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Posted on Mon, Mar 28, 2011 : 10:25 a.m.

Play me a song, karaoke man: A behind-the-scenes look at the life of a KJ

By Richard Retyi


KJ extraordinaire Mark Carlson | photo by Rich Retyi

"If a guy comes up and puts in for a Billy Joel song, he's a karaoke ringer and an unimaginative one."

Mark Carlson looks like Kevin Smith's Silent Bob, and he's the most popular man in the bar. He's the doorman to the really cool club, the guy who straps you in at Space Mountain. He's the karaoke man, and if you want to get on stage for your three to five and a half minutes of fame, you'll have to go through him to do it.

Mark works as a KJ (karaoke jockey) for Stoo, the namesake of Stoo's Karaoke. Mark has agreed to give me a behind the scenes look at the business. Sometimes it's dirty, there's a fair amount of booze involved, and sometimes the KJ gets beat up. It's a damn good story.

Strap in and please don't ask to sing "Love Shack."

There are a few rules
Molly Q (all names changed to protect the innocent and tone deaf) steps to the microphone wearing skinny jeans and high tops and sets down her can of PBR on the stage. She muddles through three minutes and five seconds of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," singing to a pair of mooning boys in the front row.

She leans in and squints to read the lyrics and kicks over her beer. Her voice is terrible and her beer is soaking into the stage, but Mark is smiling. She's trying, and that's all he cares about.

"There are no apologies in karaoke," Mark says. "The only thing I hate is when people who can't wait to get up there finally get on stage and don't sing into the damn microphone."

There are a few rules.

"If somebody comes up and says they're going to be great, that's a guarantee they're going to suck. Every time. But that's okay! The whole point of karaoke is that anyone can do it. You say you're going to be awesome? I really don't care. It's karaoke!"

"If there are more than three people on stage, the performance is going to be awful."

"First come, first served."

"Get to the bar early and sing often. I'll recognize you."

"I hate taking bribes, even though I could use the money"
Most stand back. Some lean in and cock their heads around Mark's shoulder like little kids watching mom bake cookies.


A karaoke singer who may or may not be "Molly Q"

Rich Retyi | Contributor

The girls are the bravest. They get in tight with ponytails, boots and tank tops with rhinestone accents. They wear scarves and thin watches and smell like flowers.

The guys always touch. Hands on Mark's shoulders like pals away from the wives on the annual fishing trip. They use "dude" and "man" a lot in their sentences. Some initiate complicated handshakes. The guys are the worst.

"I hate taking bribes, even though I could use the money! A woman once offered me $100 to sing the last song of the night, but I'd already promised my then-girlfriend I'd sing a song for her, so I refused. I was in love, what can I say?"

"People rarely buy me drinks. They just don't think of it, I guess."

"I got beat up over karaoke once, but I don't think you have enough room in your story for me to accurately describe that incident."

"Three songs I never want to hear again…"
Someone keeps a long list. It's a list of songs that you should never sing at karaoke. They're musical atrocities or uncreative lay-ups. "Don't Stop Believin'." "Sweet Caroline." "Livin' on a Prayer." "Bohemian Rhapsody."


There is a list and people are adding to it every day | photo by Mr. Brainwash

"Three songs I never want to hear again: 'Piano Man'. 'Wannabe'. 'Baby Got Back'. I actually appreciate the merits of 'Don't Stop Believin'. I grew up despising music like that, but karaoke has helped me appreciate its kitsch and sentimental value. Now, do I think 'Bad Medicine' is great American songwriting? Not really, but kind of."

"Once this old drunk guy was singing 'My Way' and was way too into the lemme-tell-you-something Sinatra blowhard state of mind. At the end he went off about how being gay was un-American or something. I was horrified and shut off the microphone, and the bartender escorted him out. When you give drunk people microphones, you have to be ready to turn them off."

"The best karaoke singers are the ones who get up there and do it like they mean it. They have fun with it, and everybody in the bar has more fun because of that. I don't care what your voice sounds like, just let us hear you!"

Exception to the rules
Just before last call on a Friday, a duo sings "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." It's on The List but damned if it doesn't lead to slow dancing and three audience make-outs. What is Mark doing? Smiling.

Richard Retyi writes the bi-weeklyish column Lie to Your Cats About Santa. He's been working on this karaoke feature since Dec. 21. His first draft was 3,200 words long. Mail him a SASE and he'll send you the whole shebang. He's pretty into karaoke. Follow him on Twitter at or read more of his work in the archives or at


Richard Retyi

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 3:44 p.m.

As promised ... DELETED SCENE #1 - One of Mark's biggest pet peeves is people going behind his set-up and messing with his stuff. "Sometimes people will mess with my stuff," Mark says. They'll move my mouse or mess with my laptop and shuffle around the slips." In the three minutes it takes him to walk to the bar and back, two guys make exploratory trips behind his set-up but neither acts on their impulses. I'm relieved I don't have to employ my arsenal of roundhouse kicks. DELETED SCENE #2 - I never got a chance to get into Mark's own karaoke prowess, which is a shame, because I loved his "Bono note" line. "I'll play around 40 songs a night. I've never broken the record – 45. I'll only sing if it's not too busy or if I'm really feeling it. Creep by Radiohead is my showstopper. I can't sing like Otis Redding but I like doing Try a Little Tenderness. U2 songs are fun to do, but there's always one 'Bono' note. You know what I mean?"

Richard Retyi

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 3:34 p.m.

@Jake C: I karaoked to a hip hop/rap song once in my life (oddly enough at a Bachelorette Party in Chicago). I also did Hypnotize - but there's a catch to doing songs like that - a lot of them use a certain racial term that is just not okay for a young(ish) white Canadian to spew on stage. Needless to say, there were a lot of pauses in my performance. @treetowncartel: Rock Lobster > Love Shack

Jake C

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 3:49 a.m.

Some some drunk friends & I chose Bohemian Rhapsody at a South U bar during karaoke night once. We did not work out in advance who would do which parts of the song. It did not go well. None of us were even close to decent singers. Sorry to everyone who had to endure that, and I promise never to do it again. However, I did once karaoke to Notorious BIG's "Hypnotize", and as a white guy it went over moderately well (decent rapping skills, poor choice of lyrics).


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 3:47 a.m.

Only time I ever did this was a group rendition of love shack in a town far away from home and and never ever be known in. Best Karakoe I ever saw in a polace called the Magi Mushroom in Niagra falls, heard a rendition of the you lost that loving feeling that warranted the kill switch before the second chorus. My favorite Karaokee song has to be you picked a fine time to leave me lucille......


Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 3:48 a.m.

And I forgot to add I got a D+ in 9th grade typing class

Richard Retyi

Tue, Mar 29, 2011 : 12:11 a.m.

@Les: There was a ton of content I had to cut to fit my 800 words. Like how songs are chosen for books, Mark's number one pet peeve with potential singers (there are a few horrible lapses in etiquette a lot of people seem to make) and I couldn't even get into the karaoke man's own singing abilities (darn the quest for concise writing!). I'll post a few additional excerpts in the comments tomorrow. Call them the deleted scenes.

Les Zaldor

Mon, Mar 28, 2011 : 9:22 p.m.

I can completely relate as i host karaoke 3 nights a week (2 downriver, 1 in warrendale) and i was nodding my head at a lot of the stuff in this article! I try not to tell people they can sing a particular song though, i figure if they wanna make a fool of themselves singing - go for it! :) Part of the fun of being a KJ is seeing the people that get up there and sing.. true, some may not be the best, but it is all about having fun.. and if they had fun when they sang where I host, then my mission is accomplished. -Les Zaldor Entertainment - <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>