Shapna Pai, 43, leans against the wooden bar at Vendetta and stares straight ahead, deer-in-headlights style. Ten feet to her left, the shaved head of Gabe Rojo, 43, is getting shinier by the second. These two anxious strangers are about to do the same, terrifying thing: Stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and try to make them laugh.

Pai, a federal worker who has been hitting open mics on and off for about three years, sheds her anxiety the moment she steps onstage.

“My name is Shapna. I’m an Indian girl, not yet married, I don’t yet have kids,” she says. She picks up an Indian accent and gets increasingly shrill: “So I am not married, no kids, no husband, no clean, no cook … just put her old ass on a mountaintop to die! At least, that’s what my parents put on their Christmas cards this year.”

A fire truck screams down H Street, and Pai expertly works the siren into the joke, making her parents’ mounting hysteria seem even funnier. The audience — surprisingly large for a weekday night — eats it up.

For a city considered humorless, D.C. is teeming with regular folks like Pai who want to give comedy a try, according to Philadelphia-based comedian Chris Coccia, who teaches a stand-up class at the DC Improv with a monthslong waiting list.

“D.C. is such a politically correct town,” Coccia says. “Comedy gives you a nice opportunity to step outside of diplomacy. There’s no other job or hobby that allows you to say, ‘No no, I’m supposed to talk about offensive things in an offensive way.’ ”

Sean Joyce, a local comic by night and World Bank worker by day, agrees.

“People work really hard here, they are very career-focused, and I think everyone is trying to find an outlet for levity, whether that’s doing comedy or just watching it,” he says.

Two years ago, Joyce started an open-mic comedy night at The Big Hunt. Now, he runs local open mics six nights a week and is deluged with emails from people looking for five minutes of stage time.

After Pai’s set at Vendetta, it’s Rojo’s turn. He steps onstage, and his voice wavers. “Does anyone know what manscaping is?” he asks. The crowd ignores him, so he soldiers on. “Sometime in the ’90s, it became not OK for men to be hairy … and at the same time, I was turning into a Latino Chia Pet.”

He sounds so authentically dismayed, a woman in the front row guffaws, sending a fine spray of beer onto her dining companion. A spit-take, the gold medal of stand-up.

It was a nice moment, but not quite enough to quell Rojo’s nerves.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not really having fun yet,” Rojo says afterward. “Standup is scarier than anything I have ever done, and that includes being in a combat zone.”

An Army vet, Rojo spent part of the Gulf War stationed in Israel. He now works as a social worker, and he’s found that his ability to decipher nonverbal communication serves him well in the office and onstage.

“I like to look at what’s unspoken between people and say what’s really going on,” he says.

Joyce, on the other hand, makes sure his onstage candor doesn’t seep into the office. “I’m much more tactful at work,” he says.

That’s probably for the best. It’s OK for D.C.’s bureaucrats, staffers and consultants to tell the truth at night. But if we did it during the day, the government might come to a grinding halt, Coccia says.

“What if people went in [to work] and said, ‘Look, who are we fooling? We haven’t done anything in a year? We’ve been pushing papers from one side of the desk to the other for the last 12 months,’ ” he says. “It’d be total chaos.”

 For a comprehensive guide to Washington-area open mic nights, click here.

So You Think You’re Funny?

Stand-up comedy is a low-overhead hobby. All you have to do is:

1. Think up five minutes of material. Pro tip: Don’t know where to start? Sign up for a class at

2. Try it out on your family or pets.

3. Go to an open mic and inflict your comedy on supportive friends and innocent strangers. Pro tip: Visit event websites for sign-up info.

4. Pay attention during other people’s sets or the host will make fun of you.

5. Repeat steps 1-4 for years on end.

Eventually, you may become funny enough to land a paying gig. More likely, you’ll just make some weird friends.