SALAD DAYS: Many famous comedians got their starts — and still perform — at New York City's Gotham Comedy Club
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“That joke’s way too predictable,” says Jim, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Comedy Writing. And my potty jokes? In the hierarchy of humor, raunchy is “low-hanging fruit,” the comedic equivalent of the New York City Ballet doing the hokey-pokey.

But at this stage, the performance is more important than the material, and he encourages us to start going to open-mics.

“You’re not going to get good theoretically,” he repeatedly tells us. “Michelangelo didn’t start by painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He started with a canvas. Open-mics are your canvas.”

Getting onstage, however, is tricky when you live 68 miles outside the city in Pennsylvania. Few venues in my hometown offer open-mic nights or, at least, opportunities for amateur comedians. I consider attending one at a popular bar in Bethlehem, Pa., but Johnny Carolino, a classmate who lives nearby, says he was heckled there.

“You might have better luck,” says Johnny, a truck driver. Instead, I decide to make my debut at The Wooden Match, a Bethlehem cigar bar, because open-mics are held there on Thursdays, and I have a meeting for work nearby that night. My friend Mary Wilford-Hunt, and my husband, Chris, agree to meet me there at 8 p.m., but when I show up, it becomes apparent that “open mic” at this establishment refers to live music, not stand-up comedy.

“I don’t know,” owner Steve DiDonato says when I tell him about my assignment for class. “No one’s ever done stand-up here before. I don’t know how the crowd will react to you.”

I gaze around a room of men smoking stogies and swilling beer and see his point. But I don’t care. It’s been a long day, and I just want to get this over with.

“Are you funny?” he asks.

“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” I wail, making my eyes go soft so he’ll feel sorry for me.

“OK,” he says. “I’ll get you on.”