Our Man in New York: Adventures with a real standup guy

The New York skyline seen from New Jersey. (Photo: Hayley Juhl)
Phil Giambri’s website can be found at  ancientmarinertales.com.

Phil Giambri’s website can be found at ancientmarinertales.com.

I took the Big Leap last month. Not sky-diving, not bungee-jumping, not leaping in front of a New York subway. Instead, I stood up in front of a crowd of about 60 strangers, most of them half or one-third my age, and told a five-minute story.

The technical name for this is open mic, but if you think this means “comedy clubs,” you aren’t in the loop at all.

Stages for doing comedy still exist, but in the past six years, open mics have attracted everybody and everything. You have rap artists, poets, writers, actors, story-tellers, improvisers, singers, hip-hop talkers … and comedy.

I’ve published stories, told tales to (now bored) friends. But never did I have the nerve to stand up and tell a story. I got that nerve when a neighbour, Philip Giambri, one of the most successful open-mic people around town, was appearing near at a bar near me. Philip was terrific, but the others were either schmaltzy, meaningless, stoned or, like one poet who read a poem called To the Air, filled with breathlessly misplaced enthusiasm.

“Hey,” I said to Phil, sitting at the bar, “I can do better than this crap.” Three weeks later, he gave me my chance.

I told a story about meeting Colonel Gadhafi, and our funny conversation. And although I shook badly before getting my five minutes maximum, even with a single glass of vodka to calm me down, I sat down on the stage and did my thing.

And loved it.

Enough about me (though you can see a video of my amateur efforts at theseniortimes.com). Open mic is for everybody.

“I’ve seen ’em all,” Giambri said. “I see the Swarthmore girls read poems like To the Air. I saw a guy who talked all about his anal habits. There are a few clubs devoted just to erotic poetry, some to writers who are already published. One guy is from Indonesia, and I’m not sure what he does, but he does it every week.”

The official two classes of stand-up guys are the open mic and the professionals, which is a misnomer.

In some clubs so many people come in that they draw the names from a bucket. Then they have five minutes to do their thing—not five seconds more—before being thrown off the stage.

The “professionals” aren’t paid. But they’re well known, almost famous around New York. On the side, they might be editors, writers, insect exterminators or unemployed. They’ve done open mic so often that they’re put on the professional list and can go on for 15 or 20 minutes. On stage, they either do it for the fun of it, or—more likely among the young—with the hope they’ll be noticed by a Stephen Spielberg or a Spike Lee. Which does happen.

“But for me, it’s the electricity,” Giambri said. “You tell a good story, you connect with your audience. I know a lot of writers who can’t do it. A lot of talkers who can’t tell the story to an audience. It’s partly the skill; more important is honing your ability.”

There are two ways to go about it. One is the experience of doing it over and over again until it’s right. My virtues (I was told) were being relaxed, enjoying myself and not being the kind of writer who memorizes, but knows the story and improvises. On the other hand, I stepped on my laugh lines, didn’t quite have the rhythm and used my hands badly.

The other way is life. And few of the younger open mic people know anything except themselves. Immigrants frequently tell of their experiences. Some kids talk about their hip-hop experiences of sex, drugs and running from the cops.

Phil’s fame in the field comes from a wealth that is truly rare. He has been an actor, hairstylist, stoner, janitor, writer, drifter, recording engineer, hired hand, poet, traveling salesman, barfly, banker, biker, bronco buster, announcer, mail-order minister, photographer and computer Guru.

“I studied everywhere,” he said, “and never got a degree in anything.”

He got his start in open mic as an art critic, sitting in a bar one evening, telling the bartender how terrible the pictures were in the bar.

“Later, “ he said, “I learned that he’d take any pictures if the painter was a girl with attractive … er, dimensions. Anyhow, he found out I was a writer and said I could go on with my story. Which I did. And was probably terrible. But the bug got into me, I sharpened my skills and now I go on as much as possible.”

When you visit New York, you can watch the show—or be part of it. Entrance fees are usually less than $10, the shows go on for two or three hours, and should you listen to stuff that belongs in an abattoir, don’t fight it. Go the bar the next night, sign up, and give the five-minute lowdown on the raunchier side of Montreal.

You have nothing to lose but your dignity.

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