Standing Up for Themselves
A group of young stand-up comics are trying to revitalize the local comedy scene by cracking up a tough crowd-each other.
As she one-gulps a last-minute gin and tonic to calm her nerves, Carly Albert hears her name called. This is her chance. After months of pursuing her newly discovered passion for stand-up comedy in front of small handfuls of people at local open-mic nights, she now has three minutes to make 40 paying customers laugh.
Three minutes of her most finely tuned jokes later, there's not a single chuckle.
"It was awful," says Albert of her debut performance at the Royal Comedy Club in Castle Shannon. "My material was completely out of place. It was an older crowd, and older crowds generally look for what's familiar."
Albert, who has been performing on the local stand-up scene for the past nine months, calls her brand of comedy dark, surreal and self-deprecating. Anything but familiar. But that unfamiliarity, the desire to bring the audience out of its comfort zone, is exactly what the 28-year-old Munhall native strives for.
Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock
Carly Albert, 28, works a small audience during a local open-mic night.
"I grew up feeling like George Carlin was my father," Albert says of her idol. "But I was a shy kid, so being up on stage was a really big step."
Like many of her fellow Pittsburgh comics, Albert works various service-industry jobs to make ends meet and spends hours a night at coffee shops huddled over a steaming cup and a yellow notepad scribbling potential jokes. It wasn't until last year that she worked up the courage to take the stage at an open mic at St. James Place Tavern on the South Side.
"The first time was terrifying, and I was horrible," recalls Albert. "I didn't look at the audience. The mic didn't really work. I don't think people laughed. But I did it, and when it was over, I had so much relief and pride and self-satisfaction."
Now, Albert says she is addicted to performing. She frequents the region's burgeoning open-mic circuit-Duke's Station in Bethel Park on Mondays, Papa J's downtown and the Smiling Moose on the South Side on Tuesdays and the Royal Place on Thursdays. With each performance comes confidence. With confidence, ambition.
"I hope to just keep getting better," says Albert. "Get some more opening gigs for more established comics, start hosting some open-mic nights and eventually move to a place like New York or San Francisco with a bigger market for stand-up."
Chris Ciardi, Albert's uncle and fellow comic, manages the Royal Comedy Club and serves as a pillar of support for Albert's aspirations.
"This is a classroom," Ciardi says of the open-mic night there. "Everyone needs a place to 'hone their funny' and decide whether they can be a comic or should go into cement working," he says, quickly quipping, "and a lot of these fine young people would make excellent contractors."
Albert and few dozen other young local comics craft their routines at such sparsely attended open-mic nights where they often find themselves performing only for each other.
"It's a process," says three-year veteran Ron Placone, 25. "You think something's funny, and you come to these open mics and try it out in front of all these comics. Then you realize it's not that funny. But we all grow and get better from it."
Back on the silent Royal Place stage, Albert reaches deep into her yellow notepad for a one-liner to salvage the night: "Somewhere in the world," she ponders, "there must be a male escort service called Peter Sellers."
Finally, laughter. Albert gets woozy with adrenaline.
"It lasts long enough to get you to the next gig," she says.