Disclaimer: I’ve been doing this stand-up thing for 9 months. Though I’ve been mildly successful, take whatever I say with a grain of salt.
My brother was graduating from college last month in New York, so I decided to trek to America to both visit him, and hit up as many mics as I can, seeing if I could make some strangers laugh outside of Asia. So with the help of some fellow Hong Kong comics who got me booked on some gigs, my schedule was set. New York, Los Angeles, 4 open mics, 2 showcase shows, 9 days.
First open mic I did was at the Silverlake Lounge in Sunset Boulevard in LA. Quiet but popular place with cheap booze. I got there thinking that this was a great crowd for an open mic, until I realized there were 37 comics there (and 1 happy tables of customers, who everybody directed their jokes at), with a lottery draw for set order. I drew 31.
The crowd was up for it and supportive, particularly for the first few comics when the energy was up, but that quickly died down as more and more people bombed their way through their sets. It’s weird that I expected so much more for doing this the first time in the US, but I did. Granted it was an open mic, and there were a few bright spots (mostly comedians I felt didn’t need to be at open mics), particularly this girl named Megan Koester who absolutely killed, and an overly amusing comedian who I could only assume was a crack head there for the cheap drinks (or an actor with a great impression of what a crack head doing comedy would look like), but overall it was quite a mess. I sat through a girl playing the “theme song to Frasier” by flicking her teeth with her fingers, which, due to the proximity of the mic just meant the crowd sat in silence for about 2 minutes, as the crowd dwindled to only the remaining comedians. Even that was a much better brand of comedy than the really depressing stories coming particularly from first timers. Going 31st, I tried to get chuckles from the 6 remaining comics in the audience. There’s nothing like getting 2 people to produce a laugh that awkwardly echoes through a room. Wouldn’t say I bombed, but it wasn’t the best experience. I left soon after.
What I noticed during and after the show on my occasional smoke breaks, were 2 main things (with of course, exceptions):
1. A majority of those at open mics in LA aren’t trying to be comedians, but are doing comedy to either get into something else, or because they failed at something else
2. Most comedians come alone, sit alone, leave alone
That’s when my old roommate, a writer and improv comedian in LA, said this to me; “Bombing in improv is much, much worse than bombing in standup. Except when you bomb in improv, you’re still part of a team. Bombing in standup is lonely”.New York was a much better experience. More “just-graduated-looking-for-a-hobby-and-I’m-the-funniest-person-in-my-friendship-group” comedians and less “40-and-divorced-newly-fired-after-3-episodes-of-CSI-lemme-try-standup” type comedians. Even the premises at these shows were far less depressing than LA. I was particularly impressed by the UCB East open mic, which was held at a proper theater, where I assume the tech guy was missing so the host had to control the lights and hosted through the PA system. Quality of the comedians was definitely high, and my cousin, watching stand up live for the first time loved the experience. The open mic however, was on a lottery system; put your name in a hat, and 14 chosen people get 5 minutes. Only 7 names are initially revealed, and the latter 7 are revealed midway into the show. I was luckily chosen for the first half, but I did notice once the second half was read, there were about 20 comedians who immediately stood up and left the theater.
I met a local New York comedian called Sarah through a friend. She told me about the different open mics, and what she called the “lottery grind”. A lot of open mics work on the same lottery system, and you see comics just travel to one after another hoping their name gets picked. Some of the more popular open mics even require you to bring a paying customer, or even pay yourself just to get your 3-8 minutes (depending on location) of time, in front of a crowd that is 80% other comedians.
My last show was a paid showcase show at the Broadway Comedy Club. There was a great turnout of about 70-80 people, with 10 comics doing 5-12 minutes each. Some comics absolutely killed, especially some college kid named Daniel Laitman who has allegedly been doing this for 7 years (and I do suggest you check him out online), while others, particularly 2 “guido comics”, only got laughs from their juiced-out fake-tanned friends by spurting out some of the most racist, sexist shit I’ve ever heard. (My brother was actually so offended he left mid show, and asked me to text him when I was about to go up. A big deal considering the ticket for the show wasn’t cheap). I had a great 8 minutes, and saw the host signal me to go longer, so did an additional 3 of really old material. Had a fantastic time, and was really glad to be able to do a proper show in New York in front of a great audience.
There was some disappointment though. It was probably because I expected to see better comedy as a whole (and granted, the supply of people trying to be comedians in New York is much, MUCH greater than Hong Kong). Though the high’s were much higher, I couldn’t help but think that on average, the quality of amateur to semi-professional comedians at the shows I both participated in and watched weren’t better than your weekend show at TakeOut Comedy, or any of the showcase shows organized by Comedy.HK. Hell, and without trying to sound like a dick (which means I’m absolutely about to sound like a dick), there were many times where I thought to myself “wow, I’m a lot better than that guy”; a thought which I didn’t think would enter my mind before the trip started. I’ve seen some amazing comedy on the trip, from names who I expect to see again somewhere in the future. But I’ve also seen people bomb much harder than I have EVER seen at any open mic in Hong Kong, including at shows.
That’s when I started thinking about the comedy scene in Hong Kong. I was told by many of the local comics who have done this for a while that I’m lucky because the scene has only started growing in the last year or so, with the increase in open mics and shows for people to participate in. Hong Kong’s in a unique situation now, where the amount of comics is quickly rising, but so are the amount of venues. The quality of comedy is also getting better and better, but not at the point where we are dicks to each other competing for time.
That’s when I realized; Where else will you be in a situation where you want to try out new material and ALWAYS know you will get the time and a decent crowd to do so? Where else will you get to an open mic with a huge civilian crowd? Where else will you be put on a showcase show with some of the best in your city, only months after your first set? Where else will long-time veterans take time out of their day to help newcomers write jokes? Where else will you have have your local comedian get a chance every year to perform at a 300+ seat theater with the best Comedians from around the continent? Where else will you have a standup community throw big karaoke parties when one comedian leaves to Beijing, and when a great US comedian is in town everybody gets together to have a big summer boat party?
I went on this trip thinking that I would get to discover cool new scenes, and get to perform at the best places in the world to do comedy. And to an extent, I got to do that. But I also realized that in the past year, I got to meet a ton of new people I now call friends, make a lot of others laugh, open for 2 really good touring comedians and perform at really big venues in front of electric crowds; opportunities I know I wouldn’t get anywhere else.
And that’s why I’m glad I started doing comedy in Hong Kong. It’s the best place for those who are just starting off and those who are seasoned. It’s the best place to get the stage time you want, and a place where you can achieve the crowd you’ve earned. If you want to kill on stage and get laughs? This is the place to be. And if you get on stage and bomb? Know that comedy in Hong Kong isn’t lonely at all.