Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A guy walks into a bar, and one by one, the other people in the room climb up onto a small stage illuminated by what looks like a police interrogation spotlight and share deeply personal anecdotes, as if they are on a therapist's couch.
A heavyset man in his late 30s talks for five minutes about his weight problems.
Another guy, in his early 20s, delivers an angry, borderline obscene rant about how he never gets laid -- and then laments that no one was paying attention.
A woman carries on for five minutes about how her mother fits all of the characteristics of a stalker.
These scenes could have been taken straight from a 12-step meeting or circle of trust support group, except that the audience seems to be reveling in the pain of the people spilling their guts before them. These seemingly disturbed people may be trying to work through the trauma of failed relationships, dead-end jobs and worse, but open-mike night at the Dallas Comedy House in Deep Ellum isn't (entirely) about healing wounds.
It's also about honing a skill, one that is a career path for some and a masochistic hobby for others.
The deck is stacked against "making it" as a comedian. Precious few reach the heights of Chris Rock or Louis C.K. There are only a handful of pure comedy venues in Dallas-Fort Worth, among them Hyena's in Fort Worth and Dallas, the Addison Improv, and Backdoor Comedy in Dallas, and most of those stages take years to break onto. Doing open-mike nights is one thing, but what does it take to make it as a stand-up comic in DFW? Is it possible to earn a living here telling jokes? And is it enough to be able to make an audience laugh, or do you also have to write, do improv or, worst of all, wait tables?
I set out to find the answers to these questions and one other important one: Do I have what it takes to get onstage and do comedy, even if just for a night? I hung out with and spoke to comics, club owners, teachers and numerous others involved in the comedy trade, all in preparation for the longest five minutes of my life.
But while there are classes, workshops, open mikes and many other ways to become a working comic, Randy Butler, who owns the Hyena's mini-chain of comedy clubs, believes that there is one factor that trumps them all.
"It depends on if you're funny or not," he said. "In order to progress, you have to have something that God gave you."
Getting a set
"If someone left a baby in a box on my doorstep, I wouldn't know what to do," says Dominic Harris, on opening night of the recently relocated Hyena's Comedy Nightclub in Fort Worth in April. "I'm in the middle of a move right now, so a baby is the last thing I need."
He pauses and then adds: "But a box is, like, the first."
In beginning my comedy odyssey, I wanted to see how the pros do it. Both Harris and Cris Lehman are young heavyweights on DFW's comedy scene, and they agreed to allow me to interlope on their workday.
Harris, a 23-year-old from Frisco whose rapid-fire one-liners lit up the crowd that night, was the "host" of the show, which means he went on first and did a short routine, and then introduced the other comedians. Following him was Lehman, a South Carolina native now based in Dallas, who was the "feature" act. He went on a little longer than Harris, and warmed up the crowd for the headliner.
The two combined for about 30 minutes of comedy that evening. But those sets were the result of hours, days, even years of writing, editing and working out material during open-mike nights.
The best way to break into comedy is through an open mike. The first step up after that is hosting or doing a guest spot at a comedy club. The pay is usually low, but for many comics, it's their first opportunity to unleash the A-material they've been cultivating.
The next step up is a feature spot, which pays a little more and requires the comic to perform more material. Depending on the club and how many comedians are performing on a given night, the headliner can go 30 minutes or longer. Most comedy clubs do two shows a night with all performers.
The pay for comics varies by club. A decent opener will get $50 to $100 or more per show, and a feature act will typically get double that. Headliners, depending on how famous and popular they are, can fetch $1,200 to $5,000.
Serious comedians often ply their wares five to 10 times a week, in different cities and venues. Some crowds are ready to laugh, and others just show up to heckle the funnyman.
"Pretty much the rule is, if you're not at least going up three times a week, you're not progressing," said Harris.
A typical week for Lehman starts out with writing five minutes of new material, which he has prepared by Monday evening. He'll perform that material multiple times over the next few days, and it will usually look drastically different by Thursday.
"On Monday, it's really raw, and I have no idea where I might go with it," said Lehman, who recently won the Addison Improv's prestigious Funniest Comic in Texas competition.
"By Tuesday, hopefully I've got the wording down, and I'm just working on a tagline or a better punch line. By the end of the week, you want it to be ready to go. Usually if I've done seven or eight open mikes and haven't gotten it snappy and how I want it, then I move on to new material the next week."
Harris said it takes the average comedian about a year and a half to develop 10 "bulletproof" minutes of material, and could take longer depending on a variety of factors.
"A comic's style and persona can change so much early on," he said. "The five minutes you had six months ago may not fit with your current persona. Maybe you were dirtier, and now you want to be clean.
"At a year and a half in, you should be able to do a decent 10 minutes -- and by decent, I mean that it doesn't clear half the room."
All this advice seemed sound, but I didn't want to get too far ahead of myself. I still needed someone who could tell me exactly how to get started -- a clinician of sorts who could diagnose my comic potential and prescribe the right path.
Dean Lewis is a 23-year veteran of the comedy scene and appeared on NBC's Last Comic Standing. He also teaches a comedy workshop at Four Day Weekend in Fort Worth and at the Addison Improv. In the DFW area, Lewis is regarded as the dean (pun intended) of comedy teachers.
His first piece of advice: Make your material personal.
"Talk about things you genuinely care about, things that are almost painful to talk about," he told me. "Audiences hate being generalized -- they just pull back from that. You need to talk about your personal experiences."
He believes that many new comics fail because they use the same material that makes their friends laugh.
"You might have a very dark, angry, silly sense of humor that your friends might dig, because they are dark, angry and silly, too," he said. "But when you get up in front of a room full of strangers and you try and push your sense of humor on them, 95 percent of the time there's a disconnect."
His second piece of advice in writing material: Get to the punch line. I'm certainly guilty of dragging out a good story, but audiences at comedy clubs aren't looking to be sucked into a plot-heavy yarn. They want to laugh every 12 to 15 seconds.
"When you have your material ready, write it down," he said. "And if you're not getting to the part you think is funny in 30 words, it's a lousy setup."
Stage, screen and beyond
One other question nagged at me, though: Even if I were able to write good stuff, and even if I found out that God had indeed blessed me with the funny gene, is this something that I could actually earn an income doing?
According to most of the performers I talked to, making a living as a stand-up in North Texas isn't impossible. But most comics have their hands in many pots. For instance, Richard Hunter, stand-up comedian and a host on KRLD/105.3 FM The Fan, believes that comics are forced into being jack-of-all-trades entertainers in order to survive.
"There are only a handful of successful, full-time pure comedians, comics who don't act, don't write or have podcasts. All they do is comedy," he said.
One of the problems with trying to make it locally, he added, is that clubs don't want to book the same act over and over. So it might be several months between headlining gigs. Corporate jobs -- when companies hire you to entertain the rank-and-file at a company outing or holiday party -- are lucrative but often hard to land.
Lewis is one of the few comics who earn a decent living doing corporate events, but even he has the comedy workshops to supplement his income, and it has taken him more than 20 years to get here.
The lion's share of Harris' income comes from selling ads on Keep the Heat, a top 30 comedy channel on YouTube with more than 260 million views. The channel features song parodies and sketches written by Harris and his comic partner, Alex Negrete. The duo is paid based on the number of views, through a company that contracts with them to sell the ads.
Harris believes that the online door opened for him because of his experience writing and performing stand-up.
"The thing about comedy is that there are so many points of entry," he said. "If one thing isn't working out, you can do another. If I didn't have a few years of joke-writing experience, there is no way I could have done the 'Keep the Heat' stuff. I wouldn't be polished enough."
Similarly, Los Angeles-based comic Dustin Ybarra, who started out in Dallas, says stand-up has opened all of the doors of his acting career and has given him a competitive advantage in auditions.
"It helps get rid of your nerves," says Ybarra, who appeared last year in the films We Bought a Zoo and Hop. "Once you've bombed at a dive bar in Texas, an audition room isn't going to bother you at all."
He also believes that it is possible to make a living as purely a comedian, but only if you're willing to lower your standard of living.
"You may not have a nice house or a nice car," he said, "but you can do what you love. I've slept in cars. I've lived off the 99-cent menu. You have to know how to be poor."
For most comics, Dallas-Fort Worth isn't the last stop of their career. Most use the area as a testing ground and a way to get time behind a mike. Harris and Lehman both plan to move in the next couple of years.
Actor, comedian and musician Hal Sparks, best known as a former host of E!'s Talk Soup and one of the stars of Showtime's Queer As Folk, left for Los Angeles a little over two weeks after graduating from high school in Chicago. He believes that it's possible to be a regional hit and not leave North Texas, but in order to break nationally as a comic, you have to get to a coast. That said, he warns, comics shouldn't make the move until they have developed.
"The crowds are bigger [in L.A.], and there are more people competing for those spots," he said. "So if you're not done cooking yet, you should absolutely keep working. But if you've got a voice and a following, and you've developed any kind of show at all, you should do it sooner rather than later."
The big night
At long last, I was ready to start writing material for my own debut. But it was difficult to figure out what kind of comedy I wanted to write. The last thing I wanted to be was a "dirty" comic who talked endlessly about his junk. I've also never been a big fan of the "My family is so crazy" comic.
After living with a notepad and scribbling down every possible funny thought that entered my head for a couple of weeks, I eventually finished writing what I thought was a solid five-minute set.
I wandered into Best Friends, a gay bar on East Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth, thinking I would watch one more open mike before I "went up," as the comics say. Every Tuesday, Q Cinema's live-theater arm, QLive!, hosts a comedy open-mike night there. That's when I ran into comic Alison Egert, a Fort Worth native, who won this evening's $100 prize for the best open-mike performance. Egert has been doing comedy since October 2010.
"Comedy is like a drug," she said. "They say that you're always chasing that first high. Once you get that first set that goes well, you'll be chasing that feeling forever."
I had no intention of making my comedy debut in my home city, for fear of it being witnessed by someone I knew. My plan was to drive to Dallas or Addison and not tell anyone about it. But eventually Egert and QLive! artistic director Kyle Trentham talked me into going up.
And despite not having my material fully memorized, and having enjoyed maybe one or two too many adult beverages (something Lewis told me explicitly not to do), I signed up and waited for my turn.
The waiting was tense, and I was overcome with a sense of dread only rivaled by a trip to the free clinic. I resisted the urge to cram, for fear that I would recite the material, as opposed to performing it. When I did glance down at it, none of it seemed funny.
To my horror, Egert went on before me. The last thing I wanted to do was follow a polished comic. But that was the straw I drew. After fighting through technical difficulties, she delivered a solid five-minute set -- though she admitted she dipped into some of her A-material when she sensed that her newer stuff wasn't landing.
After my name was announced, I was onstage and, perhaps purely out of numbness, started going through my set. My opener was a joke about how my parents never gave me the sex talk, and I had to figure out my own sexuality though experimentation with my action figures.
I got some pity laughs.
I could feel my body stiffen, and all of a sudden became very aware of what my free hand was doing. My wild gesturing must have looked like one of those aircraft-control people with glowing orange cones. I got another pity laugh or two. After my closing joke about how people think I am an employee of whatever store I happen to be shopping in, the small crowd applauded politely.
I kind of bombed, but I didn't really care. I was more proud of myself for having gotten up onstage. The feedback I got from Egert was that I stopped performing after the first joke and started reciting. I felt a sense of relief, as Fort Worth comic Josh Johnson followed with actual funny material -- he did a bit about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "other" dreams that killed.
Egert was right. There's really no other feeling quite like doing stand-up, though it's not for the faint of heart. It's tough to do well, and even tougher to do professionally.
Hobbyists like me have a ceiling. The only way to get good is to take it seriously, and constantly work to improve.
"You have to keep doing it," said Sparks. "You have to play the long game and just trudge along. Nobody is good at it right away, and if you do have a good set, the next one is going to suck."
My experience writing and performing comedy was just as much an exercise in dredging the depths of my own insecurities as it was trying to be funny. I won't pretend like it was a profound, life-affirming process. But then again, I've only done it once -- and I will definitely do it again.
"Comedy is like the cockroach of the entertainment business," said Hyena's Butler. "It's always been here, and it's always going to be here."