The School of Hard Yuks

Knock, knock. Who's there? It's an overabundant gaggle of the funny and unfunny -- all eager to squint in the glare of the cruel spotlight of a secondary stage. You call it 6:45 p.m. on a Monday. At the Laff Stop (1952 West Gray) it's called sign-up time.

And there's no shortage of comedians willing to give stand-up a try at Houston's oldest industry-supported open-mike night.

Please understand -- the word "comedian" is being used very loosely here. A better term might be "sadist." Most of those who will perform in front of tonight's bustling and heckle-heaving crowd have no business using a PA system to amplify their starkly unfunny jokes.

Let's back up. "Jokes" is a bad word, too -- ditto for "perform." Truth is, not many jokes are told on this night. It's mostly personal anecdotes about something that happened at work, last night's phone conversation with a relative or "I saw the movie White Noise earlier tonight, and want to subject you to my underdeveloped thoughts about it for eight or so minutes."

Most of those dying painful deaths on stage are very green. They have awkward delivery, painfully bad timing and poorly conceived material. Add all that to bundles of frazzled nerves, and you'll begin to wonder if watching someone get a root canal might not make for a funnier night out.

That's fine. The point isn't entirely to make you laugh. It's to give these fledgling "funny" people stage time. To let them fine-tune their craft. It's the toughest night in town; get laughs here and you'll knock 'em dead in the main room on Saturday night.

People say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Yeah, try telling that to syphilis. -- Corey Doiron

Doiron is one of the night's more tolerable acts. A check processor at Medical Research Consultants, Doiron admits that, sometimes, when his "imagination gets the best" of him, he dreams about hitting the road and doing stand-up for a living.

"It's like golf," Doiron explains. "You can play 18 holes poorly, but if you have two or three solid strokes where everything goes as planned, you begin to think, 'I can figure this out and get good at it.' "

Right now, he admits, he's not very good. "I've got a lot to learn about the rhythm and timing of it all. The good thing about open-mike is that, essentially, you're doing it just for other comedians. You aren't looking for laughs so much as praise from the veterans."

Those veterans, laugh-hardened and weary from the road, have heard it all. Seeing fresh bits, for them, is a rarity. If they tell you you've got one, you listen up.

Can someone please tell Whataburger that putting their ketchup in tiny little buckets doesn't mean it's "fancy"? -- Harris Whittles

Whittles and roommate Noah Garfinkel are back from Boston, where they attend Emerson College. They've been in the stand-up game for close to two years, honing their skills in Beantown during the semester and here in Space City while on break.

Garfinkel explains the difficulty of mining for chuckles in a cave of shit.

"It's a lot easier to get laughs in between a few strong performers than it is on a night like this. The crowd is warmed up, ready to laugh. Here they're worn down."

Why, then, do regular guys with regular jobs feel the need to subject themselves to the steely-eyed glances of worn-down non-laughers?

"It's just that," Doiron says. "I am a regular guy with a regular job. That's why I do it. It's an outlet for all the crazy shit that constantly flies around in my head. Open-mike is good for that. It's a good teacher, too."

Chief among the lessons Doiron has learned is this: That delivery, above all else, is what separates the comic curds from the woefully unfunny whey.

"Of course my take on marriage isn't fresh," he preaches. "Of course my bit about going to the porn store isn't fresh. But if you deliver it well, it will get laughs."

Another jewel from open-mike's brutal lesson plan is to not overthink your material.

"There's a guy named Jerry that runs the door at Laff Stop and tours around the country," Doiron says. "Great guy, very helpful. He told me a story about doing a highbrow joke about the Scopes Monkey Trial in some podunk town. The punch line had something to do with drinking at a courthouse with monkeys."

Jerry was surprised when the joke went over well, considering he was playing to a crowd of would-be extras from Deliverance. But the club's owner quickly took the wind out of Jerry's sails. "They didn't get the joke," he told him. "They were laughing because you said the words 'drinking' and 'monkey.' No one in here knows what the fuck the Scopes trial was."

A somewhat dejected Jerry chose to believe his erudite material was really what got the crowd roaring. That is, until someone approached from the audience with a congratulatory pat on the back for a job well done.

"You're funny as shit," he said. "That thing about the drunk monkeys was hilarious!"

Brush up on your skills, young comedians. Carefully calibrate your jokes. Maybe one day you can parlay what was once a gut-wrenching spot in front of jaded peers into a sitcom that pays millions. Go for it, drunk monkeys.

I'm half Mexican and half Iranian. I don't know whether to rob a Quik E Mart or open one. -- Al B., one of the open-mike's hosts

Then again, maybe not.

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