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Stand-up and deliver

If dying is easy but comedy is hard, why bother? I'll tell you why ...

It's Monday night, and I'm pacing around outside the Star Bar in Little Five Points, going over my set of jokes for the evening. I've already been onstage at the weekly open-mic comedy night dozens of times, but that doesn't ease my nerves. My hands are sweaty, my throat is dry, my friends are all there to laugh with me or at me, depending on my level of success, and after waiting for two hours to do my five-minute set, I'm about to be called to the stage.

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Rotknee, the walking-tattoo, take-no-shit host of the evening, has provided me the same warm introduction you'd expect from someone who has become both a friend and a mentor.

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I make my way through the crowd, a hodgepodge of students, bikers, thugs, hipsters, alcoholics and yuppies that somehow gets along in the name of comedy. I step onstage and grab the microphone. The bright spotlight glares in my eyes, and the side conversations murmuring through the crowd challenge my focus. My mind races. I say hello to the patrons, who enthusiastically return my greeting, and then ... fuck! Even though I've had two hours to prepare for this brief moment, I've forgotten my routine — the same one I was reciting to myself just three minutes ago. I freeze for 10 seconds that feel like 30 before finally saying, "I'm a pothead and I forget shit all the time, so you're going to have to bear with me." Suddenly, the room fills with laughs, and with that I re-enter my comfort zone and my routine comes back to me.

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Comedy is all about comfort. It's about being comfortable sharing your thoughts, observations and insecurities with total strangers; about being comfortable with discussing topics that make others uncomfortable; and, most important, about being comfortable enough to tell jokes at the risk of people not laughing at them.

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When I was a kid, comedy provided a different kind of comfort. I grew up on Eddie Murphy movies and "Saturday Night Live" skits. That blossomed into watching Chris Rock and George Carlin specials on HBO, memorizing Andrew Dice Clay routines and hanging on Dave Chappelle's every word before "Chappelle's Show." On any given Friday evening, after my family's traditional Shabbat dinner, we would gather around and watch "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO. Humor was big in my Denver household; it was how I got out of trouble with my parents and into trouble at school. After several trips to the principal's office and an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder test at a child psychologist's office, I knew two things: I had an overactive mind, and a funny one, at that.

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I've always been a writer, but I never bothered writing jokes because I knew I didn't have the balls to get onstage and tell them. That changed after a leg injury I suffered while playing intramural basketball my junior year at Emory. Being confined to the couch for four months was depressing enough, then I found out two weeks after my surgery that my mother was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma, which had spread to her lungs. I needed to give myself some reason, any reason, to smile, so I broke out an old notebook and began writing comedy.

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All of a sudden, everything in the world had a funny angle if I looked hard enough, and I found an unbelievable way to transform all of my pain into laughter.

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I returned to Atlanta and began performing. My first show was at the Twisted Taco in Midtown. Quincy Bonds and Phat Comedy presented an open-mic comedy night there every Tuesday, hosted by Drew Thomas, one of the city's undiscovered comedic gems. I didn't exactly make people piss themselves with laughter, but I was apparently funny enough for Quincy to refer me to the Star Bar.

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It was there that I found my ideal crowd. Most of the people in attendance every week have a unique sense of fashion and disdain for convention, both of which I related to as a white Jew with gold teeth pursuing a degree in sociology. Anything goes at the Star Bar, and the crowd is difficult to offend. There, you're much better off starting a joke with, "So I was sodomizing a puppy while high on crystal meth," than you are with, "What's the deal with gas prices lately?" My comedy is vulgar, but with a clever twist. For example, one of the jokes I like to tell is a question I pose to the guys in the audience: "Have you ever masturbated to the fantasy ... of you masturbating with a bigger penis?" If they laugh, I keep going with the joke. If they don't, I come back with, "Yeah, me neither, I was just checking."

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The Star Bar is where I go almost every Monday night to try out my newest material, and it's there that I met several other comedians in Atlanta who inspired me to expand my routine. Tanner Inman, who hosts the Tuesday night open-mic comedy shows at Lenny's, fearlessly tries out original jokes with a style you would be hard-pressed to see duplicated. From him I learned that there's nothing wrong with taking chances. Whether you bomb or succeed, you'll be a better comedian for it. Clayton English and Karlous Miller, who have hilarious written material but can also improvise on the spot, preach the value of taking stage time anywhere possible. Watching their desire to perform reignited my hunger just when I was getting bored with it. I started traveling to more and more rooms throughout the city to perform with the two of them, and with every new experience I learned something about comedy.

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In this unpredictable world, comedians have very little control. We have no say over what type of audience will show up, how much they're going to drink or the order of the lineup — all of which can have a incalculable effect on the response we receive. So we focus on controlling the few things we can: preparation and material. I've learned to hope for the best and expect the worst, so I've started writing my jokes much in the same way a coach would sketch plays on a chalkboard. Every punchline has several options, depending on how the crowd reacts. One of the most exciting things about writing and performing comedy, for me, is that a joke is never finished; I can always tweak my delivery, timing, inflection or diction even in the slightest way and watch it have major results.

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I've also learned to play to different environments. In the last couple of months, I've done shows in venues with predominantly African-American audiences, in which I was not only the only white comedian but also the only white person in the building. I was perfectly comfortable and treated just fine, but I will say that while there may not be "black comedy" or "white comedy" (because funny is funny), we'd be fooling ourselves if we didn't acknowledge that there are black audiences and white audiences. Black audiences are far less patient and way more vocal. As proven on "Live at the Apollo," you have about 30 seconds from the time you take the stage to make them laugh before they start booing. I've seen it happen a few times at Throbacks out on Old National Highway, hosted by Griffy2K of Hot 107.9. I've learned that the best approach is just to be aggressive and let them know you're not afraid to speak your mind. Consider this opener: "I think it's funny that black people get ashy, because even the toughest gangster has to rub himself down with lotion." The beauty of performing for black audiences is that it gave me thicker skin; once I did well there, I believed I could do well anywhere else.

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The goal in this ever-expanding scene is to get booked at one of the big three: the Punchline, the Funny Farm and Uptown Comedy Corner. All hold open mics to scout for new talent, but it's extremely difficult to get on at those events, let alone get a paid gig as a result. I had to wait for weeks before I could get on at the Punchline, and when I finally did they made me go first, when there were about 12 people in the crowd.

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So it's obvious from all of this that comedy is not all fun and laughter; actually, it can be one frustration after another. For every three nights I've left the stage feeling destined to become a famous comedian, there's that one night when I've left the club vowing never to get onstage again. We often work eight-hour days and spend more on gas money to get to the venue than we get paid to perform (if we're lucky enough to get paid at all), only to wait another two hours just to try to get on the night's list to perform for five to seven minutes.

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Along with hundreds of other comedians in this city, I'm going to keep pursuing comedy because there are good things in store for Atlanta's comedians. The city is quickly becoming an entertainment mecca, with all of us paying our dues and earning our stripes. But at the end of the day, I'm not doing comedy for any future fame or paycheck. Upon successfully finishing bio-chemotherapy, which defied the statistics and rid my mother's body of cancer, she got to fly out to Atlanta and see me perform that night at the Star Bar. And once I settled down and remembered my routine, I put a much-needed smile on her face.

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Through all the stress and strain, that's what it's all about.



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