Words: Molly Sanchez
Loren Kraut, Mary-Alice McNab, and me: All women who know what it feels like to kill.
“It’s exhilarating,” Kraut says, her small face breaking into a large smile.
“It’s f***ing magical,” concurs McNab banging a fist on the table for emphasis.
Personally I feel like Mary Poppins after a good kill, like I could float all the way home.
These women and I aren’t murderers, we’re comedians and it’s the high of laugh lust we’re constantly chasing.
It’s a Tuesday night at a dark bar where people get onstage one by one and try to remember what to say. The bar is called “Amnesia”.
Amnesia is trendy. It’s illuminated by tiny red candles glowing on tables against the wall. The tentacles of what appears to be a paper mache sea creature reach out at patrons from the bar ceiling. It’s so dark one can barely read the names on the beer taps and is reduced to grunting vaguely at the bartender “I’ll have the one with the fish on it.”
Against the back wall of the bar is a stage. It’s lit by pink theatre lights from above and is cluttered with black microphone stands. None of these mics ever seem tall enough for any of the comics that ascend the small set of stairs to the stage so that the first few minutes of everyone’s set is spent adjusting it to fit their needs.
Tuesday nights at Amnesia are the brainchild of comedian and producer, Rajeev Dhar. I met Dhaj at the SF Comedy Burrito Festival earlier this year and he encouraged me to come check it out. “ I used to hate open mics ,” he confided “ I hated waiting around all night just to do 4-5 minutes.” “ Then I realized it’s part of the process, you know?”
I’ve never been to an open mic before, unless you count the times I barged into the music open mics on campus. I don’t really consider those days of doing penis jokes between acoustic guitar renditions of “Wonderwall” to have been very helpful in the way of developing my process. In my four years of doing standup I’ve mostly as an opener for my friend’s improv group. They did monthly shows at a bar downtown and every month they would dutifully smuggle my under 21 self in to do a 10 minute set. A long set, people who loved me and laughed at me, the occasional sneaked sip of beer? No wonder I loved this gig! When they stopped performing at the bar and my gig dried up it felt like a divorce to leave a comfortable loving space and venture out into the great unknown.
Amnesia is terrifying. It’s a bar filled with comedians that already know and like and talk to eachother. It only takes two sets for me to realize a crushing truth: Comedians rarely laugh at other comedieans. Some of them barely look up from squinting at their notebooks to even acknowlege at person is onstage . Some comics that go up at amnesia get flustered at the lack of response. “These are called jokes, folks,” one guy in a grey hoodie heckles into the void. He’s rewarded with at feeble chuckle from the back of the bar. “ I really wish I was white so I could say white things you people would laugh at,” barks a Native American comic. The crowd laughs uncomfortable. One guy at the door mutters “well he sure got us!” sarcastically into his beer.
McNab, sitting at the bar’s corner rolls her eyes at this. She hates when “ people think open mics are shows,”. “This is practice, this is training wheels,” she says to me later. “This is something you can only learn onstage,” she says “If you don’t get on stage you’re not a standup comedian.” She shrugs “ I don’t know what you are then.”
McNab has been on the comedy scene for 15 months now but she’s always been funny. Growing up she went to catholic schools and eventually made the move from Colorado to California when she was in her late twenties. At the encouragement of other comedian friends McNab enrolled in the Comedy College and started going to open mics. Some places she go to even let women do longer sets than men “ because there are so few of us in the industry.”
That’s how I’ve always felt, even in my limited experience, that I was a lone lady in a boys world. Yet at Amnesia some nights, women comics make up about a quarter of the performers.
“It’s an uphill climb,” says Loren Kraut a diminutive comic with glasses and brown hair. She shakes her head “ we’re not really wanted.” She adds “ I hate to be introduced as the ‘lady comedian’” she says scowling slightly “I want to punch someone in the face!”
Kraut has been doing comedy for 6 years. Before that she lived in new york trying to be an actress. Like McNab , Kraut is also a graduate of the Comedy College. “ I always wanted to do it,” she says of comedy “ but I didn’t have the nerve.”
And it takes nerve for Kraut to climb the stairs to the stage and do her set, especially considering what she talks about.
She sidles up to the mic, takes it off the stand, blinks languidly at the crowd before saying “ Over the years I’ve written a small, and I think well written , pile of suicide notes.” The crowd giggles awkwardly, Kraut continues “ I’m always loath to throw out anything I might need someday.” She’s deadpan even about death. “It’s ok to laugh,” she coaxes gently “ I’m still here.” The rest of her set ranges from her time in an anorexia clinic, her title as “most pathetic lesbian” and her OCD. The last one is evident by her stooping down in the middle of her set to pick a speck of glitter off the stage floor.
Her matieral, deep and uncomfortable though it may be, gets laughs. She smiles as she walks off stage and sits back down at her table. Later she tells me “it sounds corny but I do it for freedom of expression.” She says she talks about the kinds of things that she talks about because “if I make fun of it, I get to work out the kinks.”
McNab concurs “ You can work out your shit if it’s funny.”
She says it’s hard for women sometimes to access this method of catharsis and even get onstage. “ Women are trained to be pretty and smart and together,” she says . “Comedy is so much about self deprication that if you’re trying to maintain that façade, you’re fucked.”
Kate Willet is the next to go on stage. She’s the only comic I’ve ever seen in a dress. It’s mauve and she pairs it with brown boots. She could be any other girl, and the beginning of her set sounds about as incendiary as any girl slagging off her friends. “ All my friends are married, and they worry about ‘where should I buy a house’ and things like that,” she says. Then the façade drops and the comedian in her kicks in to full, filthy gear. “ I think about ‘how am I going to pay rent’ or ‘is this really the guy I want to get HPV from?” The crowd bursts into shocked laughter and she smiles innocently “Because you want it to be the right person, you know?”
The second comedian I’ve ever seen in a dress is also at Amnesia. Her name is Casey Grim and as she mounts the stairs to the stage one audience member says “ ooh look Katy Perry” under their breath. Grim looks the part with her dark black hair and bright doe eyes that peek out coquettishly from behind square eyeglasses. Her cuteness is why it’s so alarming to hear her say, in a fairy voice that is high and bubbly “ I’m like any other girl in that I’ve been sexually assaulted.” The crowd laughs, again somewhat uncomfortably and Grim continues to recount her story. She says she woke up in a strange dorm after a night of drinking to find a man with his hand down her pants. In the middle of this assault, she says campus police burst in and start to arrest the man. She says while he was being handcuffed “ I got to say the one thing that every girl who has ever been a victim has wanted to say.” “You suck at fingering!” she chirps gleefully. The crowd roars.
Talking openly about things not acceptable in “ polite discussion” is important for women Krout says. She has come to feel “ the need to express myself is greater than the fear, and it is fulfilling .”
I remember a time, a while before my night at Amnesia that I felt fulfilled. I was in the midst of a grand maul breakup, broken totally on the inside and constantly having to change direction every time I saw my ex in a crowd. I was onstage doing a set when I saw his sidle in the back and stand staring by the door. I took a deep breath and began .“ I want to tell you a story about my ex boyfriend,” I begin, my heart pounding furiously in my chest, “ and because some of you may know who he is I’m going to change his name slightly so that you’ll know who I’m talking about but you won’t know who I’m talking about.” I see him roll his eyes but I continue “ so shmasshole and I were dating..” The rest of the set killed and I had the crowd laughing uproariously at several other jokes that skewered my still present ex. “We’d have sex, snuggle, and I was obligated to like his friends but he said he wasn’t ready for a relationship,” I said at one point before grimacing and saying “ that’s like saying ‘I like marshmallows, I like chocolate, but I’m just not ready for a s’more”. I killed and with the audience’s laughter I sauntered off stage thinking “ this must be how it feels to be Taylor Swift.”
Back at Amnesia McNab is about to go up. As the previous comic finishes up their set she nurses her dark beer and squints down at her set list . She scribbles something on a coaster before getting up onstage. I look at the coaster as she goes up. “Camel Toe/holiday/muffin top” is scrawled in black pen around the coaster’s border.
“Does my camel toe make these pants look weird?” she asks the audience, pelvic thrusting slightly. She goes on to elaborate that she’s concerned about her body, namely her “muffin top.” She rubs the small fold of skin above her waist affectionately and says “this is a specialty muffin made out of whiskey and ice cream.” She laughs slightly saying “ It’s my job as a comedian to share these awkward tidbits with you.” Later on in her 4 minute set, McNab forgets what she was going to say. “Think, think” she says doing deep squats onstage, scrabbling for the rest of her set. It’s painful, as a performer and as a person that likes her, to watch the struggle. She snaps up from the squat and grins “Fuck it, I’ll end it here,” she says walking off the stage. When she sits down she mutters “I can’t drink before I go up, that’s the problem,” before leaning her head back and trying to remember the part she’s forgotten. This set is a perfect example of something she told me earlier “ it’s better to do a short, good set than a long rambling one.”
It’s hard to see a comic stop short like that but bombing is a right of passage we all need to pay at some point. Kraut recalls her worst time onstage, “ I was heckled by a dog!” she says. According to her a woman went to the bathroom during her set and the dog barked the entire time. Bombing, Kraut says, “ feels like all the terrible things.”
All the terrible things are in my head as I too ascend the stage. After McNab’s set I’ve taken only tentative half sips of my own beer so my mouth tastes sickly of IPA and fear. The applause is lukewarm and as I start my set the room becomes so quiet I can hear almost perfectly the conversation of the smokers just outside the door. During my set, which garners only a few laughs even on material I know works, it occurs to me that doing standup comedy is like trying to play fetch with cats. Once in a while you’ll meet a great cat willing to lob something back to you. More often than not you get a cat that stares blankly at your attempt with a look that clearly says “ what do you a take me for, a fucking dog?”
Still even those who bomb are given a warm reception after their set at Amnesia and everyone is receptive to praise. Grim grasps both my hands in both of hers when I say I like her set and thanks me fervently. Willet comes over and places an affectionate hand on the small of my back saying she’s so glad I could make it out. McNab acts as a sort of one woman Little League receiving line, offering a high five to everyone as they walk past her offstage. She envelops me in a bear hug and says she can’t wait to see me again.
Even on days when I don’t do my best I am so glad to have comedy as a release and as a way to meet other women brave enough to do it too. They inspire me to get back up again.
All of us are chasers of the same feeling. The feeling Kraut describes as “being in the exact right spot.”