Hey, audiences, we love you. We really do. We couldn’t do this comedy thing without you. Well, I guess we could, but telling jokes to an empty room is not fun for us. Trust me, we’ve all done it.
But, sometimes, this magical relationship between performer and consumer can get a little testy. Over the weekend, a good friend of mine had an uncomfortable run in with an audience member who had mistaken herself for the next Simon Cowell.
Most of the time, I’ve found that these moments are a direct result of a failure of expectations on either side of the mic. So, to try and fix that, here’s a few things comics on any rung of the ladder would like you to know about writing jokes, performing comedy, and what we need from audiences so we can give you the best show possible:
1) Being funny is hard: This seems obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that not everyone can do what comedians do. For many folks, the idea of public speaking is terrifying enough. The thought of getting on stage and talking frankly about all of your flaws and failures as a human being sounds like the sort of thing that should be banned by the Geneva Conventions against torture. It takes a certain kind of person to get in front of a mic and bear their soul to a group of strangers with the express purpose of getting them to laugh at them.
Even among those of us who do, almost no one is a ‘natural’ talent. Every comic you see in a club or on TV has, in all probability, been carefully, methodically toiling away in relative obscurity for many years honing their sets, their timing, their joke writing, and their ability to read and interact with audiences. And in my (admittedly limited) experience, it’s that last one that takes the most time and really separates the good comics from the great ones.
2) The less you pay, the more you get: I know that sounds backwards, but stick with me. On any given night in the city, there is comedy to be heard. From open mics to showcases to weekend headliners, from basement meet-ups to bar shows to comedy clubs to sold-out arenas, there is every imaginable kind and quality of comedy to be had for those willing to search it out. But here’s something to keep in mind as you go further down the rabbit hole of local comedy. If you’re not paying to see us, we’re probably not getting paid to perform for you. Your average open mic or bar room showcase doesn’t have anything like a budget. If the performers are compensated at all, it’s usually in drink tickets or a small bar tab.
As a result, your free shows attract large numbers of primarily local, non-touring comics still near the beginning of their careers. These events are practice for us. Open mics are where we try out new material, often in large volumes, sifting through trying to find the hidden gems. This is what I mean when I said you get more the less you pay. You’ll see dozens of comics in a night, each getting 3-5 minutes of stage time, and each one trying to polish up the pile of turds they wrote that week. If we walk away from an open mic with one new joke that stuck, we consider it a success.
No, you pay more to see less. Fewer comedians telling fewer jokes, because they are the ones that survived the gauntlet and are worth the price of admission.
3) Nothing personal, but shut the hell up: I know, you think you have a brilliant one-liner, or you heard something on your personal list of “THINGS THAT MUST NEVER BE TOLERATED,” or (and this is the worst of all) you anticipate the punchline and you’re so excited that you just have to blurt it out.
Stop. Just fucking stop.
Here’s the thing. Talking or shouting at a comic during their set is disrespectful as hell. Not just to the man or woman on stage trying their best to entertain you, but to everyone else in the crowd who has come out to support the comedians. Literally no one wants to hear what you have to say. The comic is there to reward the audience with a laughs, a skill that requires focus, split-second timing, and a sharp memory, any one of which can be broken by your interruption. And the audience, in turn, came out to listen to the professionals ply their trade. In case you’re confused, they’re the ones holding the microphone. If that’s not you, keep it to yourself unless the comic is doing crowd work and asks you a direct question.
If you think you have funny things to say, write them down and come back on an open mic night. If you don’t like something you heard on stage, just don’t laugh. We know we’ve screwed up when no one laughs. And if you really must, wait until after the show to explain, calmly and respectfully, why you felt a particular joke was hurtful or inappropriate. You’ll find us appreciative that you didn’t disrupt the show more often than not, and will probably either tweak a joke or explain our motivations for it.
4) We like you a little drunk:
I’ve played several sober shows for various reasons where there was no alcohol being served. They’re tough. A couple of drinks really helps to lower inhibitions and make people more sociable and receptive. The absence of alcohol generally means colder crowds who are tighter with their laughs. The two-drink minimum in most professional clubs is there to help everyone, from the cocktail servers, to the club owners, to the comedians, and in the end the audiences themselves who end up getting a better show. Laughter is infectious. The more the people around you are doing it, the more you do it, and soon the awkward walls we put up around us come crashing down. So loosen up, relax, and have a couple of drinks.
5) But not too drunk:
Look. We’re all adults here. We’ve all had a few too many. We’ve all done things with a lampshade or an intern that we would later come to regret. But if you do this at a comedy show, odds are you’re going to mutate into the loud talker/heckler from #3 and a lot of bad things are going to happen. The comic is going to embarrass you in front of your friends, then security is going to throw you into a snowbank. So relax, but don’t start building shot glass pyramids.
6) We can’t see you: Seriously. If you’ve never been on a stage, the lights are almost blinding. Add in the fact the rest of the room is dark and the human eye just doesn’t know what to do with itself. You know when you’re driving late at night and the asshole in the oncoming lane doesn’t know when to dim his brights? It’s like that, except for anywhere from five minuets to an hour. Oh, and they’re often hot as balls up there. We usually can’t see more than a few rows into the audience with any level of detail, so if you go to see your friend and they don’t acknowledge you until after the show, they’re not being a jerk. You should have sat up front anyway, this isn’t a school bus with the cool kids at the back.
7) The “Line” doesn’t exist: We’ve all heard about the scandals that erupt when a comic goes over “The Line” ™. Usually, the line is crossed in regards to jokes of a sexual or racial nature, or other hot button issues like rape, abortion, etc. But here’s the thing, the line is a completely arbitrary construct. It does not exist in the real world, and is based entirely on the collective judgment of that crowd, in that room, at that hour.
I have seen comedians joke about every subject that you’ve been told are “never funny” and absolutely slaughter with them. I watched a man not two weeks ago strangling his microphone stand with the mic cord, pretending to be a parent murdering their own child for being creepy. I’m the father of a three year old girl. That joke should be over my line, but it wasn’t. The amount of groundwork he’d put into laying out the joke, coupled with the trust he’d built up with the audience and his general zany persona on stage had all created a situation where the audience was not only comfortable going along with the premise, but empathized enough with it to reward him with enormous laughter, myself included.
The same is true of any other subject or situation. The line is crossed when a comic fails to do their job of building trust with their audience and finding ways to give the audience permission to laugh. The line is entirely contextual. Jokes a gay man can tell with impunity a straight man could get booed for if they’re not careful. What’s different? Trust and permission. And it takes a lot of practice to figure out how to ride the edge. Some people never manage it, but the truth is riding the line is where the best, most impactful comedy and social commentary comes from. So when someone finds themselves on the other side of it unexpectedly, give them the benefit of the doubt before you decide to go rip them apart on Twitter and start leveling accusations at their character.
8) Hosting/Guest spots are the hardest part of the show: If you’ve ever been to a comedy club, you’re probably familiar with the show format. It goes something like this: A host comes out and welcomes/thanks you for coming, makes a bunch of announcements, then goes on to tell between 8-12 minutes of their own material. Then you might get a special “Guest” comic that appears to do 5-10 minutes of material. After that the “Feature” comic appears to do 20-25 minutes, and finally the “Headliner” closes everything up with 40-60 minutes and we call it a night.
Odds are the Headliner is the only name you’ve ever heard before and maybe the feature act. Those two are professional comics. They are busy touring the country, even the world. They aren’t making a killing doing it, but they’re living the dream. So who are these other two knuckle heads?
Well, let me tell you. The guest comic is almost invariably a local comic who has gotten good enough to catch the attention of the club manager or booker. They aren’t being paid, they may not even be getting free drinks. The guest spot is the first stepping stone in the comedy world to bigger things. Think of it as an audition. Guest comics are trying to make an impression in a very short amount of time in front of an audience who isn’t there to see them and probably doesn’t know or care who they are. It’s probable that they’ve been in front of a genuine club audience fewer that a half dozen times. It may even be their first time. A good set means they get to try it again on the way to hosting a night or weekend, a bad set may push them back down the list and cost them months of work to build back up again. Guest spots are under a great deal of pressure to perform, yet have the least experience doing so. It’s a tough gig.
The host isn’t much better. Hosts are usually the guest comics that survived and are given more responsibility. They are usually paid a small amount for their work, but not always. They are trying to build up their reputation enough to become a feature act. They have to step out in front of a cold crowd who’s drink orders are still being delivered, and remember not only their material, but the club announcements and the other comics names and accolades. This is about where I am at the moment, and while it’s a lot of fun, it’s also pretty stressful and nerve-wracking.
So please, pay attention to the host and the guest comics. They have a lot riding on the outcome of the show, even more that the headliner in some respects. Throw them a laugh when they earn it, and when you’re filing out of the room, shake their hand and let them know their work was appreciated.
I’ve got more to say, but this post has gone on a lot longer than I planned, so it’ll have to wait for another day. And comics, feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.