The New York Times: Take My Life, Please

By July 19, 2012psychology
Open mic comedy

The New York Times

Take My Life, Please

by Jay Dixit

It’s comedy night at the Parkside Lounge, a dark dive on the Lower East Side, but nobody is laughing.

The first person to stand up is a dark-haired man wearing a beleaguered expression. He talks about his time in prison and his struggles with manic-depressive illness. “Depression is so horrible, I only have one word for it: Kevorkian,” he says. “Depression is so bad it makes you appreciate pain.”

A woman with a cherubic face and tight red curls takes her turn. “I had a bad year last year,” she says. “I was totally suicidal, and the worst thing was, I had nobody to address the note to. I was like, ‘Dear Everybody Who Hates Me: You win, I’m dead.’ ”

Then a pretty African-American woman stands in front of the group. “I just got out of an abusive relationship last week,” she says. “They said I was fat, worthless, hated my guts, and wanted me to leave. And I was like: ‘Look, Mom, I’m 23. You can’t abort me now.’ ”

It’s an open-mike night for stand-up comedians, but it might as well be group therapy or an A.A. meeting. It’s the aptly named Tuesday Night Train Wreck at the Parkside Lounge, where aspiring comics show up every week, and, for $7, get to drop their names into an empty beer pitcher. The two M.C.’s draw names, and, one by one, the comics get up on the tiny stage in a dimly lit back room for their hard-won five minutes of stand-up. Most are honing their act or trying out new material. But some are just here for catharsis.

New York is the world capital of stand-up comedy. Most of the country’s top comedians started here, and people still flock from all over the country hoping that comedy will catapult them into sitcom and movie stardom. That makes the city the natural choice for next week’s New York Comedy Festival, starting Nov. 9 and featuring comedic heavyweights like Roseanne Barr, Denis Leary and Drew Carey.

But of course most aspiring comics don’t make it. Many get stuck on the open-mike circuit and never graduate into paid gigs. On some level, comedians know their chances for success are slim. “They talk about their aspirations, getting a sitcom and making it in show business,” said Joey Gay, a co-host of the five-year-old Train Wreck. “But they know it will never come to fruition. They talk about it like they might talk about heaven.”

The sense of personal failure is rubbed in by the financial structure of an open mike, the funhouse-mirror version of a real comedy club: comedians pay for the privilege of performing while audience members watch without charge. No wonder, then, that New York comedy hinges on self-deprecation, especially at open mikes like these. Many of the comics here talk about race, poverty and porn; almost all talk about drugs, sex and dysfunctional relationships with parents.

Comedians often say their jokes come from putting a wisecracking veneer atop tragedy. As Mark Twain observed: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” But this? This is sorrow without the veneer.

Tuesdays With Maury

It was almost 8 p.m. when Maury Fogel showed up at Yello, a sleek bar deep in Chinatown that attracts would-be comics from across the city every Tuesday night when it converts its karaoke basement into an open mike.

The regular M.C. was on vacation, and by 8:30, only five comics were waiting to take their place on a portable wooden stage hauled out of a supply closet. As usual, there was no audience, and the energy level in the room was low. One comedian had just quit his job as a host at Applebee’s on Staten Island. The substitute M.C. worked at an office in New Jersey. Another comedian was a student at New York University; this was only his second open mike ever. As they ordered drinks, the comics wondered whether more people would show up. “What do you think, Maury, should we start?” one asked.

The M.C. got up and did a set. Then another comic went up. Mr. Fogel ordered a tea. Finally, he bounded onto the stage. Dressed in black cargo pants, sneakers and a rust-colored fleece, Mr. Fogel looked like an overgrown kid, an effect his salt-and-pepper hair did little to counteract.

“I’m just Maury, that’s all I am,” he began. Then, with a burst of energy, he went on: “So are you having a good time? Are you happy? Yeah, you’re happy, because you’re not me!”

In a New York accent that suggests the nice Jewish boy from Queens that he is, he described the pathos of his life with a strange mix of misery and energy. “I try to relate to people my age,” he said. “They have a house with a mortgage? I have a house with a mother.”

The punch line was greeted by silence. Mr. Fogel plowed on, undaunted. “I try to fit in with the kids these days. But I just can’t. I try to be hip-hop, but I’m more IHOP.” He patted his ample paunch. More silence.

Shuffling back and forth on the four-foot-square stage, he shifted his gaze from person to person. “I try to be like Puff Daddy, but I’m more like puff pastry.” Still no response from the crowd. Mr. Fogel was bombing.

“O.K., I’ll be here all week; try the duck,” he said miserably, hoping to win sympathy by acknowledging that the crowd was not responding. But the crowd gave him nothing in return.

“I just don’t fit in,” he continued. “I went to a wedding. Somebody thought I was the best man. I told him, I’m not the best man, I’m the worst man. My name is Maury, I’m 43 years old, I live with my mother, I don’t have a job, I’m 30 pounds overweight, I’m lactose-intolerant, and I haven’t had sex in five years.”

This was his big climax, his signature line, but it got barely any response.

Finally, Mr. Fogel plunged into a routine about deciding to throw himself into a volcano because living with his mother was driving him crazy. But by this point he was just going through the motions. His speech became garbled, and he began skipping words. Finally he gave up.

“Oh-kee,” he sighed, turning to the M.C. “Come up here and get me out of this.”

‘Be Happy You’re Not Me’

As it turns out, Mr. Fogel is just as down on himself in person as he is in his act. His puppy-dog earnestness and his habit of putting himself down suggest that his stage persona is simply an extension of low self-esteem in general.

He has been doing comedy for 16 years. It’s the only thing he does, aside from looking for a day job. Besides traditional open mikes, he has performed at coffee shops, pizza joints, private apartments and rock concerts. Whenever he can afford to, he attends classes at the Comics Studio. Like his open-mike brethren, he nurses the hope of one day becoming a full-time working comedian.

The material for Mr. Fogel’s routines consists entirely of his personal failures. The refrain he repeats between every bit: “Be happy you’re not me, folks.”

Rather than practicing the knowing, ironic comedy made popular by David Letterman and carried on today by the likes of Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien, Mr. Fogel fuses the borscht-belt sensibility of Henny Youngman with the I-don’t-get-no-respect shtick of the late Rodney Dangerfield. “My act is I make fun of myself,” he explained one recent afternoon, as he waited in the cold to be let into an open mike in the West Village. “I came to it because I figured, everybody makes fun of me, I might as well make fun of myself and cut out the middleman.”

Almost all of what Mr. Fogel says in his act is true. He really doesn’t have a job. He really does live with his mother. He really is 30 pounds overweight. He really is lactose-intolerant.

It’s also true that he hasn’t had sex in five years. “I’m not Mr. G.Q.,” he said. “I want to get my own place, be my own person, have a girlfriend. But I can’t do that now; girls won’t go out with me. Besides, I can’t bring anyone home with my mom in the next room.”

Mr. Fogel is a true New Yorker. Aside from summer camp and vacations, he has always lived at home. After John Bowne High School, he went to the DeVry Technical Institute in Woodbridge, N.J., and trained to become an electronics technician. After failing the same three classes twice in a row, he flunked out. He eventually landed a job as a telex operator at Bear Stearns, where he worked for 10 years. But as fax machines and e-mail replaced telexes, there was less and less for him to do. Two years ago, he was laid off, and since then, he has been unemployed.

Their So-Called Lives

New York is unique for the dozens of comedy classes and open-mike shows available to those willing to pay for them. Most cities have one or two clubs that actually book traveling comedians, but in New York, aspiring comedians can easily do several open-mike shows a night.

The open-mike circuit is a grind. There’s a lot of standing, walking and waiting around. Mr. Fogel goes to open mikes six hours a day, four days a week, spending about $40 a week to make his appearances. He spends two hours a day commuting to and from his home in Flushing, getting to the first club as early as 2:30 p.m. to sign up, and staying out as late as 10. That is in addition to the time he spends writing, practicing his material in front of a mirror, taking classes, and doing speech exercises to improve his diction.

It’s a regimen that occupies as many hours as a full-time job, and one that means giving up any semblance of a normal social life. Aspiring comedians can’t go out in the evenings because that’s when they’re performing. If they work day jobs, they have very little free time. “I’ve had no social life, and I forgo tons of money to get on stage for 10 minutes,” said Deke Haylon, an aspiring stand-up who works part time as a chef for Donald Trump’s brother. “You go over to your friends’ house for dinner, and you’re like: ‘Oh, my God! They have matching glasses!’ ”

Taking pain and alchemizing it into something amusing lies at the very heart of comedy. For some comics, it seems as if the worse their lives get, the richer the material becomes.

“If I’m happy, and work is going well, and things are going well with my family, then I think, what am I going to talk about?” said Susan Prekel, a university fund-raiser from Murray Hill who is a regular at the Tuesday Night Train Wreck. “But that never lasts very long. Things always fall apart soon enough.”

But sometimes when a comic gets on stage, a curious thing happens. After a spell of tossing out one-liners about drugs or bad breakups, he slips almost unconsciously into a sort of confessional mode.

That’s when the open mike becomes a group therapy session, and the purpose of standing up in front of the group is no longer to practice your material but to share your pain. “Sometimes you see horribly emotionally wounded people get up and do stuff that does not even resemble stand-up,” said Mr. Gay of the Train Wreck. “Some open mikes are like support groups for the black sheep of every family. It’s like the Island of the Misfit Toys. Everybody’s got something wrong with them, so that becomes their second family.”

That same therapeutic aspect can get in the way of the putative goal of an open mike: to practice comedy and eventually move on. “I’ve seen some pretty fantastic stuff at open mikes,” Mr. Gay said. “I once saw a guy go up on stage and put a loaded gun to his head.”

One woman at the Train Wreck talked about her three-year battle with cocaine addiction without making a single joke. A man handed out pages from his diary. A psychotherapist got on stage and complained at length about how much she hated listening to other people’s complaining.

Where Everybody Knows His Name

Sometimes, Mr. Fogel sets a whole room smiling.

Twice a month, he is the host of a comedy show that takes place in an unlikely setting – Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He started the program 11 years ago after a friend encouraged him to sign up for a self-improvement course called “Self-Expression and Leadership,” hoping it would help him become more positive about life. The final assignment was to do a project for the community. Mr. Fogel decided to organize a show at a hospital. Sloan-Kettering was the first place he called.

High on the 15th floor overlooking the Upper East Side, the hospital’s recreation room is clean, bright and well appointed, with paintings, a pool table and a foosball table as well as an arts and crafts area, comfortable chairs and plants everywhere.

Mr. Fogel is looking sharp tonight, dressed up in a gray shirt, a colorful tie, a blazer, pleated pants and black leather sneakers. Also present are five other comedians – aspiring stand-ups he has met through the open-mike circuit or in classes – whom he has booked for this event. The stage is just an open area on the green carpet in front of a grand piano, but there’s a spotlight and a real microphone.

“Hi, folks,” Mr. Fogel says by way of introduction. “I want to let you know about a few rules for the comedy show. There’s no cover charge, but there’s a two-I.V. minimum.”

The crowd laughs.

It’s a sparse gathering: two middle-aged women in the front row, a pretty young volunteer, a bearded man in a hospital robe in a wheelchair who is here with his wife, and a woman in a gown who is hooked up to an actual I.V.

“We’re going to make you happy, make you forget about the place,” Mr. Fogel says. Then he turns the stage over to his colleagues.

A comedian named Mark Hertzberg does a routine in which he reveals that his head of hair is a toupee and then makes the toupee talk like a puppet. Then he and Mr. Fogel do a routine in which Mr. Hertzberg sings questions and Mr. Fogel answers in a falsetto. The patients love it.

After a few more comedians take their turns, Mr. Fogel closes the show by singing a song to the tune of “That’s Amore.”

“When the girls say no to you, like they always do, that’s a-Maury.

“When you live with your mother and you’re feeling smothered, that’s a-Maury.”

As the patients trickle out, they express their appreciation. “That was awesome; it really was,” a patient’s husband says. A recreation therapist chimes in: “The patients really like it. If they’re laughing, it really changes them physiologically, and it can have a lasting effect.”

“That’s why we have this guy,” Mr. Hertzberg says. “So the patients can say, I may be really sick, but at least I’m not Maury.”