At the end of Sunday night’s Bonkerz Comedy Jam at Palace Station, I was headed for the exit after a disappointing night onstage when local comic Jason Harris came over to say hello.
I told him I couldn’t believe how much I’d struggled, especially since the week prior, in the same setting, I was much smoother and was starting to feel comfortable standing on a stage in front of a crowd. I was grasping for answers as to exactly why, in my estimation, I had just taken an unexpected step backward.
“I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I had a bad day and clearly let it affect me up there, because I had some good material, but I just couldn’t remember it for some reason,” I said, with the same discomfort I had while on the stage. Harris’ quick reply caught me off guard.
“That’s no excuse, man.”
Sounds crude, but it wasn’t. Just honest. Brutally, painfully honest—the kind of honesty and reality that you need to address and overcome to be a successful stand-up comedian. The audience doesn’t care what kind of day you had.
“You’re still new at this,” he continued. “I have a background in film producing, and I’ve done some acting, and I’m telling you, stand-up is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
The task isn’t made any easier by the initiation: It’s generally a trial by fire. Make up some stuff and get on a stage and try it. A self-taught profession, for the most part. At least, until now.
Enter Mick Lazinski, a professional stand-up comedian for three decades.
“I was there in 1979-1980 for that first huge wave. It was wonderful. We were making money—my second or third year in the business I made $90,000 working the road for two years. If this is ever seen by the IRS, that was a joke,” he says, smiling, and adds that after a decade on cruise ships and more time back on the road, he was looking for a way to plant himself for a while. He drove by Bonkerz, and the idea hit him—teaching.
“I went to the Internet, and saw only a few places doing it, so I talked to Joe Sanfelippo, who runs Bonkerz. One thing led to the next, and it was like a brushfire. He flew in the next day, gave me the thumbs-up and said that he wanted to start in two weeks. We started in three.”
The class is a six-week workshop, where aspiring comics learn to write, develop and hone a five-minute routine. Afterward, they go onstage and leave with video of their performance.
For Lazinski, teaching has come naturally. “It’s automatic,” he says. “When I prepare what I talk about each week, it just flows out.”
Students who excel can continue with a second course Lazinski is putting together, which will extend routines by another 10 minutes (most clubs require a 15-minute demo routine, Lazinski says) and give students a chance to emcee for Bonkerz’s Thursday-through-Saturday headliners.
John Barnes had always wanted to try stand-up, but never thought he could get on a stage and perform “without freaking out.” Six weeks later, he is helping to host the Comedy Jam and working toward his full demo.
“If I knew how much I was going to learn, I’d have paid double,” Barnes says. “The chance to work on that stage, in a real club environment, was night and day from anything I had done before. Sometimes I’d have something I knew was funny, but I didn’t know how to make it work onstage. You learn all of that here. You can be up there doing it in six weeks.”
Ironically, Lazinski’s success trying to settle down could send him back on the road—as the course evolves, Lazinski hopes to teach similar classes at other Bonkerz across the country.
“This is the litmus test. It’s starting in Las Vegas, and I was real pleased with the first class. People don’t realize that it’s hard work sitting down, grinding it out. You write it, and rewrite it, and you can’t wait to tell it to an audience. Then you tell it, but you didn’t tell it the right way, and it didn’t work, so you retell it and work it and work it.”
Sunday night, I’ll be back doing just that. No excuses.