Axl David crosses his legs. He’s trying to appear relaxed, maybe even trying to trick himself into believing it, but his foot is tapping skittishly.
He stands and navigates the dim basement, under the black ceiling tiles and Edison bulbs, and goes to the bar. He sips vodka and soda. He sits again, stands again, then sits. He leans forward in the leather chair. Bounce, bounce, bounce goes the foot.
On stage, a guy who works at a speaker store is telling a joke about political sandwiches, but David hasn’t really been laughing.
He is 32 and tall with formidable eyes, a dark beard and earlobes stretched so that you can see light through them. Nobody knows him, and everyone seems to know each other at the open mic comedy night at SubCentral, the club underneath the Iberian Rooster restaurantin St. Petersburg.
He glances down at the spiral notebook he bought a day earlier, even though he has been planning this for a while. He talks about standup in the jargon of "callbacks" and "setups." He has listened to a thousand hours of comedy by Doug Stanhope and Sean Rouse while driving all over the state. He has had premises in his head for years.
And yet, buying that notebook was the worst moment so far because that’s when it became real. He was going to humiliate himself.
On a single page, written in marker:
great aunt navigation
toss nesting sea turtles
rehab in Gary, Indiana
He has two phones, one for his job coordinating volunteers for the Red Cross. If something bad happens, if someone’s house burns down, he might have to leave and go help.
He walks up the many stairs to the bathroom, which gets his heart pounding. Now he’s worried it won’t come back down in time. Breathe.
"Next up, we have someone trying comedy for the very first time," host Shannon Kelly says.
He walks toward the stage.
• • •
There’s a weird energy to open mic comedy nights that you don’t get from other live performances. It’s always entertaining, but only sometimes funny.
Some things that get the biggest laughs aren’t jokes at all — someone awkwardly moving a mic stand ("I don’t know why, but I wanted it here"), or commenting after a joke that got crickets ("yeah, these ... really aren’t good"), or pointing out a friend in the crowd ("I see you, Chris").
Part of it is the feeling anything can happen, because anyone can come down to SubCentral on Tuesday nights starting at 8:30 and put their name on the list to claim their five minutes. Maybe what happens will be something bad, something really cringe-worthy, or maybe they’ll make you laugh harder than you have all week.
Every five minutes brings another roll of the dice. You get invested. This guy’s not doing so great, you think, but come on, maybe this joke can turn it around.
The other part is that you can’t help but picture yourself up there. Even as you watch safely from your seat, there’s the adrenaline-tickling prospect that, in a lapse of better judgment, you will put your name on that list. And maybe you’d be good.
The difference between us and them is, they’ve actually done it.
Out front on a recent Tuesday, the would-be comics mill around on the sidewalk along Central Avenue smoking cigarettes.
"There’s nothing like an audience to humble you," says John Jacobs, 28, who co-hosts the SubCentral open mic, and who starred on the MTV series Are You the One? and The Challenge before "blowing all my money on drugs" and coming back to Tampa Bay. After some time as an Uber Eats driver and a janitor at a Powerhouse Gym, he’s back to making his living solely from comedy and has another MTV show in the works. "Still, I’ve been doing this 10 years and there’s nights at this mic when I’m dying and some off-the-street nobody is up there ... and he’s killing."
A lot of the same guys — and they are mostly guys — show up. There’s a 24-year-old guy who says he’ll remain a virgin until he has a million followers on Instagram. Some of the regulars are sober. Some have a lot of material about doing drugs. A lot have podcasts, like How to Die Alone, advertised as being "for the broken person inside all of us." Last week, a comic closed her set by announcing, "I’m pregnant — until Thursday." Huge laugh.
Kelly, the host, tells a joke about bringing leftover pizza in a Ziploc bag to strippers at the club where she worked, though Katana and Stardust weren't hungry. Her joke about working 12 jobs to get by in between paid gigs is only a slight exaggeration.
The majority of the performers you’ll see at open mic night are a long way from getting paid at all.
"Hopefully someday, but I’m just having fun right now, trying to get better," says Jon Forbes, 28, who started a month ago.
Ronnie Knight, 39, who goes by Big Stupid, advises Forbes to keep repeating the same material, to hone it. He has been doing this since 2015.
"Once I got out of jail, got married and stopped hustling, I needed to find something else I was good at. If they shut this place down," he says, pointing at the sidewalk, "I’ll be out here doing it."
Can any generalization be drawn about the people who do this?
"They’re desperate for someone to listen to them," says Jacobs.
"You have to be delusional," says Alex Utz, 24, who started seven months ago.
Aren’t those cliches?
"No," they answer together.
• • •
David shakes Kelly’s hand before grabbing the microphone.
"I hope you’re not here to laugh."
He starts shuffling and steps on some cords close to the edge of the stage. He can see no faces in the bar, just a black void.
He tells a joke about going to rehab, "making me the first person to ever go to Gary, Indiana, to improve their life," and follows up with some unintentional drinking tips he discovered in AA.
A faint smattering of chuckles. He’s going a little too fast. Not giving things time to breathe.
He begins his longest, most complicated bit. This is the precarious one. The setup involves something about not criticizing the police until you walk in their shoes, and something called the Megabus, a competitor to Greyhound that allows you to reserve a priority seat in front for a fee, and finding a black woman in his seat. The audience is silent.
The punch line: "And now, for $5, I know what it’s like to be a police officer in Montgomery, Alabama."
Laughter. Not a lot, but enough.
Kelly shines a white light toward David’s face. Time to wrap it up, though David feels like he just started. He gets a fist bump from a stranger as he comes off.
"Do you think that went okay?" he asks.
He returns to his seat, except now he leans back, smiling. The next guy up isn’t particularly funny, but David is finally laughing.
Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected]