Walking onstage armed with nothing but a microphone while the crowd in front of you waits to be entertained can be both terrifying and exhilarating. For decades, Long Islanders have taken this risk at open mic nights as a way to break into the world of stand-up comedy.
"Long Island comedy is coming back in a strong way," says Mike Keegan, 29, of East Meadow, who has been hitting the circuit for eight months. "Ray Romano and Kevin James started here, then it dwindled down. Now, it's on its way back."
OPEN MIC STYLES
There are two types of open mic nights. Governor's in Levittown, the Brokerage in Bellmore and McGuire's in Bohemia offer monthly shows where freshman comedians can participate in 90-minute shows in front of live crowds. However, the aspiring comic must bring in six people to the club. This is the first style.
"Some people are up there for the first time, others have been around the scene for six months. We even mix in professional comedians for guest spots. They come to work material and get some stage time," says Brokerage open mic host John Ziegler, 45, of Bethpage. "It feels like a real pro show."
Another style is held at the Lizard Lounge in Bohemia, where comedians deliver sets in a more raw form mainly for a small audience of their peers, although it is open to the public and free to performers and attendees.
"This is more like sparring in the gym," says Lizard Lounge open mic co-host Tim Thomson, 34, of Bayport. "You try out new stuff and take whatever laughs you can. If something doesn't work, you just keep moving."
Keith Leanza, 23, of North Babylon is new to the open mic scene. He performed for the first time just before Christmas, doing seven minutes at Governor's.
"I was nervous until I got that first laugh. Then, I calmed down and everything started clicking," says Leanza before taking the stage at the Brokerage this month. "I just went for it."
Comedian Tami Kelly, 39, of Massapequa, has a brassy, upbeat energy matched with an infectious smile. Going onstage at the Brokerage marked her second time.
"I had to get this in before I turned 40. It was a bucket list thing," says Kelly, who works as an architectural drafter by day. "Since I could talk, people have been telling me that I'm funny, so I wanted to try it."
ADVICE AND SUPPORT
At the open mics, seasoned comedians often hang out to see who's on their way up and offer some advice.
"I always tell 'em, don't be scared of silence. If the crowd is quiet, they are listening," says Joe Starr, 42, of Babylon who works full-time as a professional comic. "It's all about relatability. An audience has to feel they can trust you."
While comedians are typically known for being cutthroat competitive, the open mic scene on Long Island tends to be more supportive.
"Some of my best jokes came from a comic coming up to me after a show and saying, 'Why don't you try this,'" says comedian Les Degen, 58, of Seaford, who doubles as an overnight shipping salesman. "We give each other material."
The big fear comes from bombing, but all comics claim it happens, and it's unavoidable.
"If you do comedy enough, you are going to bomb," says Governor's open mic host Lori Palminteri, 23, of West Islip. "Everyone bombs. You just have to roll it off your back and do another show."
The crowd at an open mic night is rather forgiving, allowing the new comics some leeway to work out their material.
"The new guys are very nervous. After a few times, they realize it's fun," says McGuire's open mic host, Anthony DiDomenico, 33, of Bellmore. "Open mic crowds are supportive. They are rooting for you."
OPEN MIC NIGHTS
INFO $12, plus two-drink minimum for audience members, participating comics must bring six audience members for seven minutes of stage time and call ahead for a reservation; free at Lizard Lounge (comics sign up at 7 p.m.)