Get inside the mind of an amateur comic

Under CC License by Ed Schipul http://www.flickr.com/photos/eschipul/555287661/

It makes sense why comedy flourishes in the Bay Area. To a lot of people, the region itself is a kind of joke. On the right, we’ve got  Bill O'Reilly calling us a modern day Gomorrah –

BILL O’REILLY: As we reported, the far left is emboldened now that Barack Obama has been elected president, and nowhere is the far left government more on display than in the city of San Francisco. Once a working class town blessed with natural beauty, San Francisco has embraced a secular liberal culture that is now dominant in city government.

And from out in left field, we’ve got South Park, insisting that San Franciscans enjoy their flatulence –

SAN FRANCISCO MAN #1: We noticed your hybrid out front, that's a v-series right?

GERALD BROFLOVSKI: Yeah, that's right.

SAN FRANCISCO MAN #2: Ooh, nice car but we're going to have to get you into the BT series, it's emissions are actually cleaner.

GERALD BROFLOVSKI: Wow, so everyone here drives a hybrid huh?

SAN FRANCISCO MAN #2: Oh, of course, we're a little more progressive and ahead of the curve here in San Francisco [sounds of flatulence].

Nice. These are portraits at once totally absurd and, maybe – just a teeny bit – true. Fortunately, the nine Bay Area counties can laugh at themselves. You can catch a comedy show almost any night of the week at dozens of comedy clubs around town. But for every pro making a living at comedy, a hundred amateurs toil in obscurity.

KALW’S Charlie Mintz spent some time with one to learn what it's like to be an amateur comic. And a note to our listeners, the following story contains mature language and subject matter.

*     *     *

CHARLIE MINTZ: I’m at a comedy club-slash-steakhouse called Tommy T's Comedy Steakhouse, in Pleasanton. Tommy T himself greets me at the front desk, though with the disappointing news that the guest list I thought I was on doesn't exist.

So I pay and walk down a hallway, past portraits of Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson and other comedians, to the bar. It's empty, other than the headliner and his opener, who's holding a cheeseburger in one hand and a binder of jokes in the other.

Meanwhile, outside the club, Melanie Bega – the opener for the opener for the opener – plots her comedy journey.

MELANIE BEGA: I'm a baby right now. I'm in the infant stages of comedy. But I've always been funny, and I know that. I mean, I can't brag about a whole lot of other things, I can't say I'm, like, whatever, but funny is one thing that I know I am. I'm ready, I'm ready freddy, I'm ready to go! Yeah! Too much excitement.

ANNOUNCER [on stage]: All right, we got the first comedian coming up, she was a semi-finalist out at Rooster T Feathers. Give it up for Melanie Bega...(applause)

BEGA [on stage]: Whoo! Tommy T's! How ya'll doing? I know. I'm big. I know. It's okay though, really, because fat guys like me. I mean black guys. Black guys like me. They don't want me. I'm just kidding. No I'm not, yes I am. So I'm single. I know, I look double but I'm single. I was talking to my ex recently and I asked him, I said, "Did you break up with me because I'm fat?" He said, "No. I broke up with you because you're crazy!"

Melanie is in her early 30s, and she's been performing amateur comedy for two years. We met at a showcase for comedy students a few weeks back at a club called the Purple Onion, where she gyrated, yelped, and hip-thrusted through a weirdly compelling 15-minute set.

Tonight's a better gig – if she's lucky, she'll make a few bucks. But what she really needs is exposure. Melanie is unemployed right now, she’s trying to make comedy her career. Her family, of course, thinks she's a little crazy. But Melanie says it's her calling.

BEGA: It’s a gift. It's not something that you can automatically turn on and off. It's something that comes from deep within, and I think you actually know it from early on. When I was younger, I knew. I would fall out of my chair at school. I would be sitting there, and I knew what would make people laugh. I would tip and teeter back and forth on a chair, and then fall, purposely, so I could make people laugh.

Melanie's comedy right now is essentially a refined version of falling out of her chair. When it comes off right, it's a kind of joyful commiseration.

BEGA [on stage]: So anyways, I lost 70 pounds. I had to! I had no shoulders, I was just round like a wheelbarrow. Nothing was moving. You can't bend a ball in the middle!

BEGA: You don't want to go up there and sound rehearsed. Like last night, I wasn't getting the crowd. We were at the Purple Onion and I was like, "Oh my God." So right away, I said what was in my heart. I was like, "I cried today." And then I was like, "Over a guy that left me three years ago – five, seven – it's been seven years." And I got them, and it was totally funny, and I went into the joke and it was just good. It was good stuff.

But when a joke doesn't work...

BEGA [on stage]: My wants are too tight. They're so freakin' tight. I swear if I were to sit on this right here I would slide off! That's not that funny but...

It's more than a little uncomfortable.

BEGA: Okay, I can tell you about that. It's like rejection in full. It's painful. Like you’re not yourself, and then you just want to crawl into a hole and not even look at anybody. Or just like, oh my God, are you kidding me? And there's no where to go, there's no where to run, you don't want to go to your material because they're not buying that, they're not buying you, they're not buying the material.

And then your mind starts racing, you're like, "Did they not like me because of this, or that? Is it my personality, is it my voice, is it my size, is it my hair – what is it they don't like?" And then you go in your head, and your thoughts are racing, and you're like, "I don't know what the hell is going on."

Joking about pain is an essential part of Melanie's comedy. She thinks laughing at what hurts you is the surest way to make it stop hurting. And making other people laugh at what hurts you is the surest way to make it feel good.

BEGA: Where there's passion. For instance, the surgery that I had – I had the weight loss surgery – like, my body's changing. I talk about relationships, because everyone can relate to that. I talk about being heavy and then not being as heavy anymore, and I talk about my family, and that's where the good stuff comes in, like the stuff that I'm familiar with, yeah.

MINTZ: And does that stuff embarrass you at all?

BEGA: It does in the beginning, yeah. Nobody wants to be looked at a certain way, but then, what do I do? I'm up on stage where everybody can see me, every flaw, every wrinkle and bulge and fat roll and...But...it's what's funny.

The flaws and wrinkles and bulges aren't funny by themselves. Melanie has to make them funny, and she comes to the San Francisco Comedy College to learn how to do that.

ADAM McLAUGHLIN: What kind of toilet paper was it? I think you could describe that more. But I think the real funny part is, you stopped dating a man based on his toilet paper. You know he could buy other toilet paper.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE COMIC: Yes, he's a well-off guy…

McLAUGHLIN: You could make it work.

BEGA: This is the main room for San Francisco Comedy College. Right now, this is the writing class. We do it every Sunday morning, and Adam is the one who instructs it.

Adam McLaughlin. He’s a bearded, gamer type whose jokes tend to reference nerd culture icons like PacMan and Skeletor, that would be the skull-headed villain of the He-Man cartoons.

BEGA: And there's different comics that come in and we go through our material, and we get feedback from Adam and the other comics. We get about 15 minutes each. Then they tell us if our material sucks or if it's good or if it's better or if it needs work.

The San Francisco Comedy College has been around for 12 years. It currently operates out of a few rooms on the fifth floor of a building on Post Street. Melanie comes here once a week for advice.

McLAUGHLIN: Alright, so, it's the writing session, which means you're gonna get some time. You can present yourself anyway you want to. You can do a ready-made joke, come out with premises, ask questions, whatever.

Three other comics are in the workshop. There's a 30-something South American woman, whose jokes are all about sleeping with extremely fat, awkward, or otherwise undesirable men. Then there's an emergency medical technician working on a routine about growing up a closeted gay in the South. And in the back is a kid in his 20s, joking about weed, weed dispensaries, going to the supermarket high, etcetera.

Not counting him, each of the comics is explicit about mining his or her personal life for material. Still, you get the sense that for none of them is the material as raw, and as potentially painful, as it is for Melanie. 

BEGA: One of my opening jokes I do is, did you break up with me because I got fat. Then I'm asking my boyfriend, "Did you break up with me because I got fat?" And he says, "No." I thought about doing a POV shift on that, and doing the opposite – him shifting it and saying, me shifting it and saying, it's Rocky saying, "Did you break up with me because I got fat?" And then me saying, "No, I broke up with you because you're crazy." I kind of want to do that. I want to do that. Because I don't want people to think I'm crazy.

McLAUGHLIN: That's okay. What's your question?

BEGA: Will it work? Do you think it will work?

For Melanie – for all these stand-up comics in the making – comedy is like a chisel. It's a tool they can use to break a big, painful problem into a rubble of smaller, not-so-painful problems. Losing a boyfriend because you've gained weight is one kind of issue. Figuring out how to make that funny is a whole different issue tough too – but it's a problem that's kind of fun to solve, and when you do solve it, you've actually let it do something for you instead.

BEGA: You feel like you've accomplished something. Even though it's short term. When you make someone laugh you feel accepted, you feel like you’re part of – like you're doing something good, I guess. I don't know, I'm not sure.

MITZ: So do you think you'll keep doing this for as long as you can?

BEGA: Yeah, I'm in it now. I'm not going to stop. I'm going to keep going, I've got a long way to go. But it's the beginning stages, and they say that, when you start out, you don't know how far it's going to go. But yeah, I want to go completely all the way with it. I'm going to take it all the way to the top. I'm gonna be good. I am funny. I am funny!

BEGA [on stage]: My name is Melanie Bega, I had fun. Hope you enjoy the rest of the show, good night! (applause)

Charlie Mintz is with the Stanford Storytelling Project. This story originally aired on July 28, 2011.