Stop me if you’ve heard this—fifty comics walk into

a coffeehouse …

No joke that. Instead it’s the setup for the sixth annual 50 First Jokes at the Ark on Thursday, January 2. Fifty of the area’s top working comedians will crowd onto the stage of the Ark, twenty-five for the first set and twenty-five for the second. Each will grab the mike to tell the first joke they’ve written in 2020.

50FJ is the brainchild of NYC comedian and U-M alum John F. O’Donnell, who founded it about a dozen years ago at the Bell House in Brooklyn. It has since grown into an annual tradition nationwide, with shows in LA, Denver, Atlanta, and other cities. O’Donnell encourged his long-time friend Shelly Smith, herself a comedian, to start the Ann Arbor chapter. She remains the local comic-herder and says the event has become so popular she no longer has to invite people to perform—nowadays, she says, they “bombard” her with requests to participate.

Smith is the ringmaster of this fifty-ring circus, giving each comic two minutes to either kill or bomb. The January night I went, two years ago, it was six degrees outside, but inside the Ark the body heat from the party-ready crowd made for a warm atmosphere. Even the comic who blanked midway through his monologue got laughter and applause while he fumbled his notes out of his pocket.

But the show is also raw and rude, with as many f-bombs as—well, as at most comedy shows (“I promised my wife I wouldn’t use any bad language. But she’s not here, so f— it.”). The range of subjects is nearly limitless, and no topic is off-limits. Off-color at times? Hell yes.

If I had to describe 50 First Jokes in one word, I’d say “fresh.” All these jokes are hot from the oven—newly baked, and inevitably, occasionally half-baked. But no matter the joke, or the delivery, the crowd—both the audience and the performers crammed on the stage—is as warm as the room. There’s no heckling; just giggles, belly laughs, and appreciative groans to greet every punch line.