everett
Open mic: 8 p.m. Monday

The Water Wheel
Location: Ballard
Open mic: 8 p.m. Wednesday

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