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Silence Is Death at Cobb's Comedy Club 

Wednesday, Aug 3 2011

I just made the mistake of reading all of the comments that followed a Yahoo News article on the legalization of gay marriage in New York state — thousands of hateful people being viciously mean, woefully ignorant, or both. It reminds me of road rage, those virulent feelings that well up when I am behind the wheel of a car and someone makes the unfortunate decision to drive below 65 in front of me in the so-called fast lane. Is that anger part of my true nature, or are the quiet confines of my Honda the only place I can let it all out? Does the same go for trolls who vomit all over news feeds? Are they really that disgusted with everything and everyone? And does the righteous indignation that fountains out of my fingers in copious, equally hateful responses to their posts mean that I am truly that furious underneath it all as well?

I read these comment clusterfucks all the time; I even invite them into my world by "Liking" Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin on Facebook so I can read the spooky threads from their followers. We might be connecting with our baser instincts and motivations when we engage in online debates, but like it or not, I think these missives offer good snapshots of what people really think. Imagine what the thread would look like if Yahoo News had been around after the slaves were emancipated, or women were given the vote, or Brown vs. Board of Education was settled. Newspaper editors are no longer the only people who choose what opinions from the public will go out on the letters page. When we look back on the early days of legal gay marriage, history students will be able to read post after post from Joe Schmo in Lackawanna who says that two Barneys will never make a Bam-Bam (yes, this was a real entry). History will now be much more transparent.

All of this brings me to comedy clubs, strangely enough, and why they always leave me feeling vaguely uneasy. Simply put, they invite the practice of heckling, which is a more civilized version of website trolling. There is a distance between the heckler and the person on the stage, which makes it easier to shout something. There is also a tacit agreement that performers should be able to take abuse just as much as they dish it out; that is the nature of being a comedian. But it's also why we go to see live comedy: We want someone to cross certain lines and break away from certain norms. And yes, often the comedians say stuff the rest of us are thinking, but were too afraid to say out loud.

I didn't know what to expect from Rhys Darby's stand-up set the other night at Cobb's. He played the manager, Murray, on Flight of the Conchords. I knew zip-a-dee-doo-dah about the guy or what kind of humor he was into, but a friend invited me, and I said sure.

If you have never been to Cobb's, let me tell you that it is the proverbial "well-oiled machine." First you are shuffled through Will Call, then the staff checks your ID, then two more people meet you at the threshold of the main room to escort you to a table of their choosing, then you are given menus and told that there will be a two-drink minimum, then the waitress comes over with her boobs hanging out and gets you started on your first round. Everything must be done in a certain time frame, because Cobb's often has two shows a night.

We were given a table way over on the right of the stage, in the back, against the wall. That was fine with me. You never know if a comedian will single you out and heckle you. It was, however, so dark in our little allotment that I had to use the light from my cellphone to read the menu. "Give it up for the bar and waitstaff!" said the MC for the evening, a low-tier comedian who was obviously trying to rise through the ranks to be a headliner one day. If I had to look into the smoky murk of my portable crystal ball, I would say that this would never happen. This guy got worse than heckling: He was hit with silence. His jokes floated out of his mouth in eager little wisps, then hung there expectantly, only to land with a kerplop. It was painful to watch, far worse than any heckling he could have received. It made me happy to be tucked away in the ebon outskirts of the room, hidden and unexposed. I realized that being heckled means at least you have roused something in someone; leaving an audience without any reaction whatsoever is grim death. Ergo, 'tis a far better thing to live in a world where dipshits can duke it out in the comments section of news feeds than to live in a place where no one cares about anything, ever.

Finally, Darby came on. It turned out he was really more of a physical comedian, the kind who comes out and entertains you instead of prodding your sensibilities. He did impressions of dinosaurs and robots and stuff — which, yeah, if he had never been on Flight of the Conchords, none of us would have paid to go see. But he was good.

"Last call," said our waitress, who had checked her watch and seen that there were 15 minutes left in the final set. The night had gone by really fast for those of us in the first rotation. The busboy lurked around our table from time to time, ready to swipe up anything that looked freshly empty. But I understand why Cobb's is the way it is. It's hard to have a successful club in this town, and it needs to maximize profits at each table to thrive as a place for live comedy. There's nothing wrong with that. The alternative is silence.

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Katy St. Clair

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