There’s something perfectly unfinished about the comedy club on 4th Avenue. It’s next to a Running Fit store and housed in the basement of a virtually unmarked building. You could pass it every day and never notice unless you happened to see the 8-by-11-inch sheet of printer paper on the door that says “Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase.”
The core of the building is used as a leasing office — one that seems to be perpetually under construction. I’ve gone to see three or four shows there over the last year, and it never looks like the project is any closer to its finish. When I walked in that Saturday, going to see a show with my friends, it seemed like there were the same protective plastic coverings and “Excuse our mess” signs that lined the walls the last time I was there. But maybe its dingy unfinishedness is exactly what a comedy club should look like.
Past the entryway and down the stairs, a folding table was set up to sell tickets. The man behind the table handed me three pieces of paper, explaining that one was for me to keep as a receipt, one was to sign and give back to him and the last was for me to hand to another guy behind a hosts’ stand. It all felt very complicated for an operation being run from a folding table in the basement of an office building. When I asked some of my roommates who had never seen live comedy before if they would come with me, I felt like I was responsible for their experience — if they didn’t find it funny, then it was my fault that they’d wasted $15.
The exercise of going to a comedy show feels simultaneously extremely cool and painfully uncool. I felt like I wasn’t half-interesting enough to be there while also hoping I didn’t run into anyone I knew. For some reason, it seemed like everyone felt this way, as if the audience was all milling around, waiting for friends. Eventually, the rest of my roommates showed up and we were taken to our seats.
The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase looks like a scene from the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or the opening scene of Seinfeld: The whole room is composed of small tiered levels of seats that get increasingly huddled as they go down to the stage. The floor in front of the stage is packed with small, round tables for two. The host led us down to the second row of tiered seats. As we sat down, my friend Emily leaned over to me.
“Can you imagine sitting right next to the stage? You’d probably get spit on.”
Yeah, spit on or made fun of.
The front seats are the ones the comedians bring into their sets, usually to pick on as a way to connect with the audience. I theoretically like the idea of being brought into the show, but I assume it’s also terrifying, sitting there with the constant knowledge that someone could single you out in a room of 60 people. I was glad we were sitting higher up, out of the literal and metaphorical splash zone. I wanted to do the observing without the fear of being observed.
The stage looks pretty much as emblematic of a comedy show as you can get: just a black, three-legged stool and a microphone with a singular spotlight trained on it. Looking up at the spotlight, I couldn’t tell if it was an illusion of the lights or an image my mind had superimposed onto the idea of a comedy show, but the air almost looked smoky.
I’ve loved comedy since I was in middle school. I’ve always been really interested in the whole “scene” of it all. I stayed up to watch SNL every weekend. I read all of the trendy comedian’s memoirs — Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Aziz Ansari’s “Modern Romance” — to figure out how these comics got where they were. It would be a few more years before I’d be introduced to stand up, but even my initial brush with comedy left me wowed. I couldn’t fathom how someone could be so witty, so quick on their feet. It felt like magic to me.
But, of course, it’s not magic. If anything, it’s closer to science. Plato and Thomas Hobbes theorized that the motive for humor is pleasure in pain, flaws or “the indignity of others.” When we laugh, it’s because we’re laughing at someone else’s shortcomings. On the contrary, Freud believed that laughing was a sign of sexual or aggressive thought. But he also believed the same thing about fear. And food. And dreams. That theory is pretty much defrauded, but the idea of tension and release is still integral to comedy. It’s often the buildup to the joke that makes the payoff rewarding.
Now, most people understand humor through the incongruity theory: Our brains perceive two things that don’t appear to make sense together, but when the true context is revealed we see them in a new light, and the comedy is revealed. It’s the surprise when the doors open in a haunted house and Tom Hanks is standing there wearing a suit covered in pumpkins in SNL’s “David Pumpkins” sketch. Or the absurdity of Costello asking, “Who is on first?” and Abbott saying, “Yes.”
When the lights went down — a transition from near to absolute darkness — I saw at least a little apprehension cross my friends’ faces. The MC walked up to the stage to start warming up the crowd. I’d seen her before, she’s an Ann Arbor local who does this on the weekends. She does bits about her job at a homeless shelter and her son’s dating life.
I’ve always felt like comedy is very black and white. In my mind, there was an “it” factor to creativity. People like the MC had it, and I didn’t. But “art,” “artifice” and “artificial” all derive from the same Latin root ars-, which means skill. All art is artificial. Sculptures are built, words from poems are carefully selected, the same scene of a movie can be shot over and over again until it has the desired effect. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real or meaningful. I know “Meet the Robinsons,” the 2007 animated Disney classic, isn’t a true story, but I still cry every time I watch it. And there is no naturally occurring comedy just like there’s no naturally occurring art. Every joke is preconceived whether it’s in a Dave Chapelle bit or an objectively shitty sketch written by an amateur comedy group.
I wish there was a formula for coming up with creative ideas. I Googled “how to write a good joke,” and according to Google, the golden equation contains three parts: There’s recognition, the relatable context that the comedian sets up for the audience; discomfort, the incongruity that leaves the audience confused and creates tension; and then release, the moment the audience understands the larger picture and the joke pays off.
“So who’s in love here?” the MC asks the crowd.
She started talking about how COVID-19 has affected her dating life. She told the audience about how she was sick of the high-maintenance men and college-aged boys she’d been meeting in Ann Arbor and how she had been dating a guy named James on and off for the past couple of years. The setup.
“And, in other news, I lost 211 pounds during the pandemic,” she says.
The audience cheers. It’s not really clear where this train of thought came from, but everyone’s happy for her nonetheless. The incongruity.
“His name was James.”
The release. I’d heard this joke before. This exact joke from this exact woman here a few weeks earlier, but I still laughed. I don’t think the fact that I’d heard the joke before — the fact that it was probably written and rehearsed and used dozens and dozens of times before it ever got to me — took away from its humor. If I heard it a third time, I’d probably still laugh. But thinking about it that way does feel a little off-putting to me like I’ve accidentally pulled back the curtain to see the wizard. The logical part of my brain knows that standup comedians don’t make stuff up on the spot but I think there’s a kind of belief suspension in watching standup.
We know it’s an act, but we have to believe the standup comic even more than if it was fiction. When an actor delivers a monologue, the audience knows them as two people at the same time: the actor and the character they are portraying. There’s an obvious underlying assumption that everyone on the screen is being someone they’re not. With a standup comedian, there’s only who they say they are. The audience has to believe that they’re seeing something authentic. But does it even matter who they are or who we think they are?
It’s why I’ve never understood heist movies. In every art heist movie, the thieves sneak into the museum or the mansion or the gallery, slip the painting out of the frame and put a replica in its place — and no one notices. At least four or five scenes go by until someone realizes the painting is a fake. Sometimes they never do. For all I know, I’ve seen a thousand forgeries and thought they were the real thing. Every painting I’ve ever seen could be a forgery, and I’d have no idea. There is no inauthenticity until someone tells you that something is inauthentic. You don’t feel cheated out of a concert until someone tells you the band is lip-synching. On some level, you can’t help but believe the magician until you see the wires holding up the trick. You don’t remember the standup comedian is reading from a script until you’ve heard it twice. It’s almost as if the belief in authenticity is more important than its existence.
Maybe the MC is an undiscovered forgery. Maybe there never was a James. Maybe I’ll run into her at Kroger someday, walking through the produce aisle with her husband. But shopping for lemons doesn’t make a very good punchline.
By the time I’d ordered my second drink, the headliner, Ken Evans, came on. He was probably around 65, wearing a short-sleeve button-up and a newsboy hat.
The first thing he did was call out everyone in the audience: the nicely dressed couple sitting at center stage is probably rich, the man sitting alone couldn’t get a date, the larger tattooed couple off to the side definitely lives in a trailer park. He went on about the toilet paper shortage during the pandemic and the Midwest and the haunted hayride he used to run. I wondered whether Ken practiced this monologue on his drive over from Novi, repeating it to himself and remembering where to pause for laughs. He picked up the cord of the microphone and walked around the stage, taking a path he’s probably done a hundred times before in a hundred other comedy clubs like this one.
He’s not really my sense of humor. It’s a little too crude, talking about the problems of middle age that I might find relatable in twenty to thirty years, so I mostly just watched the crowd. There’s a woman near the stage who was absolutely dying. She was far more entertaining than the show itself. She kept cackling, grabbing her husband’s arm and keeling over with laughter.
I read somewhere that caricature art is the most vulnerable, authentic type of art there is. The argument was that a caricaturist draws exactly what they see before them in real-time. There is no time or backstage for preparation, no place to hide. As I watched the crowd and the comedian, I felt like I was watching a caricaturist at work.
Ken singled out the nicely dressed man at center stage, playing up the bit that he had money. The man said he’s a school teacher, but Ken put on a French accent and puffed from an invisible cigar, making him into a traveling aristocrat. The Cackler, sitting a few seats over, absolutely lost it. I looked around at the rest of my friends and everyone was staring at her, mesmerized. The rapport she had with the comedian without saying a single word was amazing; she was making him the funniest man in the world.
That’s my biggest confusion about comedy: How could someone find themselves so interesting that they have the confidence to get up on stage and assume everyone else will find them interesting too? I bet the Cackler is one of those people. I wanted to follow her home and listen to her recount the show to her kids. I wanted to go with her to the grocery store and see if she chuckles, remembering Ken’s toilet paper joke. I wanted her to follow me around and laugh at any joke I ever make. And by the end of the show, I was in fits too, laughing at her laughing at him.
I don’t know why one of these people was funny to me and the other wasn’t. I don’t know if it had to do with which was more authentic — or that one felt more authentic than the other.
But as Ken thanked us all for coming and put the microphone back in the stand, all I wanted to do was thank the Cackler for her performance.
Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at email@example.com.