New York, New York

The Church of the Open Mic

New York has Broadway, Off-Broadway, even Off-Off-Broadway. It also has Open Mic night, and the rules are a little different.

It’s a late summer evening on the Lower East Side, and at the Collective Unconscious open mic people are drinking Buds out of paper bags and lining up by the sign-in sheet. Reverend Jen Miller, the open mic impresario and ordained-through-themail Reverend is going over the rules of this ‘Anti-Slam.’ An alternative to the competitive poetry slam, the Anti-Slam welcomes every performer to the stage as if she ‘were your very best friend in the whole world.’ A guy in a tuxedo and two older women are selected as ‘judges’ who give a perfect score to every venturer to the stage. Though Rev. Jen is basically creating a ‘safe space,’ as it’s called in acting classes and youth-at-risk programs, her frequent references to porn belie any new-age mushiness. As I discreetly take notes on the growing assortment of entertainers I notice that I’m one of about three people who have come just to watch. And I don’t necessarily count as an audience member, since I’m here as a reporter. ‘Excuse me,’ a dreadlocked man says loudly, ‘Are you a journalist?’ Excited by the unexpected publicity, he asks who I write for, but grows bored when he hasn’t heard of The Morning News.

I imagined the open mic was something like the audition montage you see in films about the performing arts. The audition in this style of montage is always an open call attended by a variety of kooky types – the old man doing a profanity-laden monologue, the off-key singer. Behind his table, the director rolls his eyes à la Simon Cowell, reminding us that these people are terrible! I presumed that, like the characters attending these auditions, open mic artists were one of two kinds: Either they believed talent scouts were on the prowl and they might get discovered, or they had no plans for stardom and were simply performance opportunists—the kind who hog the karaoke mic. At the two open mics I attended—Collective Unconscious’ and Surf Reality’s—there were representatives of both camps. But there were also some acts that were harder to categorize. Open mic performance, with its element of impromptu masquerade, can be innovative. It can also be painful to watch. But there is something bizarrely subversive about gathering together the elderly, the eccentric, the fame-thirsty, and those working on their manner in power point presentations for six-minute slots of the good, the very good and the very, very bad.

Big Mike, a regular, takes the stage first, after asking me if he can take an ‘adult photo’ of me with one of the two Polaroids he wears around his neck. (I decline.) He then performs an eardrum-assaulting monologue from a sheaf of papers. Reverend Jen’s chihuahua writhes in pain. Next come a rash of stand-up comics whose sets are rife with jokes of the ‘why do women always ask you if they look fat?’ variety. One comic with a particularly mainstream sensibility directs his complaints about women to a John Waters type in the front row, whose arch replies prompt much hilarity from the regulars. A guy with floppy hair arrives fresh from acting class to do an ‘act like an animal’ exercise with a Sam Shepard monologue. Someone performs cunnilingus on the mic. Not many people are playing acoustic guitars, but those who do also want to read poetry.

* * *

The open mics at Collective Unconscious and Surf Reality do not place limits on what may be performed—as long as it doesn’t go over the time limit or involve harassing audience members. This makes for a collision of cultures, mostly between the regulars, whose aesthetic is more edgy, and those who wind up at the show with the help of Google and want to tell lawyer jokes. Reverend Jen appears to appreciate the individual freakishness of each guest on the stage, however, and the no-heckling ground rules ritualize each performer’s acceptance into the club. One young man praised this community aspect after playing the guitar and singing about rainbows and people getting ‘so damned high.’ Jumping up and down during the applause, he exclaimed, ‘Man, I fucking love you guys! Every fucking Sunday, man – every fucking Sunday!’

‘This is Church. It’s the only place where you can really be yourself – no place else.’ So says Lloyd Floyd, a comic and Surf Reality regular who describes himself as having been ‘born on stage.’ The more I watched, the more this religious metaphor seemed apt – especially during the confessional acts.

A put-together woman in her thirties takes the stage with a didgeridoo-player who appeared earlier. ‘Hit it,’ she commands. The regulars cheer. She holds a book called Becoming Attached, and reads a phrase describing the ideal mother as ‘warm.’ This sends the woman into a neurotic tailspin: ‘My. Mother. Was. COLD!’ She appears about to cry, wailing that she ‘can’t become attached to anything.’ The audience is quiet, uncertain just how tongue-in-cheek this is. Then, from the back row, a few laughs ring out. The woman smiles wanly and then laughs hysterically. The performance is half therapy, half comedy, and its dynamism depends in part on her being known by the regulars. This group energy – and acceptance – is clearly what keeps many coming back.

* * *

At Surf Reality I witness the identical twin of the Anti-Slam, right down to MC Faceboy, who has the same unplaceable but vaguely Wisconsin accent as Rev. Jen (they are friends). I recognize the Becoming Attached woman and the cunnilingus guy. In the front row, Big Mike and several tan women leaf through one of his 46 albums of adult photos. Faceboy begins the show by offering porn to any entertainer who goes under the allotted eight minutes. The ‘porn’ includes a used copy of High Society and the first-ever issue of JANE magazine. There are many confessional acts this evening, including a depressing story from an older man about losing his job at Parsons. The regulars are drunker tonight, and boisterous. Energy peaks when an Asian man dances around to ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Wings, singing the ‘I Love You’ choruses in Chinese. At the break, the ‘so damned high’ singer-songwriter explains to me that he comes to the open mics for practice and also ‘to bring my family together.’ Before I can ask him if he means this metaphorically, the show starts again and he heads back inside. Standing by the door, Big Mike beckons to me with his Polaroid. He says he’s been a regular for four years. I ask him why he comes.

‘Pussy,’ he replies, ‘In one word, pussy. I’m serious. People say ‘Oh, I come here because blah blah blah—no, I want to get laid.’