The haze of cigarette smoke fills the backroom of the Corner Café in the Southside. Nowadays it’s practically impossible to find a bar that has this smell anymore. It’s a terrible, God-awful stink. But there’s something connective about it. I’m out of the HEPA filtration zone at my office. I’m with others. I’m with their germs, their whiskey-breath, their hang-ups, their sense of humor. And it’s just plain nice.
One white spotlight burns onto a black stage. Glasses full of Yuengling are being lifted to thirsty lips then set back down on skinny wooden tables. A crowd of students from Duquesne asks if they can borrow a chair from a pack of people from Mt. Oliver. I’m 6th in the line-up of comedians, so for now I’ll sit back and enjoy the show.
Several comics parade past the stage, each one bringing a different sensibility to a joke. There are some who are polished and precise. There are others who showcase thoughts so vile and unconscionable, that it makes the crowd squirm. These comics believe nervous, uncomfortable laughter is still laughter. The audience gives appropriate feedback though, remaining silent during particularly bad gags. Voting with laughter.
I go on stage, do my shtick, get off the stage and return to my beer. Now that the pressure is off, I really relax and observe. The next comedian, James J. Hamilton, goes on stage with a Bible. Using the perfect mix of thoughtfulness, delivery and content, he cites passages from the Good Book verbatim and uses the language to paint a twisted picture. Then it hit me: this no-name, dive bar on the outskirts of the nightlife in Pittsburgh is perhaps the last outpost of truly free speech. There are no expectations for safety. No assurance that you won’t be offended. There is only a promise of comedy.
The disappointing thing is that the Corner Café is rarely packed. It’s not an easy place to locate. It’s not a place to be seen. It’s a cave of anonymity. It’s dark stage and smoky clouds obscure the vision and dirty your clothes. But there, you can laugh freely at whatever you wish. You can finally take all the pent-up frustration and twisted thoughts you have and just wait for someone else to say what you’re already thinking. There will be no record of what happened tonight. No employers running background checks or people Facebook tagging. The night itself will dissolve into a thin vapor that will dissipate with the changing wind. You may notice several days from now, something sticking with you. It might be the way the one comic talked about his Grandpa, or the thing that other comic said about car insurance.
My point is that these open mics (embarrassing, offensive, or just plain unfunny as they might be), are still important. It’s a platform of freedom. It’s a return to the beer-soaked taverns where whispers of rebellion first found open ears.
You may say that I’m over inflating the importance of a piece of crap barroom where sad souls can talk about their issues like some type of mass therapy session.
You may say that. Isn’t that beautiful part? You can say anything you want.