There's something about open mikes that strikes fear in the bravest of hearts. For many performers, it's petrifying to bare their souls for crowds of dispassionate half-drunks more invested in the bottoms of their PBRs than in the earnest folk singer onstage. I am awkwardness-averse, and observing such scenes gives me no secret thrill.
And yet, there's something mesmerizing about open mikes, too. I'm fascinated by people at their bravest and most authentic. What better place to observe brave authenticity than on the stage of an open mike? So I took a deep breath, set my cringe sensor to stun, and hit up five open mikes, of both the musical and spoken-word variety.
When I'm asked to name my favorite bar in Madison, my brain implodes from the sheer number of options.
I like Jolly Bob's for the patio and the Lisa's Love Lotion. I like the Paradise for the chicken fingers and the embarrassingly stiff drinks. I like Woody Anne's for the shuffleboard and the Garth Brooks-heavy jukebox. I like Paul's Club because it has a freaking tree inside. I like Magnus for the martinis, and I like the Great Dane because I'm almost guaranteed to see someone I dislike.
But Mickey's? Mickey's, I love.
I've taken approximately 19 first dates to Mickey's Tavern, 1524 Williamson St. I have taken so many first dates to Mickey's that, on most first dates, I see past first dates and say hello. I've had birthday parties and going-away parties, celebrations and commiserations; I've taken drags on the patio and made out on the vintage couch. I've considered painting my bedroom to match the cerulean walls of the middle-back room.
I go to Mickey's a lot.
But one thing I hadn't tried at Mickey's was the Sunday open mike. It's famous for its quirky cast of regulars and jaw-dropping walk-in acts. The night I stopped by was Halloween, so the crowd was thinner than I'm told is common, but the show did not disappoint.
The host schedule rotates, and Kyle Miller was up that week. He played a gorgeous set of original songs on a Technicolor, light-up banjo. Songwriter Jessica Grimes played a stunning set with an acoustic guitar and a voice like a summer rain. A woman calling herself Wolf Lady Jacqueline took the stage with a plucky mandolin and a walker adorned with a menacing wolf mask. She covered Sam the Sham & the Pharaoh's ultra-creepy "Little Red Riding Hood."
"How many more can I play?" Wolf Lady called to Miller, after a chilling rendition of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London".
Miller shrugged. "How many have you got?"
"We have our regulars who are here almost every week," said Elizabeth Granby, the open mike's coordinator, "but it's amazing how varied the talent can be." It was true. Even on a slow night, the vibe was relaxed, but every performer was impressive.
"I go to a lot of open mikes," Miller told me, between chats with regulars at the bar. "But this one's my favorite."
One for the animals
One Saturday night I wandered the back streets of the Vilas neighborhood, lost in the cold and stuffed to the gills with Pizza Brutta. I had a heavy bag and a migraine, and I was still in my clothes from Friday night. In short: I had a hole in my soul that only a root beer float could fill. For $3, Zuzu Cafe, 1336 Drake St., filled it.
This music open mike was entirely different from the one at dark-and-edgy Mickey's. Zuzu was bright and wholesome. The place was wall-to-wall with high-schoolers sipping hot chocolates and root beer floats.
"This one goes out to all the animals in the world," one performer announced, before launching into just the sort of folksy ramble you'd expect after that introduction. The performances skewed in the direction I more typically associate with open mikes: warbling folk singers, offbeat trios and girls with newly strung guitars. It was endearing, if not exactly my scene.
But this open mike is a popular one, possibly because of its welcoming stance to folks just starting out. There were enough performers to fill a 2½-hour set, and there was a waiting list.
Humiliation in spades
I was a late bloomer. I had my first kiss at 20 years old, which meant my high school years were a sex-starved wasteland of bad poetry and angst-ridden pining. The great tragedy of high school is the sense that you're alone in your aloneness.
What's Your Damage understands.
Sponsored by the blog Dane101, the event takes its name from the 1989 cult film Heathers. It is a cathartic and laugh-out-loud event at which presenters read high school diaries, notes passed in study hall and emo lyrics from 10th-grade punk bands. Oct. 21 was the first event in three years, but the organizers hope to begin offering them about every seven weeks.
"I was inspired by a similar event in Los Angeles called Mortified," says Jesse Russell, editor in chief of Dane101. "It offers people a unique way to connect: through shame and humiliation."
Shame and humiliation were on the docket in spades, as about 15 reasonably well-adjusted adults shared cringe-inducing tales from middle school through early college.
Russell read an impassioned speech penned to save his high school's radio club, Matt Lind shared an embarrassingly earnest love letter to his Bible school crush, Dave Labedz told the story of an inappropriately phallic physics experiment, and Bryan Morris scandalized us with the tale of a hilariously awkward orgy on a riverbank in Spain.
Craig Cady shared lyrics from his high school punk band, admitting, "I'm not sure if this one's about an ex-lover or my parents." He read from a lyric sheet: "I was standing alone, looking old and feeling cold." He paused to glance up and laugh. "I was 13 years old."
The event was held in the cozy upstairs of Genna's, 105 W. Main St., with bass thumping through the floor. "This is just like high school," host Alan Talaga joked between performers. "All the cool kids are partying downstairs while I hang out up here with my awkward friends."
Local photographer Phil Ejercito read from a Ziploc bag of folded notes from study hall. "Do you realize kids don't get these anymore?" he asked, raising an intricately folded note from 10 years past. "They text. They write on each other's Facebook wall. What kid is going to save their Facebook wall for 14 years to read to a room of strangers?"
When I hear the words "stand-up comedy open mike," I think one thing: cringe-o-rama. So when a friend suggested I visit the Comedy Club on State, 202 State St., for the venue's weekly open mike, the Big Deuce, I agreed on two conditions: cheap cover and a guaranteed seat in the back of the room, in case the performances were bad. The club delivered on the former, and the latter wasn't necessary.
I'd expected a thin, hostile crowd at the event, like the one I met a few years ago at a stand-up open mike on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and a smattering of nervous, overeager comedians. Instead, the room was packed, the laughs were plentiful, and the crowd was warm and supportive.
"Very few cities across the country have an open mike that draws as many people as [this] event," said local comedian Alan Talaga. "Someone can be onstage doing traditional stand-up, and five minutes later someone else does a weird sketch or conceptual bit."
"I like the complete randomness of it," echoed audience regular Chris Lay.
The show ran 2+ hours and was a healthy mix of endearing newcomers and veterans of the scene. The audience laughed at nearly every joke, except for a handful of racist one-liners dismissed with a groan.
Each comedian gets three minutes to shine, so no one person has the stage for long. The Big Deuce is an obvious draw for comedy lovers seeking a cheap night on the town, but I wondered what would possess an otherwise sane person to get on that stage. "It's a chance to perform new material in front of a real audience," Talaga explained. "That's a rare treat in the stand-up world."
Death ain't so almighty bad
When I stepped into Avol's from the cold and the bustle of State Street, the bookstore at 315 W. Gorham St. felt like a time capsule. Quiet as a cathedral, with floor-to-ceiling shelves and cabinets and curios, old maps on the walls and books piled on the floor. The room smelled of wood and musty papers. I was a few minutes late, and I could hear a poet reading in the next room.
On a table beside the doorway was a box labeled "Open Mike Lottery Box (if you're feeling lucky, sort of)." On this night, there were about 15 attendees, mostly readers sitting alone. The performers ranged from the shy to the exuberant, the political to the existential to the covertly sexual. This event has been running for many years, and the atmosphere was warm and accepting. It feels like a great place for new poets to read, and for poetry lovers to hear exciting new work.
There's something about open mikes that restores my faith, whatever of it may have been lost. I love these people for what they do, for packing their paperclipped pages and stepping onstage and sharing something brave. It makes life seem longer and richer all at once.
"Death ain't so almighty bad or scary," read my favorite poet of the night, Andreé, "if you got the lovin' right." Well, isn't that the truth.
Mickey's Tavern, Sundays, 10 pm
Zuzu Cafe, Saturdays, 7 pm
The Big Deuce
Comedy Club on State, Wednesdays, 8:30 pm
Poetry open mike
Avol's Books, first Thursdays, 7 pm