a few days ago, creative loafing atlanta ran a cover story about the 10(?) year anniversary of the star bar open mic and its charismatic producer, rotknee. back in october 2013, the author, austin l. ray, was nice enough to ask me a few questions about star bar’s monday night show. he used a couple of my quotes in the piece, which made me super happy. here are the rest of my answers.
Do you know when the first Star Bar open mic happened? I’ve been asking around, and it seems like no one, including Rotknee, can nail down a date.
The first Star Bar open mic is indeed a mystery. I have no idea when it happened. All I have is a fuzzy recollection of karaoke night being moved from The Point (R.I.P.) to Star Bar around 2000, maybe, and the open mic just appearing as the pre-game a few years later. We didn’t think to keep track of anything - those were primitive times.
Tell me about your first time there. The more details, the merrier.
I had been gearing up to do comedy for a few months - going to shows, writing “jokes.” I decided in August of 2009 that I would do an open mic within three months. I started checking around and decided on Star Bar. I rustled up some courage and called Rotknee on a Monday afternoon and he said, “Oh no, sweetie - you gotta call me at five on Friday.”
So I waited until that Friday and called back. At that time, Rotknee would call you back to tell you that the list was full. A little backwards, yes. But he called back and said, “Hey, I don’t normally do this but I’ll put you up. Be there at 8:30.”
I told very few people I was doing it. Maybe my sister? Definitely one of my best friends - I needed him to give me a ride and record it. I wasn’t sure if it would be okay or a disaster but either way I wanted proof it happened. “I may never do this again,” I thought.
Many people say that Star Bar is a terrifying room. I wasn’t terrified - just nervous the way I usually am before I have to speak in front of a large group of people. I didn’t think to be overly intimidated.
Of the three comics who performed before me, one of them mentioned working the road with a well known comic (Doug Stanhope, maybe?) and one of them I had just watched host a show at the Laughing Skull. That’s when I started to worry. Wait, some of these guys do it for a living? Uh-oh.
Rotknee brought me up with his customary, “This is her first time here, so put your dick-skinners together and make some noise for Shalewa!” I went up and it was…it was good. I opened with some variation of, “It’s my first time so please be gentle” - and someone yelled out immediately, “I’ll be gentle, baby.” I shot back, “Wait for the safeword. It’s pickles.” People laughed and that was it. I finished my first joke and it got a big laugh and I thought, “Oh no. This is what I have to do for the rest of my life.” As I launched into my second joke, I looked over at my friend. He was completely enjoying himself. What he was not doing was recording the set. I wanted to be upset, but part of me already knew that this wouldn’t be the first time I’d be doing stand up.
I finished, dropped my head and rushed off the stage. The guy who yelled out came over and offered to buy me a drink as Rotknee was asking me, “Was that your first time ever? Goddamn. Give it up for her again.”
How would you describe the crowd? It’s got quite the reputation.
The crowd - first of all, god bless them for even coming out to an OPEN MIC in a city that has plenty of options. For the most part, they know what’s going on. They understand how comedy works and they know that’s what they’re coming to see. They know that you’ve done some preparation and they also appreciate unguarded moments and they will laugh when they find something funny. If they don’t find anything funny, they won’t laugh. It’s deceptively simple but it means everything in the world. They’re not comedy nerds, they’re people who want to laugh. They react to realness so if there is a kernel of artifice that you’re trying to pass off as “the real” or “the truth” then they’re probably not going to like it.
Do you remember the first time you met Rotknee? What was he like on first impression, and how did your relationship with him develop over time?
Oh god, Rotknee was TERRIFYING. Much scarier than actually doing comedy. I had seen him around town for years because I am a weirdo of a particular age who grew up in Atlanta and so is he - we’re cut from the same confusing cloth. But come on - that gruff demeanor? That beard? That way he calls hands “dick-skinners”? Yikes.
This mic is his baby, and he’s very careful about his baby. If you violated his call-in rules by trying to sneak in at 4:59, you’re out. If you manage to get up a lot but you keep telling the same ol’ 4-5 minutes of jokes, you’re out. If you’re disrespectful, even jokingly, and you don’t know him like that, you’re out. You didn’t want to cross him.
But then you start to realize that he’s that way because he honestly CARES. He wants comics to be funny. And when he likes you and the work you’re doing, his gruffness becomes friendly. He stops and talks to you for a minute instead of brushing past you to get the show started. He teases you for enjoying the Elvis Costello song blaring in the bar even though he’s the one who picked it out.
I imagine some people have a problem with having to win him over, but having to win someone over is the essence of stand up comedy - you’re trying to win over a club booker, a web series producer, THE AUDIENCE, your parents.
Here’s something I’ve never mentioned (I hope it doesn’t embarrass him, ha): After doing comedy for a while, maybe 7-8 months, I called in to try my luck for a Monday night slot. He called me back to tell me he had room, then he asked, “Hey, are you going up anywhere else?” I mumbled a couple of places I had been, worried that I would say the wrong thing. He replied, “Good. You’re very talented, and I never tell anyone that.”
A big ol’ teddy bear, really.
It seems like a lot of performers become very loyal to Star Bar’s Monday nights. Are you one of those people? (Or were you when you were here?)
Totally loyal. Still am, even in New York. It’s the first place I did stand up, so I’m extremely loyal in that sense. I also befriended a lot of good folks there, comics with whom I found a common comedy sensibility. I’ve watched some amazing comedians there (the first time I saw Kyle Kinane was at Star Bar; I’m still trying to piece my brain back together). I got to be a regular there, which meant going up every week for months at a time. I’ve learned how to write and rewrite and rewrite a joke there. It’s the best classroom I’ve attended in quite some time. I’ll rep it all day, erry day.
How does Star Bar’s open mic compare to others at which you’ve performed?
The biggest thing is that audience. At some club-based mics, the show will start out packed , but the audience will dwindle - people have come out to see their friends, not necessarily see a show. At Star Bar, the audience cycles through as the night goes on, so there’s always a sense of fresh blood in the crowd. It may be too good - if you go to open mics in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, you’ll notice that it’s just comics performing for other comics. And there’s nothing wrong with that - it’s like going to the gym. Star Bar is like going to a Zumba class.
Do the comedians you hang out with—the non-Atlantans, that is—know of the show? How do they feel about it?
Well, I’m in New York, so nobody knows about nothing if it ain’t New York-related. Never mind they’ve probably lived here for a year. But I plan on spreading the gospel as much as I can. I’ve encountered a few comedians in NYC that I would love to see on that Monday night stage.
I’ve seen ridiculous sets from Rory Scovel, Ryan Singer, Kyle Kinane, Joe DeRosa, James Adomian, Sean Patton. In fact, DeRosa recorded his most recent album there in the spring. The reputation of Star Bar is creepin’ on a come up.
What’s your most memorable Star Bar comedy night experience?
The lowest low: I had a big ol’ break down the first time I had to close out the show. A gajillion factors were in play, ending up with me angrily barking at the few people who stuck around until the end. I abandoned my set and walked off the stage and out of the room, convinced I’d never get to perform there again. Rotknee wasn’t there when it happened, but he heard about it and he wasn’t happy. But he gave me another shot to close it out a few months later and I didn’t ended up in the fetal position at the end of the night, so we were cool again.
The highest high: My last show there was on my last night in Atlanta. I got to host it. The magnitude of running that show didn’t hit me until just before the show started, but it was too late by then. It was a blast. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my comedy life in Atlanta. I was absolutely ready to move up to Square One, New York.
**I gotta say - I hope these answers don’t sound too hyperbolic or fawning. I’ve had great times at a number of places in Atlanta and Athens. The Laughing Skull in particular has played an important part in my growth. But I hung out at Star Bar for many years before I started comedy and to perform there meant and means the world to me.