I am on the road right now in my hometown of Atlanta. I had a great weekend of shows at Laughing Skull Lounge, but I was most looking forward to Monday night. Every Monday night for the last 10 years or so, at a little dive bar in Atlanta’s “bohemian” neighborhood, little 5 points; there is a comedy show at a rundown drinkin’ hole named Star Bar. This was where I performed my first set, and continued to perform for every monday that I was in town until I moved to New York. I cannot overstate what the show means to me, and how much of a role it has played in my development as a comedian. So many aspects of the show combine to make it an Atlanta comedy institution. Huge names have gone out of their way to stay beyond the weekend and do the show. If I didn’t do it every week for years, I don’t know where I’d be as a performer. There are Star Bar comedy fans that don’t go anywhere else, and are more familiar with Star Bar regulars than the most famous comics you could name. That pressure to perform every week at the same place… knowing I had to switch up my set or do new material made me progress exponentially. Here are just a few of the reasons why Star Bar is great.
The Host: Star Bar is hosted by a punk rock singer named Rotknee. He pretty much only performs at Star Bar, and he is somewhat of a local celebrity. He starts off the show by laying down the rules to the crowd. Rule number one is “shut the fuck up.” Rule 2 is “set your fucking phone where no one can hear it.” Rule 3 is “these comics are working for one shitty beer that I buy them and the applause you give them; so make some fucking noise.” And yes, every comic that goes up gets a PBR on Rotknee. Rotknee has a horrible memory, so if you are funny enough for him to remember you, that’s almost a credit. He has no problem intro’ing a comic as “some mother fucker I dunno” and adding a caveat like, “this dude could be terrible for all I know.” Earning a good intro from rotknee is like a milestone in Atlanta comedy. It makes people pay more attention up front.
The Crowd: A lot of comics will say their favorite rooms and they really mean what room has a cake audience who laughs hard at setups etc. Star Bar is not an “easy” crowd by any standard. They are also not a bad crowd. They respond the most to genuinely good material. They sniff out disingenuous comics real quick and don’t like being pandered to. Sometimes comics assume that because it’s a dive bar, they will only go for blue or more edgy material. In reality, they just like quality shit. I have done completely clean sets and no one notices the difference. You know you are killing at Star Bar, not because of how hard they are laughing, but how quiet it is when you are setting up the joke. To command the attention of a dive bar that normally has some sort of constant chatter is a real accomplishment. There are only so many chairs, and about 30-40 people have to be into the show enough to stand for it.
The Comics: This place is like a breeding ground for a lot of the best comics in Atlanta, which is arguably one of the best secondary city scenes (scenes other than NY and LA) in the country. It is an accomplishment in Atlanta Comedy to be put on as a regular. Normally, you have to call a number within a 2 minute window on Thursday night and leave a message to possibly get a spot for Monday. Being a regular means that Rotknee recognizes that you are working hard at the craft and has decided that you deserve a spot every week for several months without having to call. I had the honor of earning a permanent spot, which was passed down to my friend Mike Kaiser when I moved.
Also, many comics go to Star Bar even if they aren’t on the show. It is always fun to see which comics have earned the respect of their peers enough to where everyone makes it a point to watch their set. Sometimes comics get miffed when they see a bunch of people walk outside to smoke during their set, especially since you can smoke inside. No one is being an asshole though, that’s just how it goes. If you’re upset, get better.
Closing Spot: There is a closing spot at the end of this 3 hour semi-open mic which is about 15-20 minutes and pays 50 bucks. The money is a nice gesture from Rotknee who doesn’t have to do that, but much better than that is the honor. You don’t get to ask to close. Rotknee asks you to close, and he is pretty picky. Closing Star Bar is not always the easiest thing either. It is a challenge to sustain interest and laughter for 20 minutes after 2 and a half hours of comedians. It definitely makes you better.
The Mindset: There’s something about Star Bar that puts a magnifying glass on the quality of the material you are putting out. You can’t go up with some ol’ bullshit. Comics are judged by their attitude and what they are doing on stage. It doesn’t matter if you think the crowd is hot and you want to avoid trying your new stuff. You are so motivated by the other comics who are dead set on progressing that copping out would make you feel like a huge pussy.
In my personal opinion, if you are a comic in Atlanta and you don’t even try to do Star Bar, then you ain’t really doin’ it.
There are books, and blogs, and podcasts, and classes, and videos, and messageboards all geared toward aspiring comedians who want to take their career up a notch. There is a huge market for comedy career advice. I’d be willing to bet that comedy has more of this sort of thing than most creative pursuits. Comedy is one of the only endeavors where a stand up hobbyist who does two open mics a month considers himself (or herself) to be a professional comedian who is in a slump at the moment. It seems that many people are drawn to the craft of stand up with the concept of making a living from it attached to its hip. So much so that many beginner comedians would rather people think that they are booked than think that they are funny. I am not trying to be artsy-fartsy here, but the fact is that this type of mentality will, at best, lead to mediocrity.
The delusion that exists in comedy is off the charts. We’ve all seen those guys that consistently eat shit on stage, and yet never change a thing, putting most of their effort into complaining about how the comedy career gods have forsaken them. Those are usually the people who want nothing more than to just pass for a real life comedian. They skipped over the lesson in humility and have opted for self-unawareness. You can’t just want a neat sounding job bad enough to make success itself the motivating factor which makes you successful. You have to actually love what you’re doing and constantly obsess over the quality of your material.
This is why I have a beef with comedy marketing blogs etc.: They entertain the delusions of comics who are already doing it for the wrong reasons. I’m not taking a stand against pursuing a career in comedy. I am saying that simply “making it” as a comedian is not in itself an end goal; it’s hopefully the byproduct.
The comedy business blogs will of course admit that being funny is the most important part of comedy, but it’s more of a footnote. Being really good is not just the most important thing in comedy: it is the only important thing. For real. There is no substitute for being undeniably great, and no one becomes great at something by bullshiting themselves and others.
In comedy, your act speaks for you. If you try to speak for your act, it is almost certainly to your detriment. There is a lot to be said for just letting your act speak for itself. Real recognize real. Just about everything that comedy business blogs preach is a waste of time or a distraction from being better. Anonymity can be your friend. The better you can get while under the radar, the better off you are. People really don’t like hearing this, but really great comedians don’t need to convince people that they’re great.
There are no secret shortcuts. There’s no need to waste your energy on anything but getting really really good. Everything else is secondary, and will be learned on the path to getting good. Unless you’re the type that had a website built on comedy class graduation day: you’re already the best. Go ahead and change your occupation on facebook
y’all like nerds? I am on this episode of Mike Lawrence and Jake Young’s Nerd Of Mouth podcast, and I only missed 10 or so references. Very proud of myself