So it turns out MIT gives you four weeks in January to “improve yourself.” Well, ain’t that nice. This year, I wanted to do something really special with my Independent Activities Period (other than go skiing). I wasn’t about to learn Java or take a house course; instead, I wanted to do something really memorable. I wanted to tackle my fears head on and put myself out on a limb. Mainly, I wanted to do something outrageous enough that I’d never get taken seriously again in my life. At first I was thinking ice SCUBA diving.
This is how my joke IAP project started. But then three little words sneaked into my mind and turned my IAP project into a Monster. Three innocently devastating words: Open Mic Night.
Next to slam poetry, Open Mic Night is quite possibly the world’s most awkward social setting. Random strangers get together and pour their hearts out over the subtle strumming of simple chords and sips of lattes and brews. Earnest ladies get on stage and whisper quietly about social injustice, men belt Ryan Adams covers out of tune. It’s as outlandish as you could ever dream. Like the existentialist Satre said, Hell is Open Mic Night.
Put it this way, if I could make it through an Open Mic Night, impossible was nothing.
But I wanted to make it harder than that. I couldn’t just do it once; that would be over in a nervous flash. I had to make it a sustained challenge. I hashed out the terms with some friends and came up with an arrangement: I had to attend a week’s worth of Open Mic Nights. My mission: to play only novelty songs in a variety of styles, changing night after night. The only constant: I had to wear a coat and tie (mostly to confuse people). My goal: to blow by everyone with just how outrageous my stunt was. I’d play it straight, they’d take it seriously, heads would explode with wonderment.
This was the plan. Little did I know how far I would venture into the heart of darkness.
My mission took me through the depths of Cambridge. I infiltrated the dimly lit underworld of hip bars and coffee shops, immersing myself into the seductive allure of being an Open Mic artist.
Open Mic Night people are a different breed: they’re exhibitionists, they’re shameless self promoters, they’re really into MySpace. The Cult of Open Mic is founded on unsaid rules. Never leave right after your song, but stay to listen to the people after you (or else). Be supportive of people on stage. Always clap. Never insult someone, but at the same time, never unduly compliment someone. Open Mic Night is not an excuse to hit on musicians. If you’re going to hit on someone, base it at least on a semi-sincere interest in their music. Either way, don’t expect a number. MySpace pages seem to be the currency of the Open Mic romantic scene. Buy a drink from the place hosting and remember to tip your bartender; lord knows it ain’t easy to listen to Open Mic Night all the time.
These rules I learned mainly by error. The trials were even harder. The first time I got on stage to sing my novelty songs, I stammered out my intro and flew through my songs before I even knew it. My performance was good enough to garner a few huhs and one backhanded compliment. By the second night, time began to slow down, I was able to banter with the crowd in a non awkward fashion, and believe it or not, for a moment I really enjoyed being on stage. By the third night, I had it down to an art. I learned how to turn sound checking into a comedic monologue. I learned the art of giving short and sweet introductions to songs. I was a rocker and I rocked out. Like George Costanza, I always left them wanting more.
And so it hit me. I kinda liked being an Open Mic artist.
I wondered, when does a joke become more than a joke? More importantly, when do you give in and realize that you’re the punch line? At what point does my buddy Sam running the Charlottesville marathon in short shorts to raise money for Dick Cheney’s retirement fund become something more than a horrifying spectacle? I really don’t know. But what I do know is that I kind of really liked doing Open Mic Night as a joke, and even scarier, I think part of me may have liked it genuinely.
It was exhausting pretending to be an Open Mic artist, but it had its moments. About three out of 10 musicians were either semi professionals or way better than they thought they were and I found myself really digging their work. It made me wonder. What brings someone to do this seriously? There’s no denying that being on stage is a rush, but having been on stages before, Open Mic was something different. Maybe it was the egalitarian aspect of it all. It wasn’t that people were here to see you, it was more that each person who got on stage was there to test their own courage and creativity. It’s probably why “American Idol” is so popular. Everyone thinks deep down inside that they may have “it.” Very few people actually get on stage and find out for sure, for in never trying, one can perpetuate the dream a little longer and always wonder, What if?
In going through with my Joke Open Mic IAP Tour 2008, I inadvertently found out that I didn’t have “it.” But that was probably the best part. Finding out you’ll never be a rock star can be a real relief. Because after that all or nothing gambit dissipates in your mind, you realize that there’s a middle ground, a strange gray place in bars and coffee shops inhabited by ordinary people more talented than you ever imagined. It’s a place where for a few minutes every night, anyone can get on stage and give it their best shot. A place where once you get on stage and swallow down all the butterflies, you too can rock out.
See you at Open Mic Night.