Nerves, laughter collide at a first-time comic's open mic night

People have been telling me that I'm funny for as long as I can remember. Telling jokes used to be a defense mechanism. When I was scared, nervous, stressed or uncomfortable, I would tell a joke to try to break the ice and calm myself down.

Time went on and I found the courage to do things like participate in drama class, take theater classes at summer camp and get on miscellaneous stages around Tampa Bay doing karaoke. For me, being on a stage with lights in my face has become an addiction. The attention, the applause, the excitement that comes with being a performer gives me a high unlike any other.

Eventually, it only made sense to tell jokes in front of a crowd.

I knew the Tampa Improv and Side Splitters Comedy Club both have open-mic nights. I've always been a bigger fan of the Improv, so I decided if I was going to do this, it would be there. The show would be free and I knew it would be fun.

But what would I say? Anytime I've gotten onstage it's been with someone else's material — scripts, songs, etc. The only time I ever used my own material was when it was just me and a few other people. Could my jokes really relate to an entire crowd?

My husband and I went to the Improv a few weeks before I was going to try this out to investigate. We saw comedians get heckled by the mostly male crowd, and found out that heckling is actually permitted during open mics. We saw nervous first-timers bomb horribly and seasoned performers face a crowd of blank faces, with nothing to be heard but crickets. Some lucky ones had a thunderous eruption of clapping and laughter. Needless to say, this was not the encouraging experience I thought it would be.

I went home and immediately began working on my five-minute skit. I read it to my husband, who informed me it wasn't funny. A massive freakout and three rewrites later, I read it to a few close friends who laughed harder than I anticipated. I even read it to my mom, who didn't seem at all offended, and even snickered at things I thought would bother her. Figuring I was good to go, I invited every Facebook friend I have to watch me pretend to be a stand-up comedian for a night. Since heckling was permitted, I figured it best to pack the room with people I actually like and who already think I'm funny.

The night of the open mic, my nerves were out of control. A few adult beverages later, I was at least feeling like I would be able to get onstage, but was still afraid I might be booed off it. Then, the moment of truth came. About 30 minutes after the night began, four or five comedians in, my name was called. Several butterflies, a crazy accelerated heartbeat and one more drink, and it was game on.

I was on and off in what felt like less than a minute. I went over my five-minute time limit and didn't even realize it until a guy with a flashlight began wildly motioning for me to get off the stage. I wrapped up mid joke, forgetting to deliver my last punch line, and told everyone to have a good night. I think I managed a thank you.

From what I could hear from the crowd, I guess I was funny. The joke I thought would get me thrown out actually got me the loudest laughs. I received emails and texts for days afterward saying I was hilarious. I loved every second of being on stage and the aftermath of going through with it.

Who knows? Maybe I've found one more outlet to get attention. I can't wait to come up with another bit and do it for another crowd.

— My First Time is a column about Ashley Grant trying new things in Tampa Bay. Email her at famousashleygrant@gmail.com.

Open Mic Night

Where: Tampa Improv; 1600 E Eighth Ave., Suite C112, Tampa; improvtampa.com; (813) 864-4000.

Cost: Free!

Three things I learned:

1. You have five minutes onstage, but you don't have to use all of it. Although watching newbies stand up there waiting for their time to finish was amusing, you are allowed to say your piece and then get off the stage.

2. Respect the light! When your time is up, a flashlight is flashed in your face. There are two hours allotted for open mic and sometimes more than 30 people sign up. Not concluding your act and getting off stage can result in an annoyed emcee.

3. When you go on is determined by the emcee. Some of the emcees use a lottery system and others go in order based on the sign-up sheet.

Would I do it again? Yes! I loved the attention I got and want to know what else would make people laugh.

Nerves, laughter collide at a first-time comic's open mic night 05/10/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 10, 2012 4:31am]

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