what i learned from performing stand up in an amphitheater for six Bolivian people – Michael Karlik

I was about one year into doing stand-up comedy. Naturally, I thought I was doing well (I wasn’t). Naturally, I thought I should be on more shows (I shouldn’t have been).

So when the Craigslist post said “Performers wanted: all types,” I responded immediately.

It barely registered as a red flag that this “performance” would be for something called the Bolivian Independence Festival. It also barely registered as a red flag that the organizer responded to my email in under two hours saying, “you’re on.”

I would be doing about ten minutes of comedy during the “festival” – outdoors in an amphitheater in downtown Denver. For no money, obviously.

But hey, did that matter to Open Mic Michael? Of course not! This was the big leagues! Well, “big” in the amount of square footage. And the exposure would be phenomenal. Who knows what bigwigs might be walking through downtown that day! Lorne Michaels? Louis C.K.? Johnny Carson?

On the day of the show, I was nervous. Would I be the only comedian? Would my Anglo-centric jokes work with the South American crowd? Would they even speak English? All were things a rational person should have asked before accepting the offer.

Civic Center Park in Denver is in the huge space between city hall and the state capitol. It has a sizable outdoor amphitheater that is occasionally filled up for events like Fourth of July, 4/20, and political protests. If I had to guess, it seats about 300 people and another 500 could stand.

When I showed up, I could count the number of people in the audience on both hands, with fingers to spare.

I didn’t know quite what to expect with a Bolivian Independence Festival–or if there were any Bolivians in Colorado. The answer was, apparently, not many.

There were four vendor carts around the perimeter selling food and trinkets. There were a dozen people milling around the stage, some in costumes. And sitting in the amphitheater to watch? Mmmm, maybe three people. It was like an open mic, but with fewer suicidal impulses.

I found the organizer, who told me I could hang around the stage until showtime. Oh, and showtime would be in two minutes–which, mathematically, was not enough time for hundreds of audience members to suddenly show up and make things less barren.

I stood next to a woman working “security,” which basically amounted to making sure no one got stung by a bee. She mentioned she was only here because of court-ordered community service. Frankly, it made more sense than the reason I was there.

After the “festival” kicked off with the Bolivian national anthem, a group of half a dozen teenage dancers strode to the middle of the amphitheater and twirled around. A family of three white people sat down to watch, which doubled the size of the crowd.

This performance was followed by several toddlers in sombreros and brightly colored jackets who stomped around roughly in tempo to blaring mariachi music. This was my lead-in act.

And judging by the amount of parents taking pictures, it was what people were ACTUALLY here to see.

When the emcee took the stage to introduce me, he spoke entirely in Spanish. I should mention: not one word of English was uttered up to this point. I had taken–and forgotten–five years of high school Spanish. I wasn’t about to dig through the vault to come up with something clever and culturally appropriate to say. I was just going to do my material.

“Hola a todos!” I said to the audience. All six of them were sitting at least 300 feet away. I could barely see them, let alone hear them.

I went into the classics: working in an office is weird. Living with your girlfriend is weird. Music in the grocery store is weird.

“I only go grocery shopping so I can push the cart down the aisle–in rhythm–to the Muzak,” I explained, miming it and singing the chorus to “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

These were awful jokes, made even more awful by a brand-new comedian telling them. But the setting was just so adverse that I found cold comfort in the fact that ANY comedian would have had a terrible time.

My voice was booming in this big empty space. It had all the intimacy of an airplane hangar. I was wearing my glasses, but I still couldn’t tell if there were any smiles on those distant, distant faces. I did clearly see all of the skyscrapers in downtown Denver, however, and kept thinking in my head about which one I should jump off.

After about five minutes, I decided to do some crowd work – to interact with the two silent, colorfully dressed people standing about 15 feet from either side of me on the stage. They were each guarding a decorative mask on a pedestal and, like everyone else, were completely stone faced throughout my performance.

I walked over to the mask and improvised some ventriloquism.

“Tu eres el Diablo,” I growled as the mask.

“No, no soy el Diablo!” I feigned surprise as myself.

This went on for a minute until I got the wrap-up signal from the organizer. I was relieved, but also a little concerned that I had dishonored some sacred Bolivian ancestral mask and would now have a curse on me.

I didn’t stick around to watch more dancing. I left very, very quickly. But I did learn a few valuable lessons:

  • Craigslist can be a trap.
  • Volunteering for everything and anything is a bad idea.
  • Don’t dishonor a cursed mask.
  • Terrible shows make great stories.

This article was written by Michael Karlik, a Denver-based stand up comedian and creator of the City Council Chronicles podcast. He also has a segment of the project, called Best Thing, Worst Thing, where he goes to different places and asks, “What is the best thing about this place?” and “What is the worst thing about this place?” You can find Michael on Twitter @michaelkarlik.

The featured image of Denver’s Civic Center Park was found at Ticket Secrets.

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