Ariel Leaty’s comedy career started with a dream that many novice comics share: to work for “Saturday Night Live.” Her first step into the scene was an open mic in New Jersey in 2014, and she hasn’t stopped since.
Today, Leaty produces, hosts, and performs in shows in New Jersey and New York. She’s also thankful for her day job as a sales associate at a bitters company, which gets her into the city for open mics, a necessary pain for anyone pursuing a career in comedy.
Open-Mic LifeLeaty describes the mics — which can happen anywhere, from barber shops, to shoe stores, to bars — as rooms full of other comedians waiting for their chance to get on stage to test and perfect their material during the typically two-minute spots. “You’re constantly doing the same thing over and over again,” Leaty said. “It’s the devil in the details, you have to keep working at it. And then, finally, you have a well-crafted joke, and maybe it took you months.”
Her first show was a ‘bringer’ where you have to bring at least five people to the show if you want to perform. It’s one of many types of mics on the scene. Leaty has gotten used to the open-mic experience, even when she doesn’t get the laughs she’s looking for.
“No one actually cares about you,” Leaty said. “That’s the advice I give myself every day. If I do bomb, no one actually cares. They’re not going to go home and write about it. It’s going to be me who feels the bomb, and I have to work through it.”
Diversity NowAdding to the lackluster experience of performing at open mics, Leaty said that the shows often lacked diversity. So, she and her friend Gordon Baker are producing their own, called Culture Vultures, featuring comics from a range of communities and backgrounds. That means more women, too.
“A lot of shows, the lineup will be five straight white males, and I don’t want that for the show.” Leaty said. “If we can, let’s try not to get any straight white males on the show, so it’s all people who have maybe been overlooked in the comedy scene.”
While Leaty loves stand up, she doesn’t know if it’s her comedic endgame. She holds onto to the dream that started it all, and said she might like to end up in comedic acting.
Wherever she lands, Leaty feels that her comedy career is ahead of her. Five years into the scene, she still sees herself as a newcomer. It can take 10 to 15 years to really hit a stride, she said. “There’s no reason to do it. You’re going to lose money and sanity. But when it’s great, it’s great.”
Ritu Chandra spends her weekdays caring for her 11-year-old son in the suburbs of New Jersey. But at night she’s in Manhattan comedy clubs, cracking up audiences with her outspoken humor.Chandra, who always dreamt of performing, grew up with immigrant parents from India who encouraged her to find a more reliable career. For her, comedy has been a release from inhibitions, and she revels in the opportunity to tackle motherhood, sobriety, and starting a new life at 40.
The Crisis BeginsHer self-described mid-life crisis began with a comedy class at the Comedy Cellar. By her second session she knew comedy was more than a passing hobby. “Something just changed,” Chandra said, “where I think I felt I connected to the audience when I was performing, and a connection to the stage. I was like, ‘Oh this is really fun, I really want to keep trying this.’”
As she started going to more open mics, Chandra began to build a network and name for herself. “It was really different from being a suburban forty-something mom. Now I’m out and hanging out with all these young comedians, and it was just a totally alternative lifestyle that really suited me,” Chandra said. ”I was in a world where I could say whatever I wanted and no one judged me, which was completely different from my normal life.”
On the TownHer suburban community may not have expected her to put the effort in to become a working comic, but sure enough, Chandra is out on the comedy circuit most nights of the week. Her friends and family have had to adjust to her new lifestyle, but she is grateful for their support.
“I married my husband when we were in our late 20s, and he did not marry me expecting that I would start being out five nights a week until two in the morning with strange people, strange men mostly,” Chandra said. “He has to be a super patient, understanding, and supportive person to put up with that.”
Chandra wants her son to be a part of her comedy career as well. She takes him to shows and wants him to learn and be exposed to what the comedy community has to offer. “I want him to have a good sense of humor,” Chandra said. “I think that’s important in life. I also want him to see that there’s the traditional way to work and make money, but if you have a dream you can try that too.”
Kate Nichols had always been interested in comedy, but it was the sudden passing of her mother in 2015 that made her realize she should be making the most of the time she has. So she signed up for an improv class and started doing open mics. Audiences liked her style, female empowerment blended with her laid-back and happy onstage personality. Soon, she was getting booked on curated shows put together by other comedians.
At first, Nichols took every show she was offered. Now she’s more selective and only take shows that she thinks will work for her. “You have to find those places, and that’s what you learn. This isn’t my voice, this isn’t my space, these aren’t my people,” Nichols said. “And then you find places that are more like you, you find people who you gel with a little more, and who share your values and your beliefs.”
Hecklers in the HouseBeing in a space you feel comfortable in is especially important when every comic’s least favorite audience member arrives: The Heckler. From the drunk, to the guy (or gal) who wants to show the audience that they’re funny too, to the well-meaning folks who think they’re helping, Nichols has seen them all.
“I try to get the room on my side, and a lot of the time, if the heckler is distracting or annoying, they already are,” Nichols said. “It’s kind of like you’re the teacher in the classroom and it’s your job to quiet the disruptive student so that everyone else can do what they came here to do.”
But Nichols was disheartened to discover that women comedians seem to draw more fire from hecklers than their male colleagues.
“I notice that sometimes when I’m at a show they make a point of heckling female comics,” Nichols said. “I think they feel more comfortable, I think they feel they have more of a right to have a voice in that room than some lady on stage does.”
To combat the hecklers, Nichols used to work them into her set, engaging them and making fun of them. But that strategy was eating into her stage time to test out her material.
Nope, Not Scared Nichols is still searching for the ideal heckler defense, the perfect line that shuts them up fast, with no hard feelings. But she doesn’t let them discourage her. “I do really feel pretty empowered as a woman,” she said. “That’s something I try to bring to my material, this strong female perspective and unshaken ability, like ‘You’re not going to scare me.’”
Abbi Crutchfield has appeared on The Tyra Banks Show, VH1 Hip Hop Honors with Tracy Morgan, acted in movies and performed at some of New York’s biggest comedy clubs. According to her website, she does top-notch Texas and Russian accents to boot.
Crutchfield graduated from Georgetown University as a foreign service major, and there must be something funny in the water at the school, which also gave us comedians John Mulaney, Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia.
Airing It Out Crutchfield grew up in Indianapolis and navigated life as a biracial girl with a single mother, themes which have made their way into her material. She moved home after college and started saving money for a move to New York or Los Angeles. She chose New York, dove into the stand up scene here and started unpacking her life struggles on stage.
“Airing them out publicly makes it feel like a lot less of a boogie monster,” Crutchfield said. “It feels more like a silly thing that I can laugh at, and I can even laugh at myself for wrestling with it.”
While stand up offered a way to sort through difficult emotions, working full time while pursuing a career in comedy left Crutchfield as exhausted — and misunderstood — as she’d ever felt in her life. “Nobody cares about your comedy career until they can see you on The Tonight Show,” Crutchfield said. “They don’t understand the work you’re putting into it. They think of it as a hobby, like you show up and do a little skit and you get people to laugh at you.”
The Long GameShe learned firsthand the hard lessons, and weird contradictions, of life as a stand up. “I was beating myself up after [a stand up set] and feeling like ‘Oh, that was awful,’ Crutchfield said. “And then the only redemption would be to get back up and do it again.”
As she progressed through her career, though, she realized that negativity harmed her creativity. “It’s a long game,” she said, “and you’re not going to see results until much later than you thought. And whether you’re positive or not is up to you.”
For example, she said, it’s important to be happy for other comedians’ successes, and to remember not to take opportunities for granted. “Let’s just appreciate the moment, because that’s exactly what I would want for myself. I would want you to be happy for me,” said Crutchfield. “Let’s just all feel great and then we’ll all be back to the drawing board tomorrow.”