"Welcome!" Lorinda says from the stage as James and I walk in. "Please, come in and have a seat. We have some cupcakes and coffee in the back, so help yourself. Can somebody get them some chairs?"
A guy in the back hops up, grabs two folding chairs that were leaning against the wall, and sets them up in the back row, gesturing for us to sit down.
Cupcakes? Chairs? Feeling welcome? This is already the best open mic I've ever attended. It's a church-run open mic, and I stumbled upon it accidentally (or because the Universe wanted me to).
As James and I get settled, Lorinda introduces the next performer, a guy who makes his way to the stage with a rolling walker. He plays some pretty lackluster songs about Jesus on the keyboard. Midway through the first song, the sound guy, Rick, walks onstage and sits behind the drum set, picking up the beat.
After that set, Lorinda walks back up to the stage and invites her band to come up: a guy on keyboard, a guy on guitar, and Rick on drums. They play behind Lorinda while she belts out a few blues songs with her soulful voice - it blows me away.
The band behind her is pretty good, too - the only time they sound off is due to the drums. Rick lags a few times, his hi-hat quarter notes slowing down the song while the other musicians try to adjust.
A few acts later, Lorinda introduces a group called "Broken Society," a Christian rap/guitar duo. During their second song, Rick once again hops up from his position behind the sound board and sits behind the trap set.
"Oh my God, this guy again," I say.
Rick's drum beat cuts through the song with an out-of-sync snare that doesn't match the guitar rhythm.
The guitarist tries to maintain composure, but when the drums throw him off, he giggles. "I, uh, never had this happen before," he says, too polite to ask Rick to leave. "Praise the Lord!"
Rick continues to play, oblivious to the discomfort he's causing. The guitar player, now bowled over with laughter, has no idea what to do. "Praise the Lord!" he keeps saying. "I don't know if I can do this. Praise the Lord! I'm not used to having drums behind me."
During my set, a pretty solid 7 minutes, Rick locates the "Ba-dum-bum-ching" button on his keyboard sounds and keeps pressing it after my punchlines and some of my setups, which he apparently thinks are punchlines.
When it's Rick's turn to get onstage solo (but really for the 5th time, since he's inserted himself in every other act) he elects to sing karaoke - Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
And I'm ecstatic to find that during the chorus of this song, everyone in this L.A. church open mic audience does the same thing that people do in Bill's, my favorite townie bar in Norman, Oklahoma - they sing back.
Sweet Caroline, Rick sings.
Bah, bah, bah! we all respond.
Good times never seemed so good, Rick sings.
So good! So good! So good! we sing back.
After the mic, I give Rick a bouncy ball.
"What is this?"
"It's a bouncy ball."
"Oh." His face falls. "I thought it was a tomato."
"Well, it's not."
"At least I could eat a tomato," he says.
"True," I say. "But you can bounce that."
"Yeah," he says. "But I like tomatoes."
Bouncy Ball # 46 - Becky - Laura
"So tell me about your Latin word tattoo," Becky says while we walk up Hollywood Boulevard.
Becky's a comic on the L.A. scene, and I like her because she's funny, she's smart, and she's fun to talk to. When I started this Bouncy Ball Project, she read my first post and came up to me at an open mic. "Hey, you got a minute?" she'd said. "I want to talk to you about magic."
This morning, I met her for coffee, and now we're just killing time before our next endeavors of the day.
"Well it means truth," I say. "And honestly, it's hard to explain. I mean, it's not just truth to me. It's really about a moment. I've tried to tell people about it, but it always sounds insane."
"Yeah, I get that when I try to explain mine," Becky says. She takes off her top layer shirt and pulls up the sleeve of her t-shirt. There's a square with a drawing of a tree in it and the Latin phrase "Omnia Extares."
"Oh wow! So what's that about?"
"It's from where I went to college," Becky says. "Evergreen State. I was in the philosophy program there." She points to the Latin. "This is the school motto. It means 'Let it all hang out.' That's actually something I try to live by."
Later in our walk, my eye catches something on the ground - a small ball with design like a soccer ball. "Oh my God!" I rush over and pick it up. "Aw, it's a ping pong ball." I show Becky. "Thought it was a bouncy ball."
"Man," she says. "That's still pretty cool that you found that. It bounces. It's a ball. What are the odds?"
"Yeah, well, I'm magic," I say. "I told you."
Days later, as I'm writing this, Becky calls me. "Hey," she says. "So I met this really cool girl last night, and I told her that my tattoo meant 'People will believe anything.'"
"I thought I should tell you," she says. "Because we were talking about it. Also, you know that bouncy ball you gave me? Well, I just cleaned out my car, so that was the only thing in there when I went to pick up Laura - that's her name, by the way. And I picked it up, and I said, 'Do you like bouncy balls?' And she said, 'I fucking LOVE bouncy balls.' Just like that. She was so into it."
"So you gave it to her, right?"
"Yeah, I did," she says. "So we'll have to do another thing where you can give me a bouncy ball."
Bouncy Ball # 47 - Benji
"Hi, I'm Leah," I say, holding my hand out to shake Benji's hand.
"We've met like four times," he says.
"I know. I didn't think you remembered."
Benji, a regular at the Comedy Store, sometimes hosts the open mic, and though he's introduced me several times, he always has a look on his face like he's never seen me before.
Tommy, the manager, had mentioned that I should come tonight, that I might get on, so I have no choice but to walk up to Benji and check in, the underlying message, "Hey man, can I get a spot?"
I hate this part of standup.
It's not that I mind proving that I'm good enough - honestly, I probably wouldn't be happy if I got something any other way - but I do mind the pathetic feeling I get when I sit in the back, trying to catch the host's eye while he passes me over, while he tries to decide whether or not I'm worthy enough for a three-minute spot in the Original Room tonight.
Nobody likes this, I remind myself. You're paying your dues.
Benji passes me again, rushing to the back to greet a more important comedian. I sidle over to Tommy, who's in the booth at the club's entrance, and I lean against the wall until he notices me.
"Hey Girl," he finally says, popping his face out the window.
"Oh hey," I say. All breezy.
"So I can maybe get you on the second half of the show. We need a few women. Are you gonna hang out?"
Internal dilemma - if I say "no," then I don't want it enough. If I say "yes," I might be committing myself to hours of waiting with no guarantee of stage time. "How long will that be?"
"Maybe a half hour," he says. "But you don't have to stay if you don't want to."
"No, I want to," I say. "I just have to get up and work early. I know, that's lame."
Tommy shrugs, walks off.
A few minutes later, Benji walks over. "Hey," he says. "Look, I'll try to get you up."
I stare at him. I feel like he wants me to thank him, but I can't bring myself to do it.
"I know that doesn't mean anything," he says.
"Well, I'll stay for a little." But I decide right then - tonight, I'm actually gonna wait this one out.
Turns out, I don't have to wait long. About twenty minutes later, Benji points to me. "You're next."
Even though there are only a handful of people in the audience, I have a really good set. After, I walk up to Benji. "Hey, can I give you this bouncy ball and not explain why?"
"Sure." He smiles. "Thank you."
Bouncy Ball # 48 - Marc Maron
"Oh, just go," Katie says.
"I'm gonna," I say. "In a minute. He makes me nervous." I'm standing five feet away from Marc Maron, standup comic, producer of the popular podcast "WTF," writer and star of his own show, "Maron", and I'm trying to force myself to give him a bouncy ball.
It doesn't make sense that I'm so weird around Marc. No offense to him, but he's not that famous. And most celebrities, I don't give a shit about. I've met one or two here in L.A. for various reasons, and my favorite thing to do when I meet them is repeat their names back like I have no idea who they are.
But Marc, he's different to me. I've heard his voice for so long on his podcast, and I've heard his stories, very personal things he shares, so now I feel like I know him even though I really don't. I've only been in the same room with him twice before.
Two years back, I went to a comedy show and saw Marc right when I'd walked through the door. I panicked, refusing to look in his direction, but every now and then, I became aware of him in my periphery. It seemed like he was trying to get my attention, but I just kept staring straight ahead.
After a minute, his face popped right in front of mine. "Hi," he'd said.
I laughed. "Hi."
Then he just stood there staring at me like he was waiting for me to speak. He seemed to be enjoying my discomfort.
"I, uh, love your podcast," I said. "I listened to it while I was driving through your hometown on my way to Oklahoma."
"Oh really?" he said.
"Yeah. It got me through a snowstorm."
My second Marc Maron encounter happened about a year later. I was sucking onstage at the Comedy Store. Instead of telling jokes, I was creeping out a woman in the crowd by telling her I was going to follow her home later and kill her.
I walked offstage, and when I crossed to the back of the room, I saw Marc sitting alone at a table. Oh. Great.
He hadn't been in the room before I went on. In fact, a few minutes into the next set, he got up and left. It was as though he'd only come in to see me suck, and then went on with his life while I had to somehow live with the fact that I just bombed in front of him.
Cut to tonight. I'm close enough to him that I can eavesdrop on his conversation with a girl who seems like she's trying really hard to fuck him even though he's more into his phone than her.
"Just go!" Katie says.
"Fine!" I walk over and stand in front of him. He looks up.
"Hi Marc," I say. I hold out my ball. "Can I give you this?"
"Yes," he says. "Thank you. That's very nice of you."
I stand there for a few seconds, but I have nothing else to say, so I shrug and walk off. He gets up and walks right outside, and I imagine that he's launching my ball down the street, muttering something like, "Fucking whack job giving me trash."
For the rest of the night, something's bothering me, but I can't quite figure out what it is. Is it because I didn't say anything meaningful? Is it because it was anti-climactic?
Or is it because I am just like any other weird fan, believing there's a connection where there's not?
Bouncy Ball # 49 - Nicole
"So why are you filming?" I ask the girl in the front row.
"I'll explain later," Nicole says, poking her face out from behind her giant camera.
"You keep saying that," I say. "But I don't think you're really gonna tell us."
I'm hosting The Workout Room, a show I help run on Wednesday nights. It's called "The Workout Room" because the comics booked are asked to "work out" new jokes rather than trying to do their best ten minutes. Because everyone knows it's new material, the show has a chill vibe - we've had a lot of great nights in this room, a lot of spontaneous moments, and a lot of huge laughs. Many jokes were born here.
Tonight, not only is the vibe less forgiving - the crowd refuses to laugh at pretty much everything, and only two of the ten people that go on have even a passable set - but on top of that, there's a woman filming us from the front row, and she has yet to explain why she's there. The rest of the comics and I use this as an opening for all of our insecurities to flood out - we believe she's here to make fun of us.
Maybe she's planning to use us as an example of sad open mic comics who will never get anywhere in standup and are too delusional to realize it. I imagine a shot of a successful comic, maybe like Chris Rock, talking about how some people just don't know when to quit, and then she'll cut to me onstage telling some stupid half-formed joke about my boss being the whitest guy on earth, getting no laughs, and then turning to the camera and saying, "So why are you filming?"
That's the thing about standup - it's consistently inconsistent. One night, I'm congratulating myself for a job well done at the Comedy Store, two nights later, I'm bombing in some guy's apartment-turned-comedy-venue in Koreatown in front of some stranger that's filming a documentary. Any time I have a great set, I feel elated for ten minutes, and then I remind myself, "Leah, don't get too excited. This doesn't mean anything. Tonight, you're lucky, but you will fail again."
Because standup is a deck that's always stacked against you, and the best you can hope for is to become numb enough that it doesn't sting anymore.
"No, I'm gonna explain," Nicole assures me. "But for now, just act like I'm not here."
"Oh okay," I say. "Does that mean I should stop talking to you?"
"Well, it's better if you don't acknowledge the camera. I'm filming a documentary."
"You say that like there's some unspoken documentary rules you think I understand."
She pulls her face from behind the camera. "I just mean act natural."
"Oh okay," I say. "But I have this problem. When people tell me to do something, I can't stop myself from doing the opposite thing. It's a sickness, really."
She pulls the camera back in front of her face. "Then go ahead and talk to me."
"Ooh, I like that," I say. "Good use of reverse psychology."
Bouncy Ball # 50 - John
"Hey, My Love," John says. "Remember I used to have a Prius like you?"
"I just bought a Lexus. 8-cylinder engine."
"Yes," he says. "When I drive this car...oh man! I get out on the freeway, and the way the engine sounds, the way it feels to push that pedal all the way down to the floor. I just sit back and watch that speedometer go past 100, 110, 120, and-"
"And your dick grows four inches?"
"No, it's big enough," he says. "But driving that car, My Love. It's a beautiful thing. Only thing, 18 miles to the gallon in gas."
"Oh wow! Damn! Is it worth it?"
"Well, for young people like me it is," he says. "I'm 30. But people your age, maybe you want a Prius because-"
"Hold up! How old do you think I am?"
"I think," he says, "that you are one year older than me."
I narrow my eyes. "Okay," I say. "You're actually exactly right. You just avoided a real bad situation. I mean, how old do I look?"
"Oh, My Love, you look 25. Well, let's be honest. 26."
"Yeah, yeah, I look 30," I say. "It's fine."
He smiles. "You know, I've spent so much of my life living for my family and giving them everything. Everything I do has been for them. That car is the first thing I have that's just for me, you know? When I drive it, I think about who I was before, back before I had kids. When I drive, it feels like I don't have any worries. Like I'm a teenager, you know?"
"Ah," I say. "So it's a time machine."
Bouncy Ball # 51 - Jack
"So how've you been?" Jack says.
"Good." The bartender hands me two beers, and I hand one to Sosa. We're at X-Lanes, a bowling-alley-slash-arcade-slash-bar in Koreatown for another comic's birthday party. "What about you?"
"I've been pretty good," Jack says. He chats with us about standup for a few minutes, but then stops mid-sentence, an odd look on his face. "You know, I am literally standing back to back with the guy behind me right now."
"What?! Do you know him?"
"Nope," Jack says. "Complete stranger. I don't know how this happened, but our backs are pushed right up against each other."
Sosa and I are cracking up.
"It's like we're sewn together," Jack says. "It's like he's my backpack."