Over the past 3 months, I’ve had the opportunity to perform in one of Shanghai’s most popular comedy clubs, Kung Fu Komedy.
I first got started when a friend of mine, Byron, told me about the open mic that takes place every Wednesday and Sunday. I went on, and performed five minutes worth of material that I took a few days to write.
The first couple of times, I was so afraid and nervous that I couldn’t bear to go up without having my iPhone notes open, ready to rescue me if I forgot one of my jokes. Before my first few shows, I would always call my brother Rahim who was in Prague at the time. Sometimes, it would be 8 am where he was and he would still be asleep, and I would beg him to hear my new jokes (twin brothers who listen are a gift).
I recorded every one of my shows on my phone, and would listen to it on the subway ride home, thinking about how I could tighten up a punch line, or cut out fat.
One of the most important lessons I took from comedy is that good material never happens on the first try. There were nights when I would tell a joke that I thought was great, only to be received with weak laughter, or silence from the crowd. I would rework some jokes into premises that became the best parts of my act, or cut a 2-minute joke into a 30 second aside, or even do away with some material completely. This helped me to realize that everything we do is a rough draft.
Something we talk a lot about in the comedy community is hecklers (or a rude audience member). I remember one night when I was trying all new material and some of my classmates even came. This heckler was so drunk that she yelled during everyone’s sets, preventing a rhythm from being established. When I went on, I told a joke to potentially the most silent room I’d ever been in. I swore that I wasn’t going back. I did end up going back, but I realized how lucky I was. People who try comedy in big cities such as New York become easily discouraged because they have to sometimes pay in order to get time, or even bring friends who are required to buy drinks. Having a bad show in this type of environment, where you’re lucky to even perform twice a month could result in premature retirement after an awful show. In Shanghai, all I had to do was sign up a day in advance, and be at the venue by 8.
During my first three months, I came to learn that some of the best comics were even prone to awful sets. I’ll never forget seeing one of my favorite comics (and one of Shanghai’s best) perform one of his worst shows ever. After winning the Shanghai International Comedy Festival, he came back to our home venue only to bomb for 5 minutes straight. In an odd way, this helped me see failures in work, art and relationships as less toxic. People who create or do great things don’t always get it right. Sometimes, you have to go through hours of bad material in order to have s 30 good minutes.
I believe that for every good show I had, I was bound to have 2 or maybe even three bad shows. In an interview, Jerry Seinfeld described this as a batting average. He proclaimed his was .500, meaning he had one show he was happy with, and one he was upset about. So far, I think I’ve had about two or three per good show.
There were some really good shows. I’ll never forget the first time I told a joke that got applause that prevented me from starting my next. Rushes like those are extremely rewarding.
There were also REALLY awful shows. My first showcase that could have evolved into a paid opportunity was organized by a group of African American expats. I was told that the crowd could reach 50 to 60 people, but when the show started at 7, barely 5 were in the audience. It was an extremely hard ten minutes, but I knew that after it, I would know my material even better, and be a more confident individual.
At Kung Fu, I met some really interesting individuals. One comic was a guy from Belarus who hosted the largest English open mic in the country. Another was a guy from Sweden, who performed in plays and coached clowning. One man was a clinical psychologist, and another worked for the NBA.
After one of my shows, an acquaintance described the venue as a bunch of “white guys” who thought they were funny. That struck me. I believe they’re a great group of talented men and women black, white, and asian who have the rare courage to stand up in front of a group of complete strangers and use a form of expression to explore social issues, personal struggles, etc.
About ten shows in, I gained much more confidence. I came up with a tight 5 minutes that I thought flowed well and captured attention, and fit my style well. I was less afraid to try new things on stage, and I even sent audio of my show home to a few friends. What surprises me is that sometimes I do get tunnel vision with my work. What I might think is 7/10 material is actually 5/10 material, bolstered by my contentment with it coming out not being so awful.
After about my 15th show, one of the managers of my club told me that the set I performed was exactly what they were looking for, and I was offered 3 shows on the weekend showcases, which feature the club’s best comics. My first showcase was one of the most fun sets I’ve ever had. The crowd was great, and I felt like my work from the past month and a half finally paid off.
My next year and a half will take me to New York for the summer and then London for a year. I hope to have just as much fun performing in those two cities as I did in Shanghai. One of the challenges I’ll face and learn to work around is writing material that will offer a fresh perspective, and works on multiple audiences. Nonetheless, I’m extremely grateful for the growth comedy has spurred inside of me.