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'Opening Act' Captures The Painful Business Of Making People Laugh


You know that thing where you tell a joke and then no one laughs? That has never happened to me. (Laughter) I'm kidding. It's terrible. It's worse, though, if you're trying to be a stand-up comedian. There is now a movie called "Opening Act" about that hideous experience. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Comedian Jimmy O. Yang plays the character Will Chu, a Chinese American from Ohio whose dream is to be a stand-up. And he's pretty good.


JIMMY O. YANG: (As Will Chu) I was OK with emojis because it used to be yellow, and I was pretty OK with that. It should just stay that way. Now they have, like, five shades of different colors, right? It's confusing. I was trying to text my Black friend a thumbs up. I wasn't sure if I should text him my thumbs-up or his thumbs-up. I never texted him back.


YANG: (As Will Chu) Thank you, guys. That's my time. I'm Will Chu.

BLAIR: But when he's not funny onstage, it's deadly.


YANG: (As Will Chu) My girlfriend called me out. I've been a little bit of a bummer lately. And so she said if I was a city, I would be like Seattle. It's - you know, it's, like, rainy.

BLAIR: It's, like, unbearable to watch. And for Jimmy O. Yang, it was unbearable to play.

YANG: I have to just live with the shame and the pain of bombing, like my early pain of stand-up.

BLAIR: And that emotional roller coaster is exactly what writer-director Steve Byrne was after. Byrne, who's also done stand-up for years, says hecklers, wily club owners, late nights - it all comes with the territory.

STEVE BYRNE: Stand-up comedy, at the end of the day, is the Wild West.

BLAIR: And when you're first starting out, says Byrne, you don't really know what you're getting into.

BYRNE: You're driven by blind optimism and romanticism, and it is the worst of situations. I mean, sometimes comics are driving to venues two hours away and not getting paid at all. But you don't care because you got onstage and there was an actual audience that you got to perform for. And if you got that laugh, that's the dopamine that gets you high to get you to the next one.

BLAIR: Sometimes a club owner will only give you time onstage if you bring a certain number of paying guests with you. They're called bringers.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Good job.

YANG: (As Will Chu) Thank you for waiting it out.

BLAIR: In the movie, only one of Will's bringers shows up one night, and the club owner isn't happy about it.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Your bringer didn't pay his tab.

YANG: (As Will Chu) Are you serious?

BLAIR: Jimmy O. Yang says every stand-up has been there.

YANG: Basically, when you start, either you do open mics or you bring five friends, and the club owner gives you some stage time. And eventually, you run out of friends. That has happened to me many times. I've been waiting for two hours outside this club. I thought the club owner was my friend. But at the end of the day, it was just business. Like, hey, you brought three friends, not five friends. I can't let you onstage. I'm like, come on. Are you serious?

BLAIR: Writer and director Steve Byrne.

BYRNE: Comedy is a profession of rejection. You're constantly being told no.

BLAIR: Even Jimmy O. Yang's dad told him no. But pain is fuel for a good joke. After Yang graduated with an economics degree, he told his dad he wanted to do stand-up. This is from Yang's Amazon Prime special "Good Deal."


YANG: So I go - went up to my dad. I was like, Dad, I don't want to do any of this. I want to go try and do stand-up. And he was like, what's a stand-up?


YANG: You mean like a talk show? I was like, yeah, sure, a talk show, whatever you want to call it. OK? But I want to go pursue my dreams. And he was like, no.


YANG: Pursue your dreams how you become homeless.

BLAIR: Yang didn't listen, and eventually, his dad came around and even wanted in on the act. Now, dad and son both appear in the comedy "Space Force." Next, Yang's dad wants to try stand-up - wonder if he'll bring his son.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKUYA KURODA'S "PIRI PIRI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.