Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Memory From The Open Mic Days

Starting tomorrow I'll be headlining at Wits End Comedy Club in Westminster. I have shows Wednesday April 5 - Saturday April 8. I sure hope you can make it.

Wits End has always been one of my favorite clubs to work at. I've been working at this club since my open mic days. I have to tell you that there was a time when I didn't think I would ever be on the stage there again.

Even though it may sound like a bad memory, it is actually a good one. It is also one of my favorite memories and I'm going to use this blog to share it with you. But first I will need to give you a little bit of my history.

I started out in comedy in 1992 by going to workshops at Loonees Comedy Corner in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At that time it was called Jeff Valdez's Comedy Corner. Jeff has since gone on to be the head of the cable network SI TV and the person that ran the workshop back then was Judy Brown. She is now a big producer/agent type in LA.

When you start out in comedy you begin as an open mic'er. A name that comes from open mic, a term for venues that let anyone get on stage and perform. Since being a comedian is a performance based art form, you have to have a place to practice and learn. You can only go so far telling jokes to yourself in a mirror. You have to have feedback from an audience to tell you if you are getting it right.

So when you begin you are not going to get stage time at a regular comedy club until you have progressed far enough along that you can do a solid 3 minutes of material. That means until you can get up on stage and hold the audiences attention and keep them laughing for 3 minutes you won't be getting any stage time in a comedy club. It sounds easy enough doesn't it? Well I can tell you it takes a lot of practice to get that far.

So this is where my story begins.....

I had been doing open mic for about a year and felt like I was ready to start spreading my wings. I thought I had a pretty good 5 minutes worth of material. Not nearly enough to be an opener at a club (you need a solid 15 minutes for that) but certainly enough to start asking for stage time in Denver.

So I mustered up the courage to start calling the Denver clubs. At the time there were 3 in Denver. The Comedyworks which is downtown, McKelvey's Comedy Club (which is now closed) on Hampton on the south side of town and Wits End in Westminster.

The Comedyworks was a tough nut to crack back then and actually still is. You have to sign up every week for stage time (which you won't get) and it helps a great deal to go down to the club and smooze when you are not working. I was never good at that and at the time I lived 100 miles away. There was no way I was ever going to do well there. So I never really tried and to this day I am pretty much "persona non grata" at "The Works". That's OK with me.

I figured my best bet was to try to get stage time at McKelvey's and Wits End. At the time McKelvey's was owned and operated by Tim Wordwell a great guy who I owe a lot to. Unfortunately Tim passed away unexpectedly in 2004, may he rest in peace.


Tim was very gracious and gave me stage time. After I was in at McKelvey's, I knew it was time for me to try to get some time at Wits End.

At the time Wits End was owned and operated by a man named John Cooney. Now Mr. Cooney (as I always called him) was known as a hard ass and I have to tell you I was more than nervous the first time I called for stage time. And my first call was nothing like I expected it to be.

I called the club and Cooney actually answered the phone. I introduced myself and asked him if I could get a "Guest Set". That's what they call a set you don't get paid for in a comedy club.

I was amazed because he couldn't have been nicer. He was very pleasant and accommodating. He said "Sure, come on down. We'd love to have you"! I have to admit; I was feeling pretty good about Wits End and Mr. Cooney.

So the big day comes and I drive the 2 hours and 15 minutes to Wits End. I got there about 30 minutes before the show Cooney was working the door and seating people. I introduced myself and he very curtly pointed to a table and said, "sit there". I patiently sat at that table (no very nervously) until just as he was getting ready to start the show Mr. Cooney stopped in front of me and said, "Be off by 8:20".

So I did my set and I'll tell you the truth, I have no idea how I did. I can tell you that when you are starting out, you are never satisfied with what you do onstage. I went back to my table and sat there through the rest of the show. Afterwards I went up the Mr. Cooney and thanked him for the set. He said your welcome and nothing more. I remember leaving the club with a very uneasy feeling.

So I waited about a month before I called again, fully expecting Mr. Cooney to say "Thanks but no thanks. You are going to have to get a lot better before I allow you to be on my stage again". But I got the complete opposite. I got "Vilmos, so glad to hear from you! Sure, I'd love to have you out again!" And I got another guest set.

So when I drove the 2 hours and 15 minutes the 2nd time and I was feeling pretty good about it. Well that all went away when I got the same treatment that I received the last time I once I got there there. And that's the way it went for the next year. I would call and everything sounded great but when I got there I got the cold shoulder.

And then one night after I did my set Mr. Cooney opened the door to his office and suck his arm out. He did that come in here thing by curling his finger in. As I walked into his office I was thinking "This must be it. He's going to tell me that he never wants me back again. I've had my chance and blown it".

But to my surprise he said "I think you are ready to open for us here and I want to give you a week". A week means booking me for a week of shows. He told me I could have it on one condition. I had to drop this 'boil" joke I was doing at the time. The boil joke was a joke I did that got a groan about half the time. This is not a good thing, but I was just starting out. If anything worked half the time I was happy. Anyway, he said it was beneath me and I didn't need to do it. So I'm thinking "Lose one joke to get a week at a comedy club?
That was no problem for me and I agreed to it right away. I left on cloud 9. I had just gotten a week at McKelvey's to, so I felt I was making some real progress.

So I did my week at McKelvey's (it was first and I did it with the boil joke) and felt pretty good about my upcoming week at Wits End. So the week came and after doing 6 shows it was Sunday night, the last show of the week. Just before the show started I walked up to Cooney and said, "Mr. Cooney, I think I've had a pretty good week. I was just wondering if I could do the boil joke?" Without thinking he looked me straight in the eye and said "NO". So I said, "Well Mr. Cooney, I have to admit I'm feeling a little repressed here." To which he responded, "Good, that's exactly what I was going for."

 And so goes the life of an open mic'er ...

Note Dec 2, 2014: John Cooney has now passed on. I've met a lot of people doing comedy over the years and he was easily one of my favorite people. He was a hard ass when you didn't know him but after he warmed up to you he was just as nice as anyone you would ever meet. Over the years I knew him we spoke over the phone frequently and it was always for hours at a time. I really miss him. Rest In Peace John Cooney.


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