David Gborie holds the microphone close to his mouth. It’s tough being a fat guy, because you can’t find any sexy underwear. Silk is out of the question. He suggests they have a store just for guys, Victor’s Secret, but the name is too close to something an altar boy might confess.
“I want Wonder Briefs, because my wiener is small,” he tries. “That’s the point of this.”
The joke gets no applause.
He continues his set, talking about how his younger siblings should be grateful because he took the worst of his mother’s beatings and she has no good ones left. The only laughs in the room are from people at the bar who are laughing at their own conversations.
“This is cutting-edge shit,” he says of the new material he’s trying out. Not cutting enough. Organizer Rajeen Dhar gives Gborie the light, signaling the end of his set.
His exit from the stage gets more applause than his jokes.
Welcome to Tuesday night’s open mic at Amnesia. Gborie has seen worse in his year-and-a-half-long standup career, which began at Brainwash, an open mic staple among working standup comedians here. He took the stage at the the SoMa venue after a comic friend from Denver pushed him.
“I was really lucky my first night went well,” he says, standing outside of Amnesia having a 35-cent smoke. “If it didn’t, I probably would have quit.”
That one good night sent Gborie into an open mic frenzy. Now he does about five to seven acts a week, less than half of which are booked shows. He works that schedule — while working a full-time job — so he doesn’t get rusty. The material he offered up to the small, stubborn audience at Amnesia was only practice.
“I’ve got 15 minutes I could do underwater, but I won’t do it because that’s the good stuff. This is like a workout room,” he said. “I have to do these jokes for months to see if they work.”
The open mic at Amnesia is a raw, spiritual exercise for those who want to be loved for their ability to induce laughter. It’s a dark, candlelit bar with a handful of people who would rather take a knife to the face than burp out a solitary chuckle.
From the stage comes pop culture references new and old: eight-bit Nintendo, “American Beauty,” Burning Man, Lady Gaga. The comics give out personal — and fictional — bits of their lives: the scientist girlfriend, how everyone giving directions at Burning Man sounds like they’re on acid, even if they haven’t ingested it yet.
After each line there’s a slight pause; a silent prayer, a beat of hope that their message is being heard. Most often they get nothing.
That, everyone agrees, is normal. Hecklers, however, are not.
On this particular Tuesday a man interrupts in the middle of Sergio Barajas’ routine with foaming, nonsensical drivel, slathered in a fresh-off-the-boat Irish accent. Barajas was talking about being Mexican, and the Irishman points out his own heritage.
“Oh, you’re Irish?” Barajas asks. “You beat your wives, too?”
Barajas goes on. So does the Irishman.
“It depends on the type of bar. You normally don’t get many hecklers here,” Barajas said later, outside.
Barajas is yet another comic working the five- to seven-show-a-week schedule. He’s been at it for three years while working as a server during the breakfast shift.
“It’s hard. You get drunk, then you get to wake up and serve eggs and shit,” he said.
It’s slowly paying off: He’s part of the Chicano Allstars event in January at the Punchline Comedy Club, a venue most local comics consider a career benchmark.
Some comics walk onto the stage only to offer a spectacle of a slow death as public entertainment.
Others — well, they steal their material.
Andrew “Homegrown” Holmgren’s stage personality is a mix of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome and Mitch Hedberg with one too many drugs in his system. His jokes are about weed, the double-entendres involved in working at a hardware store and the irony of a homeless guy telling his dog not to beg. He has one last joke before he leaves the stage.
“I have this weed I call the Quran, because burning it gets you stoned,” he says.
The joke has circulated around the Internet for years, including being mentioned by Jesus Christ on Twitter.
While the stolen joke prompted neither laughs nor heckling, it illustrates the hardest part of becoming a comedian: originality. For some, that means digging harder and deeper into subjects that would have gotten them arrested 60 years ago.
In a city obsessed with rules, political correctness and social consciousness, the comedy stage is one of the few places where speech is truly free. It’s a public forum in which to rub raw, itchy topics like race, farting in public, smoking weed around babies and lesbians.
Ricky Luna embodies this spirit with an explosive, racially-charged diatribe laced with slurs about blacks and Mexicans in a room full of “apathetic white people.” It’s hard to tell if anyone is laughing, because his high-pitched voice violently assaults the mic, barely pausing for breath when switching topics from sex with passive-aggressive white men to his distaste for women.
“I hate women. This is San Francisco. Get out.”
He bolts from the stage, never to be seen in that club again that night.
That’s typical for open mic nights. It’s standard practice for comics to wait to be heard, but rarely do they remain after their set. Many rush to the Dark Room on Mission to do another set before the night is over.
The crowd thins as the night continued, but the drunk Irishman remains, even after two women seated next to him shun his advances. He stays quiet until Chris Thayer takes the stage.
Thayer gets no laughs for his jokes, blurting out in a comical, self-deprecating tone, “F*** this standup. It’s not even art, anyway.”
But he shines when the Irishman tries to rile him, maintaining his composure while offering quips the audience loves.
“Give shit back,” the Irishman says.
“Aren’t you responsible for U2?” Thayer shoots back from in front of the red curtain.
“Yeah, but you listen to them.”
“You’re such a piece of shit,” Thayer responds. “You win. I quit comedy.”
Like all successful comics, Thayer didn’t let a heckler or a tough crowd break his drive; it’s part of the reason he’s a resident comic at the Rite Spot at 17th and Mission.
It’s a long, hard road out of mediocrity, paved with determination and long, laughless nights with strangers who would sooner castrate you than praise you, unless you ruthlessly earn it.
“Comedy is soul-crushing,” Gborie said. “You’ll do a club, kill it, go to bed, wake up and go to work the next day.”