It’s Wednesday night and you’ve showed up at your local watering hole, looking for a drink or three— a surefire way to repress those four hours of workplace safety training you suffered through. You hear the screech of feedback as you walk through the door, emanating from a small stage stuffed into the back of the bar. You’ve stumbled upon the weekly open mic night, the most hit-or-miss evening of entertainment you’re likely to find this side of Vegas. It’s too late to close your tab (damn, $10 minimum) so you settle in with your rum and coke to watch the parade of archetypes that frequent these gatherings. It’s can’t all be bad, right?
5. The Folksy Crooner
You’ve seen this guy somewhere before, or at least someone who looks exactly like him. Isn’t he the one that busks on the corner down the street from your apartment every few days? He takes the stage, never making eye contact with anyone in the crowd and picks up his beat-up acoustic guitar, carefully positioning the empty case at the front of the stage on the off-chance someone is feeling particularly generous. “I’m going to play some original songs of mine,” he intones, going on to describe where each was written— usually somewhere picturesque and inspiring, like the edge of the Grand Canyon or a rolling farm in Wisconsin. When he opens his mouth to sing, a strange, uncharacteristic voice escapes, usually a high-pitched, nasally yowl or a deep, forced baritone. You try to decipher his nonsensical, metaphor-ridden lyrics, but decide he probably just wrote them on his fridge using one of those magnetic poetry kits.
4. The Chill Dude Who Just Learned Guitar
There was a guy like this who was your neighbor in the dorms back in college. He had just gotten his first acoustic guitar and was learning from the masters: Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson and John Mayer. He carries his instrument everywhere, breaking it out at parties and forcing anyone sitting near enough to hear him rehearse his cover of “Drive.” Open mic night is just the next logical step, as he sheepishly takes the stage and informs the crowd he’ll be playing “a few tunes I’ve been working on.” Some friends who came out to see him clap unnecessarily loudly, screaming his name and exchanging goofy, knowing grins. He launches into a carefully selected group of covers, inviting the dwindling crowd to clap or sing the chorus with him on every song. His frequent wrong chords and missed notes are shrugged off with a laugh and a nonchalant, “I just learned this one the other day.” Sure you did, buddy.
3. The Glorified Karaoke Singer
“Could you start with track number two?” she asks the clearly bored, obviously underpaid sound man turning the knobs on the bar’s ramshackle PA system. Taking the mic from the stand, she paces the stage nervously as the opening strains of “Me and Bobby McGee” emanate from the speakers. Admittedly, she’s much better than the drunks you heard sucking all the life out of this track at a karaoke bar a few weeks back. But that doesn’t make this any less strange— you’re more than a little embarrassed on her behalf. She doesn’t seem to care, treating the distracted crowd of 15-or-less as if they’re rapt fans at her Madison Square Garden debut. By the time she makes it to her set-closing rendition of “Islands in the Stream,” accompanied by a disembodied Kenny Rodgers, you can’t bring yourself to look it any longer, turning your gaze to the bottom of your second whiskey sour.
2. The Band That Couldn’t Land a Paid Gig
Once you see the leather-jacket clad guy carrying in a drum kit, you know the band has arrived. The only reason these guys are here is because they got tossed off the bill at a bar down the street when they showed up late for their set. The sound guy sighs heavily, dragging out a few additional mics and standing idly by as amps are plugged in and guitars are tuned. After a 15 minute stretch of screeching and pounding that sounds like some sort of tribal ritual gone terribly wrong, they’re ready to go. You don’t catch their mumbled band name, but your hands go to your ears as they strike their first, loud, distorted chord. They’re not totally awful, but you realize you must be getting old as there’s only so much of this you feel like you can take. After being waved off the stage three songs later, they hastily list off their upcoming shows and you make a mental list of places to avoid in the subsequent weeks.
1. The “Edgy” Stand-Up Comic
As this suit jacket clad fellow takes the stage, you brace yourself for some Barry Manilow karaoke tracks. When he starts talking about his day, you think it might just be some over-long stage banter. Once you hear him pause briefly and garner a few chuckles from a table near the stage, you realize this guy is telling jokes. “Tough crowd, tough crowd,” he astutely observes before launching into a slightly more racy diatribe punctuated with as many four letter words as he can summon. None of it is all that funny, but you almost feel bad for the guy— at least he’s trying? Sweating profusely after just four minutes at the microphone, the desperation sets in and the bits become increasingly blue. After a painfully insensitive impression of the lady who works at the Chinese restaurant, you’re groaning along with the rest of the rapidly dwindling crowd. 30 seconds later, you’re staring at the most oddly comforting sights you’ve ever seen: an empty stage.