Weapon of choice for open mic stand-up hopefuls.
Weapon of choice for open mic stand-up hopefuls.

Comic punchlines were interrupted by actual thrown punches last night at Carrollton Station during the weekly “Think You’re Funny?” open mic stand-up comedy show.

Green performs at Carrollton Station, sans assailant. photo: Scotland Green

Only 10 minutes into the program a fight erupted in the side alcove beside the stage, where comedians mill about before they perform. An unidentified amateur comic took a swing at host Scotland Green apparently after Green informed him that he wouldn’t appear on stage. The two wrestled upright and exchanged fierce words for a moment, while other comics joined the fracas. Then the entire group backed through the double doors at the back of the bar and out unto the patio. The struggle continued for a long minute or so, and then the disgruntled amateur broke away and stumbled back into the bar. He announced he was leaving and took a most circuitous and drunken path to the front exit.

The audience’s nonchalance during the melee was remarkable. To be sure, their attention was diverted from poor Addy Najera, the comic on stage at the time. But few audience members left the bar, or went over to get a better view of the fight. Najera pressed on gamely, tossing out improvised one liners while the men wrestled out back.

“Will this [interruption] count against my five minutes [of stage time]?” she joked.

Adel Alizadeh was next up. As one of the central participants in the struggle, his heart rate was still very high and his breath was short. Alizadeh observed that Green and his combatant traded insults while they wrestled. But they weren’t generic insults, of course. They were comedy-specific. “You’re a hack!” “Your jokes are stupid“ … etc.

At the beginning of the show, perhaps sensing trouble, Green had specifically warned open mic participants not to talk during each other’s sets. Nonetheless, the unidentified comic who would later start the fight blatantly disregarded Green’s warning and loudly conversed with friends in the front row during the show. When informed that his rudeness killed his chance in the limelight that night, he got physical.

Veteran comic Cassidy Henehan later took the stage and joked about President Barack Obama’s visit to New Orleans. The president was in town yesterday to make a speech at the Urban League conference, and pick up some checks at an Uptown fundraiser. During a peak traffic period, portions of South Carrollton Avenue were blocked off for the President’s motorcade. Everyone caught in the congestion (including my wife) was annoyed by the situation. Henehan remarked that it was the first time he’d heard African-American New Orleanians openly disparage the president. This was not the inconvenience they were hoping for, apparently.

Henehan also passed around a donation bucket for comedian Caleb Medley, who was shot in the eye last week during the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Medley is comatose and hooked to a ventilator. On Tuesday, his wife gave birth to their first child. Medley’s hospital bills will likely run north of $2 million, and the couple has no health insurance.

As you would expect at any open-mic event, some of the performers were dreadful. It’s pretty discouraging when the audience around the stage is so silent they can hear the jovial laughs from the casual conversations at the bar.

Nonetheless, despite the wide variation in talent and the sudden fisticuffs, many of the comedians persevered admirably. It’s clear that they take their craft seriously, and are honing their skills at open mics while hoping to one day bring their act to larger audiences. New Orleans native Mark Normand took that path and is now a rising star on the national scene. After moving to New York from New Orleans, he spent years perfecting his style and tightening his material. Then, last week he appeared on John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show on Comedy Central, and did a hilarious televised set for a large audience.

Normand comes back to New Orleans regularly, and always drops in to perform at local venues such as the Carrollton Station open mic and the weekly “Comedy Catastrophe” showcase at the Lost Love Lounge.

After witnessing the fight last night, I got to thinking that while actual violence at comedy shows is inexcusable, it’s not as wildly out of place as one might think. Stand up comedy is a surprisingly aggressive art form. Going on stage and attempting to squeeze laughs out of a dimly lit group of strangers is one of the hardest things a performer can attempt. It’s not for the faint-hearted. The performers have to play with words, tell anecdotes with surprise endings, and twist logic to craft original insights. Sometimes they just embrace absurdity and act like fools. But, either way, they must dominate the audience. The zero-sum lingo of comedians attests to it: They either “kill” the audience with their act or, if they fail, they “die” on stage.

As we all know, minute subtleties make all the difference. Different performers can tell the same joke and one will “destroy” the crowd while the other hears crickets. It’s one of the many paradoxes of comedy: there’s no blueprint or magic formula. Computers can beat grandmasters at chess, but I can’t fathom how a superior robot comedian will ever be invented. (And yet, it doesn’t seem theoretically impossible.).

Everyone thinks they know, more or less, what’s funny. It’s easy to point to humorous looks and combinations of words that make us bark involuntarily. But actually explaining how or why something is funny, in a non-circular manner, is immensely more challenging. Just ask Sigmund Freud.

There are so many factors in an act’s success or failure. Did the material suit the audience? Did it suit the performer? Did the material suit the audience’s perception of the performer? Do two words in the phrasing of the joke need to be changed or omitted for the joke to work? Is the performer’s body language out of sync? Is the performer not confident or vulnerable enough? Is their monologue not “conversational” enough? Are they reading the audience incorrectly… and on and on.

I’m fascinated by the paradoxes of comedy, as well as its subtly pugilistic aspects. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that one shouldn’t try to consider the above questions while trying to enjoy a stand-up performance. It interrupts the comedic flow of the evening. Sort of like a fistfight.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...