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Love at first mic: How one goofy, nerdy guy became a standup comedian
Comedy's an addiction of the highest order.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

Wednesday night, 10:30 p.m. My alarm will go off in less than six hours, but I won't get to sleep until after midnight. I'm not thinking about the three coffees I'll need to function at work tomorrow. Tonight is all about standup comedy.

I need to look over my set list, a note card filled with illegibly scribbled jokes. I've written and rewritten it to fit as much material as possible into my three minutes on stage. Each week, I sacrifice an entire night for these three minutes, a night I could have spent with family or friends. I'm not getting paid. I'm not even getting drink tickets.

Sometimes I wonder why I do standup. For the answer, I need to think back to 2008, the year I signed up for my first open mic.

Taking the plunge

Life was rough four years ago. I was jobless following a brilliant plan to switch careers during an economic collapse. My four closest friends had moved away, and my relationship with my girlfriend was tenuous at best. I needed something to feel good about. So naturally, I decided to tell jokes to drunken strangers.

Back then, the only local standup show was an open mic at Azzalino's, a shady bar that has since closed. Azzalino's catered to two audiences: the drunk and the very drunk. The only people who paid attention were comedians themselves. Plus, there was usually an inebriated heckler.

It was a dive, but to me, it was magical. Here, I discovered that I crave unfiltered feedback from the crowd. It gives me a rush that brings me back to the stage each week.

This type of direct feedback drives many standup comics. One is Bryan Morris, winner of this year's Madison's Funniest Comic competition.

"Standup is such an immediate response," he says. "I go up and tell jokes, and they connect or don't connect."

I actually do several types of comedy. I write a live sketch-comedy show, The Dan Potacke Show, and co-write "Off the Square," Isthmus' weekly political cartoon. While I love these activities, nothing compares to standup. With standup, I don't play a character. I connect with an audience.

'Comedian' Alan Talaga

I used to hate being called a comedian. I wanted to be a humorist. "Comedian" brought to mind hackish jokesters from the 1980s. Gallagher was a comedian. Carrot Top was a comedian. Things changed when I started performing in a show with an even more unfortunate title: The Big Deuce.

The Big Deuce is the Comedy Club on State's Wednesday-night open mic. It's improved the Madison comedy scene dramatically since debuting in 2009.

Though the name is silly, the show is stellar. Every comic I interviewed for this article agreed that it's one of the best open mics in the country. Comedians drive up from Chicago to get a three-minute set.

Jay Abbondanza, a comic who moved to Madison from New York, says the Big Deuce is unlike anything he saw in the Big Apple.

"That open mic is unreal," he says. "Just to have a place where you can go up in front of a crowd every single time when you're a nobody."

As fun as Azzalino's was, Comedy Club manager Joe Buettner and comedian Mike Schmidt knew that local performers needed a better show. Without it, the local comedy scene might never take off.

"Joe and I spent months grilling out-of-town comics on what they liked and didn't like about the open mics in their cities," says Schmidt. "We did our homework to make a show that was enjoyable for both audience and comics."

Their studies paid off. Every Wednesday, the showroom fills with a warm, welcoming audience that's ready to laugh at my stupid jokes. I get to perform for a few hundred people rather than 12 aspiring comedians and a couple of random drunks. As a result, "comedian Alan Talaga" doesn't sound so hokey.

'A book club for dumb jerks'

The Big Deuce also made more people interested in performing standup. Before long, Stefan Davis, who now tours the country as a professional comedian, started an open mic in the basement of the Argus Bar & Grill. Similar events have since started at the Rigby and the Dragonfly Lounge.

Rehearsing at the Argus is my equivalent of band practice. Comedians need to develop material in front of an audience. I'd test jokes before the Big Deuce.

I made friends with other comedian weirdoes as I started performing multiple nights a week. We're people who don't quite fit in, united by a desire to humiliate ourselves publicly.

As Schmidt puts it, we're "a book club for dumb jerks."

No matter what you call us, we're a diverse bunch. By day, Madison-area comics are lawyers, call-center reps, chemists, landscapers, librarians and bartenders. I've made meaningful connections with people I probably wouldn't have met otherwise.

Abbondanza says that hanging out with other comedians is great because it lets him show his true colors.

"I gravitate to people who will listen to my outrageous opinions and still be my friend," he explains. "Comedians understand that while I'm a loudmouthed ass, I'm still a good person."

Don't get me wrong; Madison comics aren't always chummy. We compete to get opening slots for great shows, and we get jealous of our buddies who win comedy contests. But at the end of the day, we fight for each other.

Last month, I got to record a public-radio pilot for The Dan Potacke Show. I was on too tight a deadline and needed help. A huge number of my comedian friends gave up their weekend to make sure my silly little dream was realized. As a comedian, I'm alone onstage, but I never feel alone offstage.

Danger zone

With standup, I'm the only one responsible for my success or failure. It's stressful, but it can be exhilarating, too.

Local comedian Chris Lay agrees.

"When it works, it's all on me. When it bombs, it's all on me," he says.

Standup is inherently risky, according to Stacey Kulow, a longtime member of Atlas Improv who's started doing standup in the last two years.

"When you fail [at improv], you've got a team backing you up, and you quickly move on to the next game," she says. "With standup, you've got written material you've put your heart and soul into - and no backup if it fails."

There are certain situations that make success sweeter and failure more bitter. I've had some sleepless nights preparing for this type of high-pressure show. I've opened for some of my comedy heroes, such as Paul F. Tompkins and Michael Ian Black. During last year's protests, I told jokes on the steps of the Capitol, sandwiched between Mayor Paul Soglin and Sen. Jon Erpenbach. Each of these performances went well, and I felt so damn alive while doing them, but what felt best was sleeping for 12 hours afterward.

I'm most proud of the successful shows that should have bombed. Benefit shows fall into this category. The audience doesn't always care about comedy; it cares about supporting a charity. At best, it condones comedy. When I make a crowd like that laugh, I'm on top of the world.

What burns the most are the shows that look promising, then fail horribly. In 2010, I opened for touring comedian Doug Stanhope. I had reservations. My material is nerdy and goofy, very different from Stanhope's. I told jokes to a roomful of blank faces for 15 dreadfully long minutes. At one point, I heard someone say, "That joke wasn't too bad." After my dirge of a set was finished, I brought Stanhope to the stage. He had the audience roaring in seconds. Each laugh was a knife twist. I couldn't blame the audience. They wanted to laugh, but I just didn't have the right jokes.

Though that show tanked, I didn't think about quitting. Instead I got really, really drunk with my comedian friends. They bought lots of shots since they know how it feels to bomb. The next morning, I wrote new jokes.

Failure makes me better. It pushes me to write more personal material and better connect with every audience I meet. I'd do a much better job opening for Stanhope now, but I'm pretty sure he won't ask anytime soon.

Why I'm still a comedian

My life is different than it was when I first went to Azzalino's. I've got an amazing but demanding career, and I want to start a family. Standup sometimes feels frivolous, but it made my current life possible. My job involves video editing. I first picked up a video camera to film myself being funny.

Standup also makes me happier. I've become a better friend, and someone's tentatively agreed to marry me. I'm not sure if I'm successful at standup, but I know standup has made me successful.

I'll probably never be a full-time comedian. I'd have to move to New York or Los Angeles and spend a decade trying to get noticed. Nowadays, my goal is not to get famous but to improve. The jokes I write now are better than jokes I wrote a year ago, which are better than the jokes from a year before that. I hope to someday hate the bits I'm writing now. Some shows help me experiment, like Chay Productions' Sunday-night comedy showcases at Atlas Improv. Like me, Chay's founders, Lay and Abbondanza, want standup to get respect as an art form in Madison. Art form with fart jokes, that is.

I love standup, and I would encourage others to try it, though they might have trouble stopping.

"Comedy is kind of an addiction," cautions local comedian Sean Moore. "But there are way worse addictions."

Above all, I still do comedy for a simple reason: I get excited every time I perform. The minutes beforehand fill me with dread and glee. It doesn't matter if I'm performing for a great crowd at the Big Deuce or a nearly empty bar basement. It's just me, a microphone and a few minutes to make people laugh.

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