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Lesson 1:

The Puzzle

In the two-and-a-half years since he lost his dot-com job, Jerry Thomas has run up his credit cards. He has used up his unemployment benefits. And he has taken odd, menial jobs, such as promoting cellphones from a tent in the middle of George Washington University’s campus.

None of it matters as long as Thomas gets his five minutes onstage, four nights a week, at open-mike comedy shows. If there’s a yapping-piñata aspect to this low-watt circuit, he doesn’t care. He has become such a fixture that he is now introduced as the “Iron Horse of Comedy.” By his count, he has appeared on stage 266 times.

That number gives Thomas the experience to know which jokes are winners. Like his Google joke: “The other night I was on the Internet and I entered the word Google into Google. And just then there was a knock on the door and I opened it. There’s a guy standing there. He said, ‘Never do that again.’”

Or his bit about being a liberal: “OK. I’m a liberal is what I’m saying, which means I’m against the war, I support gay marriage, and just this morning I performed a partial-birth abortion….It was third-trimester. It was really cool. Oh my God. Because that’s what we do? Right? Who’s with me?”

Everyone in the audience. As they are with his smart-bomb gag: “With the advance of technology, I am worried that one day the weapons are going to become so intelligent that they begin to question American foreign policy. It’s like the soldier pulls the trigger and the bomb is like, ‘Hold on. Let’s talk first.’ If you are a bomb, every mission is a suicide mission, right?”

Of course, a catalog of successful jokes doesn’t prevent Thomas from regularly getting up to the mike and pulling the trigger on himself. His latest comedic cyanide is a long bit that revolves around a jigsaw puzzle. The first time he told the puzzle joke to his girlfriend, she told him, “That’s not funny.” Still, on May 12, he scribbled the nasty thing into his journal, tinkering with it some more. It killed the first time but has since given him fits. A few weeks and a few tiny deaths later, Thomas admits that he doesn’t understand his own joke.

None of this keeps Thomas from continuing to tell it.

On one such night, I catch Thomas doing the puzzle joke at Wiseacres, a dark lounge tucked inside a Tyson’s Corner Best Western. He has come on late after a dozen or so comics have worn out the crowd. By the time he takes the stage, the audience has started to retreat to their hotel rooms. He is going to bomb no matter what. The puzzle joke makes sure of that.

“So I bought a jigsaw puzzle,” Thomas begins. “Yes, I’m gonna do a jigsaw puzzle joke. So I bought a jigsaw puzzle,” Thomas continues. “I got a jigsaw puzzle. And it’s a thousand pieces. I give it to my roommate. Uh. And it takes her six hours to solve it and it’s a picture of a puppy. So I take the jigsaw puzzle. Takes me seven weeks to solve it. It’s a picture of the Eiffel tower.”

Thomas hushes his voice. “Something is wrong,” he says.

One, maybe two laughs. OK.

“So I take the jigsaw puzzle,” Thomas says. “I give it to my cousin in Germany, Gunter. Gunter is 9 years old and he has two birthmarks on his forehead, one above each eye. So that when he’s surprised he looks like an umlaut.”

One chuckle.

“It takes Gunter two hours and 17 minutes to solve the puzzle,” Thomas says, before pausing for just a moment. “It’s a picture of a puppy!”

Only one person laughs. It’s the guy from before. Thomas has lost the entire room except for that guy, a Wiseacres regular named Charlie. Charlie laughs at anything.

Thomas isn’t done though: “I take the jigsaw puzzle….I bring it home. Takes me six months to solve it. It’s a picture of the cast of Friends being fed into a wood chipper.” Charlie laughs.

“Bless you, Charlie,” Thomas mock-gushes before continuing.

“See, Chandler and Phoebe have already been chipped, but Ross is putting up a fight,” Thomas says, trying to coax more drama out of the story. “I take the puzzle. I give it to my cousin Bernadette. Bernadette is blind and was born without bones. She has to take each individual puzzle piece and put it into place using only her sense of touch. It takes Bernadette 11 minutes to solve the puzzle. It’s a picture of a puppy!”

“I take the puzzle,” Thomas continues. “Takes me 27 months to solve it. It’s a fully functioning human kidney. That night, it’s transplanted into the body of an 80-year-old dialysis patient…who then dies…because there’s a piece missing!”

The puzzle joke uses up two minutes and 28 seconds of Thomas’ stage time. Not even Charlie laughs at the end.

“I haven’t figured it out yet,” Thomas says a few days later. “It will probably take me months before the bit works. It may never work.”

But he’ll have a chance to practice. In the last few years, Washington has exploded as an open-mike town. On every night except Friday and Saturday, comics can find a cruddy sound system and a wooden platform from which to join the quest for the perfect joke.

The process is painstaking, the payoff remote. But there’s nothing better. “What else am I going to do?” Thomas, 44, asks. “Why not have this career? It’s like, what better thing could you do with your life? It’s like I’m asking, Why isn’t everyone doing this?”

Lesson 2:

No Shame in Being

a Suicide Bomber

“I’m Rick James, bitch! I’m Rick James. Remember who I am. I’m Rick James, bitch! But anyway…”

—Vic Christian, doing his best Dave Chappelle

Although Thomas never turns down mike time, he’ll never go out of his way to get onstage at the Cave. Located in the dark basement bar of the Chinatown Best Western, the Cave is a hole-in-the-wall joint where the piped-in old soul music seems like a sad reminder of a party going on somewhere else. The regulars, mostly District government types, sip Courvoisier and dine on plastic plates of hot wings.

“It’s just, you know, the Cave being what it is, it’s easy to make an excuse not to go,” says Thomas.

To signal that it’s comedy time, the club’s owner plugs in a red light on the floor of the stage and cuts off the Steven Seagal movie. That’s the cue for Vic Christian to get up in front of 45 empty seats at the Cave and bomb. He does it every Tuesday. He bombs with a tattered composition notebook in hand and a carefree grin across his face. He could work jokes all night about anal prison rape and not get a single chuckle. He doesn’t care. It’s practice for the big rooms, the big time. Like when he appeared on The Parkers and uttered the immortal words, “Goodbye, Professor.” Maybe he’ll get another line on TV someday.

“Is everybody ready for the summer?” Christian asks the room.

The dead would offer a louder response. There are only two people at the bar, a woman he calls Peaches and a man whom he jokes must work for the CIA.

“Is it me or the cicadas—do they sound like an alien spaceship?” Christian asks. “Don’t they? I think that’s going to be the new white people name—Cicada. A lot of white girls are gonna be named Cicada. Cicada! Cicada!”

Soon CIA Man will wander out of the room.

“Fuck you all,” Christian says sarcastically. “This is just me—what I do.” And so he goes on. “Oh God, George Bush is about the dumbest person in the world, man….Is it me or did you laugh when you first saw those pictures? Especially when they had the men strapped on the bed and everything?

“That was funny to me.”

Tonight, at least, that’s all that matters.

Lesson 3:

Bad Jokes Are Meant

to Stay Written

“I hate the phrase ‘Get a life.’ If people keep telling me to get a life, I just might take one.”—Jerry Thomas

Thomas has many jokes that stay in his notebooks. Like a lot of comics, he keeps an almost daily record of raw ideas, workable punch lines, themes, premises, and to-do lists. He sees his notebook as a graveyard where bad jokes go to die.

On Jan. 4 this year, Thomas wrote, “Meanwhile, Michael Jackson has changed the name of his ranch from ‘Neverland to ‘Alwaysland.’” Two days later, Thomas jotted, “George Bush’s margin of victory was a negative number.” There are dozens and dozens of jokes that don’t even pass the groan test.

The journal is Thomas’ way of self-editing. Once the stinky stuff is put down on paper, it can be fixed or forgotten. At least the joke is out of his head. At least the joke isn’t dumped on an unsuspecting audience. Some jokes do find a crowd and do get a laugh. But they start in the notebook. It’s safer.

So he keeps writing. “I went to the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas—what a rip-off. For forty bucks they make you sit at a school lunch table with a fat guy…” Thomas penned on Dec. 23, 2003. Or: “I like a woman with a wide backside. You know—so you have a place to put your book during sex,” from March 21. Or: “The other day I was watching previews of the History Channel. It’s called CNN,” from May 1.

Buried in all the crappy one-liners and punchless punch lines lie Thomas’ workable stuff. It’s somewhere. It could be little bits that might flower into bona fide zingers. He notes topics such as “consumer confidence,” “special needs,” and “mathematics.” He lists concepts worth pursuing: “husbands and wives not being loving,” “doctors being insensitive about imminent death,” and “God making a mistake.”

“It’s hard,” Thomas says one night before an open-mike show. He has a body formed by sitting in front of a computer—round and slack all over, topped by a head full of fuzzy, graying curls. “To be really good at it—that’s hard—it’s a really intricate puzzle. So much depends on every moment. You are trying to create a sense of momentum that the audience will respond to. There are so many factors: modulation of speech, word choice, the type of room….A lot of it is just going to fail. You just have to get over that. It may be just a sucky joke.”

Thomas knows only one thing—that he has a lot of sucky jokes to go through. “The story I tell myself is when I hit a thousand shows, I’ll probably be making a living at it,” he says.

Lesson 4:

Going After Me

Is Dangerous

“All right,” Richard Solis mutters heavily into the microphone. “That sucked.” He has just told his first joke, a retard joke, a long-winded retard joke studded with “uh”s—13 in all—and it bombed. He is pausing to savor the bombiness of his joke, the sour taste of it, the seconds wasted in the telling of it, and the universal response to it: silence. A comic can die in that silence. Solis seems intent to try and fill it.

“Whatever,” Solis exhales. He is dressed in a neat black shirt and jeans. He is clean-shaven, not a hair out of place on his head. “I’m doing it for me. I don’t care. I don’t care.”

There are 14 people in the audience on this recent Monday evening at Soho Tea & Coffee’s weekly open-mike comedy showcase. Solis seems at ease—or at least unwilling to exit the stage just yet. He stalls some more, and he scans the crowd.

He stops at me.

“Woody, help me out,” Solis jabs. “You’re funny.”

He thinks I look like Woody Allen. I don’t, except for the black eyeglass frames. Usually when people tell me I look like Woody Allen, I think that I’m the first Jew they’ve ever met. I think it’s hack.

“Nothing?” Solis asks.

“Nothing,” I squeak out.

“Nothing,” Solis says. And then a long pause—he’s not done with me yet. “Are you even funny? Even a little bit? Do you ever try to be funny? Feel like you have to live up to some obligation that you look like the guy?”

Nothing.

“How did you come across those glasses, dude?” Solis asks.

He doesn’t let go: “’Cause the look doesn’t really come together until you put the glasses on. So it had to be some kind of conscious decision, right, you know? ‘I look like Woody Allen with these fucking glasses. I think I’m going to fucking get these and fuck with people.’ Is that what you are doing here tonight, sir? Are you trying to fuck with me?”

Solis, who has been at stand-up for four years, will swear to me later that he has jokes that work. He will add that his jokes have especially worked in paid rooms. He will swear to me that tonight he was just workshopping new material.

On the small-time stage, young comics who attack the crowd do so at a high risk. It’s much easier to feign indifference at a nobody than at, say, Chris Rock—especially when a healthy percentage of the crowd shows up looking for a train wreck. All the better if they induce it. “He did a dangerous thing,” says Thomas, who was in the Soho crowd. “You clearly didn’t want to play.”

But Solis didn’t know that. So he kept at me.

“You wear the glasses, right, think that you come out here tonight right and fuck with me,” Solis continues. “Make me think that Woody Allen was sittin’ here. You know, I’m from Manhattan. I’ve met the guy….He’s kind of a shy guy. Are you a shy guy?

Solis won’t let me answer. “No?” Solis asks. “Well, then speak the fuck up. What’s going on here?”

Finally, Solis gives up and tries an airline joke. One person emits a mild chuckle, kind of a Pillsbury Dough Boy giggle.

Solis offers a “thanks.”

And then Solis begins another joke: “I mean. I mean. It’s true. Right. I mean. You would think. That. Like. You know.” His airline-pilots-are-mean bit goes downhill from there. Into more silence.

“Anything?

“Anything?

“Nothing.

“Damn.

“I want to go back to Woody.”

Lesson 5:

The Curse of the

One-Time Wonders

“I was on a diet, this very interesting diet. You drink a shake in the morning for breakfast and it gives you dysentery.”—Jerry Thomas

Thomas liked that joke. The first time he told the joke, it got screams. But it never got laughs as big again. Jokes can become cursed with the fate of what the comedian refers to as “one-time wonders.” To a comic, these jokes are the most frustrating of all. They are teases.

Thomas has another one-time wonder. It was a simple oddball question: Where do people who aren’t indigenous come from? “I rarely do it anymore. It never got the same reaction.”

“You’re always looking for that winner,” Thomas adds. “That reliable line that will work every time and you think you have one and then it just evaporates on you.”

Lesson 6:

Play Sports Bars

at Your Own Risk

“Worked at IHOP. Not the pancake place—the prosthetic leg company.”—Jared Stern

As a comedy venue, the Saphire Café presents some of the typical problems young comedians face: six televisions all showing sports, a foosball table, and the smell of mild hot wings. But because it’s a sports bar in Bethesda, it carries an additional whiff of suburban entitlement—Ann Taylor Trash and middle-age Ryan Seacrests with cellphones clipped to their khakis. In this room, there are spirited conversations about shelving.

Attention spans are short. You have to tell punchy jokes. Material about dieting works; long stories about your parents thinking you’re gay don’t. “Mostly the people aren’t there for you,” Thomas says. “You are more of an annoyance to them than entertainment. It’s not their fault—they own the place more than you do.”

A young comic named Sean Bland finds this out after a few jokes fail to squelch the bar noise.

“You guys can laugh anytime you’re ready,” Bland insists. “Or if you don’t like me just go ahead and throw that bottle at me. Make sure it’s full! I can catch it with this hand!”

“Anytime fellas! Anytime!”

Into his fourth joke, Bland stops telling punch lines. And then suddenly, he gives up and stops telling jokes. He’s still talking into the mike, still working through a story. But he has no intention of giving that story a point or a laugh line. He’s trying to stall long enough that finally the MC will yank him.

“I did have a girlfriend,” Bland starts. “I had a girlfriend. She lasted for three months. The only reason it lasted that long is because I’m SCARED TO DEATH!” He pauses and looks longingly at his watch and then at the MC. Unfortunately for Bland, the MC isn’t paying attention.

“I’m scared to death of her,” Bland begins again and then stops and again turns around and tries unsuccessfully to catch the MC’s eye. He stammers on, about coming home and finding her “sitting there petting my cat…on my couch…”

Bland has stopped making sense. But he plunges forward. “Petting my cat looking like Dr. Evil. Looking like Dr. Evil. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was scared to death.” This goes on just a little longer before he finally gets the hook. The bit lasted a minute and 35 seconds—an eternity on stage.

“Hey people, that’s my time!” Bland shouts before giving up the mike.

Lesson 7:

Curse of Golden Tee

About four months ago, Thomas watched in disgust as workers wheeled in Golden Tee at Wiseacres. Golden Tee, a clunky golf video game (complete with tracking ball), is the bane of young comics. When the machine is in use, its play-by-play voices provide their own running gag commentary. When your ball lands in a sand trap, the programmed announcer says, “Watch for the kitty doo doo.” The thing’s bleeping sound effects have been known to emit a siren song that no drunk can resist and no comic can overpower.

The Tyson’s Corner club’s Golden Tee had Thomas dumbfounded: “I was going, ‘Oh my God! This is the apocalypse.’ It just seemed like a sign of doom for all of us.”

Thomas had lost out to the machine once before. At a place called the Stampede Steakhouse, Golden Tee was positioned directly alongside him. Thomas had to try for the audience’s attention with the dudes working their sand wedges. The dudes won.

“They at least had the sound off,” Thomas jokes. “It was my worst set ever….You had to look for an excuse to get off the stage. Of course, there was no stage.”

Lesson 8:

The Fake Laugh

“Is anybody out there tonight? If I’m really that bad then I should just hand over the reins. You know, so, um.” —Paula Dellert, self-described “gag hag”

When Thomas takes the stage at Soho on a recent Monday night, the room is already comatose. A handful of comedians had trotted out drug humor, cicadas-sure-are-horny bits, and anti-Catholic jabs to few laughs. Although the room was full and the laptop count was way down, a quiet had settled in. Thomas decided on the spot to come hard, intent to wake the place up for the next comic.

“Come on make some noise!” Thomas boomed into the mike. “Come on!”

Some noise is made.

“Just so you know, my girlfriend is breaking up with me,” Thomas starts, earning a few “awww”s. “She told me she wanted to start seeing other people….So I put LSD in her coffee.” A few laughs, a start. “Now she’s seeing other people…and spiders.”

“Oh my goodness. Yeah, cause things go wrong for me, you know,” Thomas says. He puts a hand on his forehead and closes his eyes for emphasis. He does that a lot. “I just got an answering machine and it doesn’t work….Or maybe I’m just asking it the wrong questions.”

“Yeah!” The yeah belongs to another comedian—I’ll call him the Laugher—sitting in the middle of the room. “Jerry!” The Laugher is big and when he laughs it is a big, over-the-top sound. It’s an almost mocking sound. Like he’s laughing in italics. Thomas thinks it’s not good.

“I’m just going to stand here and let you folks ridicule me,” Thomas mutters. “How’s that?”

“OK!” the Laugher shouts.

“Whatever works, man,” Thomas starts, trying to plow ahead. “’Cause you know geek is part of the job description….I bought a solar-powered car, and the battery went dead. And I had to have it towed to a tanning salon.”

Again, only the Laugher responds, his guffaw now growing to a cackle.

Thomas gives him a what-the-fuck look.

“That’s funny to me, Jerry,” the Laugher protests. “That’s funny to me!”

“Well, yeah, but it sounds insincere,” Thomas jokes, lightening the moment. But soon, a young man in the audience joins in with the Laugher. And this time, there’s no mistaking it—the laughs are fake laughs. Jerry shouts at the first guy to stop it.

“It wasn’t me, Jerry!” the Laugher hollers.

“I know,” Thomas continues. “It wasn’t you. But, see, you infected this guy.”

The Faker then speaks up with his own ad lib: “He put something in my drink!”

Thomas has been thrown off message, his set list now a distant memory. He starts talking directly to a bald guy in a gray suit sitting by the coffee shop’s entrance. The twin laughing machines go at full force until Thomas waves the first of many white flags.

“Where am I?” Thomas asks limply.

Someone in the audience shouts up to the stage: “Don’t drag us down with you!”

“What?” Thomas asks, further drawing out the agony of the moment.

“Don’t drag us down with you!”

“Too late for that, guy,” Thomas quips.

Lesson 9:

Did You Hear the One About the Cicada?

“I was saying to somebody the other day, ‘You know I haven’t been laid in a long time either but I’m not standing in the middle of the street screaming at the top of my lungs. Maybe I should try that. Maybe it could work.”

“Yeah, I got the cicada in my neighborhood, too….Um, loud as hell. I guess it’s like the insect equivalent of beeping your horn at girls.”

“My co-worker told me I looked like a cicada. I’m lookin’ at her, I’m like, What type of shit is that to tell somebody—that you look like a cicada or that you remind me of a cicada. I mean all that’s sayin’ to me is that you look like an ugly black bug with red eyes and wings and shit. So I don’t know about you all, but personally I find that offensive. That’s just not cool. So anyway, I tell her, ‘Look, funny you should say that. I was on my way to work this morning and I’m driving and I see a little stray dog. It looks hungry, weak, hair all matted up, and it’s walking across the street and it turns around and it looks at me. And just as I was about to hit it—it reminded me of you.’”

“You know I’m from Southeast, man. I ain’t know too much about the cicadas. People are tellin’, ‘The cicadas are coming! The cicadas are coming!’ And my big ass thought they were talkin’ about, ‘The potatoes are coming! The potatoes are coming!’”

“I just figured it would be funny if I took, like, some sidewalk chalk and drew a cicada.”

Every comic has a list in his mind of what qualifies as hack. His choices speak to his ambition. Do you want to work in Morgantown, W. Va., or at the Improv? Do you want to be doing Reverend Jim impressions in front of rednecks or telling wacky stories downtown?

Deciding on what’s hack is a big-time debate. “There are three degrees of hack,” offers comic Norm Wilkerson. “Third-degree hack is you’re just doing the covered material—airline food, the differences between cats and dogs….Second-degree hack is doing book jokes, jokes in the public domain. First-degree hack is doing other people’s material.”

Chris White sees hack in certain impressions: “Almost everyone I know can do a passable Christopher Walken. Everybody can do the Clinton voice.” As for specific material, the list is endless. White starts with the “I’m a loser” theme, which includes such favorites as “My dick is small” and “I jerk off a lot.”

Topics comics think are hack extend to a lot of territory: reality TV, airline security, McAnything, black people are different from white people, the sniper, and anything else on TV.

Thomas adds a sui generis category: the Crocodile Hunter. “Everyone’s got the taking-the-croc-hunter-into-the projects or with a hooker. And doing their bad Australian accents. It’s so hack nobody does it anymore,” he says.

By the end of three weeks attending open mikes, I have my own list of hack material: cicadas, Monica Lewinsky, Muhammad Ali impressions, newborns, dieting, gas prices, pot, porn, Catholicism, prison rape, and concluding a gay-male sex-joke with “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Chris Gayner takes no interest in discussing the ever-changing conceptions of hack. At 33, he’s been doing stand-up on and off for four years. To him, a good laugh is a still a good laugh. “We are just whores,” he says. “What is hack? It’s just a term you throw around to make it look like you know what you’re talking about.”

Lesson 10:

Get Over Shame

“My name is Norm Wilkerson and it’s been awkward.”—Norm Wilkerson

Seared into my brain aren’t the comics dying ever so slowly on stage. No, it’s the ones for whom comedy is a second or third language. The ones with no audience perception. The ones who die instantly and obliviously go on and on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dave Coleman. At a Soho open mike, Coleman, 47, got onstage and attempted to cure his demons. He used his first time onstage to rail against the Christian Right, a Marine who called him a faggot, and Jerry Falwell. His face became the color of a blister. His voice grew loud and raw. The laughs never came.

“You know Jerry Falwell?” Coleman asked. His words started coming faster and faster, becoming a momentum all their own. “He’s a big asshole. He fucked up the gay community. He fucked it up so bad really good. So Jesus told me you take one hate and give it looove! You take another hate, you get looove. Take another hate, you get looove! Take a return hate with love. That’s how you do. So Jerry, he’s an asshole but Jesus told me to love him anyway. So I gotta…dedicate this song to the one I love.”

Coleman than proceeded to parody Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” accentuating the tune with dance steps that resembled an abbreviated hand jive:

“I’m gonna wrench my nut

ahhh-ah-ahhh-ah

right out of daddy’s butt

dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh

dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh

right round

I’ll turn you right round Jerry

right round like a record baby

right round

I turn you right round Jerry

right round

like a record baby

right round right round!”

And Coleman went on just like that. Marching in place, screaming into the mike, his feet pounding the stage. Sensing the crowd isn’t with him, he signals he’s about to make it up to them with a “Just a minute…”

“I’m gonna stuff it in

ahhh-ah-ahhh-ah

to expiate your sins

doo-doo-doo-do

right round…#”

Finally, the coffee shop’s open-mike organizer Paul Schorsch pulled the mike away: “I’m sorry I had to stop the pain!” he shouts to the crowd’s applause.

Later, Coleman will tell me that he thought he did pretty good, that he thought he heard a couple of laughs. I couldn’t tell him all he got were kids rubbernecking from behind their laptops.

Lesson 11:

Everyone Should

Try Stand-Up

After watching dozens of performances on the local stand-up scene, I decide to step up to the mike. But first, I need to test my material with Thomas. He clears my head of any notions that comedy is a clean business, that people wake up in the morning with perfect material and a snappy catch phrase for that sitcom with their name in the title.

“You’re probably going to suck,” Thomas said. “I mean just get over it….My first time on stage, I got heckled pretty bad. It was a girl. I walked onstage and she started laughing because she thought I looked funny. She said that I looked like a Cabbage Patch doll.”

I thought Thomas sure had a depressing way of giving a pep talk. But he went on. “It’s a big deal, but it’s not that big a deal,” he explained. “It’s going to be over in six minutes, good or bad. It’s a really fleeting thing. It’s going to be over quick.”

Perhaps, but the preparation is laborious. I screen my material with Thomas. I wanted my first joke to be about the bad art at Soho, specifically the Doc Marten painting, which I find pointless. “You start out with something really harsh with some anal rape joke, and I’ve seen people do that,” he said. “If they’re not on board with you, you’ve dug yourself a hole there.”

Of all the funnies I propose, Thomas only really approves of one, a joke about working at Goodwill and being fired for not dressing better. The manager, I said, insisted that the store transform into a classier store like the Gap. The punch line was, “Well, I don’t see the Gap selling used panties.”

“That’s cool,” Thomas said, trying to pump me up. “You know there’s no law that says you have to use all the time, either. Three minutes. That’s cool.”

On my big night, I see Thomas sitting at one of Soho’s back tables. He is hunched over, scribbling into his notebook. I need some last-minute advice. “Just focus on the basics right now,” Thomas says. “Talk loud enough so that they can hear you. Make sure you’re pronouncing your words, and have fun, you know. And remember where the next laugh is supposed to be.”

I can’t even remember which jokes I want to do. I’m set to go onstage in about an hour. I decide to sit down and do some scribbling of my own. I grew a mustache for one joke. I remember to write the word “caterpillar” next to the words “starter stash.” I’m hoping the audience will find starter stashes funny. That’s my go-to joke.

I am scheduled to go on after Lori Trawinski. She knows where her next laugh is going to be. She has the place in fits. My brother turns to me and says, “Oh shit, are you next?” He thinks it’s a bad idea to follow someone that good.

After I am introduced, I grab the mike off the stand and I am so nervous I forget to adjust my Woody Allen glasses. I don’t want to see the audience anyhow; I just want to plow through the material.

“Ladies and gentleman, my brother’s in the audience,” I begin. “Give him a hand! Give him a hand! Give him another hand—he won a gold medal a couple years ago. A gold medalist in the audience.” The audience applauds. They are with me at least for now. “He won a gold medal in the Jewish Olympics, which is kind of like the Special Olympics but for Jews.”

Laughs. Real laughs, I think.

Then I stumble. I stay with the joke, adding that he won for volleyball. OK. Keep going. Find the punch line quick. “He actually got some endorsement deals out of the thing. He got to appear on a can of macaroons.”

Some giggles. A few claps. But still I go on. I have an Iraq joke to tell: “I read in the news recently that George Bush is already planning a memorial for the Iraqi freedom, uh, team.” The Iraqi freedom team? What the fuck is that? “It’s gonna be cheap because of budget cuts and tax cuts and all, so it’s gonna be, they’re just going to put a hood over Lincoln’s head and attach an electrode to his penis.”

Big laughs.

And then I shout, “I get laughs! All right! Thanks Jerry!” Like a corndog.

I do my Goodwill-panty-sniffer joke. I do a joke about the starter stash being “the rattail of facial hair.” I do a bit about being inspired by the movie 13 Going on 30 and wanting to be 13. And I finish with the riff on the Doc Marten painting. Thomas was right about the Doc Marten joke—it bombed. And so did the joke about my friend’s small dick.

As I exit the stage, the comedians are too generous with their applause. “You had some laughs,” Thomas says. “You had some really big laughs. For a first time, just to get any laughs at all is a success. What you need is 100 times on stage.”

In other words, I sucked.CP

For more information on local comics, check out www.dcstandup.com.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.