Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

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Sometimes you stay in your comfort zone, thinking you are still gaining valuable experience when in reality, it’s just holding you back and keeping you from doing what you should do to move forward.

There is an interview show that talks to other comedians.  It’s great insight towards the mind of a stand-up comic and how they approach their comedy career.  One recent interview got me thinking, that maybe, just maybe over the last several months I’ve been fooling myself.

A recent interview was with comedian Ken Hicks, out of Edmonton.  He has a great story to tell from being a three time Cancer survivor and performing in places that are very unique that are about being in the right place at the right time.

He discussed at length his strategy for dealing with hecklers and different types of crowds.  The most important thing I took away from his comments were two things.

  1. They were paid shows
  2. They were not open mics

There is a huge difference in an open mic show to a paid show.  There are several, to be honest.

At an open mic, the expectations of the audience are rather low, people aren’t really that excited to watch the show.  They hope it goes well, but if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world, considering the audience either got in for free or paid just a few bucks to get in.  At an open mic there usually is a casual and relaxed attitude by the comics and the audience towards the show.  You can tell this to be the case by the way some comics are unprepared or do material that isn’t clean, or well thought out in some cases.

At a paid show, the audience has expectations.  It’s usually on a weekend, and they paid money to watch, usually more than the few bucks spent at an open mic.  The audience has an expectation that they are watching professionals, not amateurs whose ego deceived them into thinking they were entitled to an opening slot.  There is a tension and a nervous energy in the room.  I know, because I have felt it every time I have appeared at a paid show as the opener.  I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach, right down to the core, that will usually tell me it’s going to be a bad show, and it usually is.

A pro show will have work parties, stags or stagettes, date nights, anniversaries or a girls or guys night out.  There is a heightened sense of expectation as well as much more fun with a larger crowd for shows that are at a pro comedy club.

Due to the different atmospheres between the comedy club and an open mic night, there are different problems that can arise that are unique to the comedy club, that if aren’t handled properly, your act can go down the drain fast.

At an open mic the crowds are small and sometimes not paying full attention, as other things are going on in the bar.  But for a pro show, the comedy club is the only game in that room.  Everybody’s attention is squarely focused on you.  So, because of this special situations can crop up.

  1. People talking loudly at the table, unaware that the show is on
  2. Heckling
  3. Drunks

The above mentioned items don’t happen with great frequency at the open mics, so comics won’t gain much experience on how to handle those situations unless they are at a pro club.

At an open mic, you only get a few minutes.  You know that if the audience takes away from your set being successful, what do you care?  You are only on stage for a few minutes, and there are usually several other comics right behind you in the lineup that will get their chance to shut the trouble maker(s) down.

At a comedy club, you sign a contract to deliver a certain amount of time.  You cannot go under that amount, if you want to get hired again.  You are on the stage for a 1/2 hour if you are an opener, and an hour if you are a headliner.

So, as the comedian you’re stuck on stage for at least a half hour, if not more.  Somebody in the audience is detracting from your ability for you, the comedian, to do your job and entertain the audience, not just pander to the trouble maker that won’t keep quiet.  So, what do you do?  How do you gain the necessary experience to figure out what to do, and more importantly when to do it?

That only comes with experience from doing paid shows on somewhat of a regular basis.  If you always do open mics, the comedian takes them for granted and sometimes will be too lazy to acquire the necessary tools to be able to perform in front of a paid crowd at a pro show.

When I heard Ken talk about how he handles an audience at a pro show, it made me feel a bit dejected.  I asked myself if I was wasting my time at the open mics, in part because I wasn’t learning how to handle the crowds in the way that Ken described.  I sat there listening to the interview, wishing I had the chance to be hired for pro shows and learn these lessons that it didn’t take him long to figure out.  Then again, as a newcomer to comedy, Ken had a very supportive cast of headliners that took him along to their paid shows (something that isn’t done around these parts much), when he was still new and had maybe a good five minutes of material, and nothing more.

The more five minute sets he did for the headliners, the more he learned, which eventually led him to getting booked for much longer sets as an opening act or a headliner.

I have been at this for almost eight years and haven’t learned lessons on crowd work or how to deal with audience members that try to take away from your show.  Sure, headliners can tell you about what needs to be done, but as a comedian your job is to react in the moment, so some, or all of what an experienced pro tells you might have to fly out the window, while you struggle to figure out how to solve the problem by yourself, on stage, as you get paid with each tick of the clock.

Open mics are okay to work on your timing and delivery, but you can do that just as easily when you rehearse from home.  The pro clubs are where a comic needs to be in order to grow.  Then again, the comic could use some help from the headliners that surround him too.  If they refuse to help (which is odd considering the fact that headliners once were rookies too who needed help), then you have to get these gigs on your own.  I have simply been too busy with life at the moment to get these bookings at the pro club.  But I’m tired of not learning anything, listening to the same jokes week after week by other comics that have no idea what professionalism, let alone clean material really are.

I need a challenge, motivation, an incentive.  I need to surround myself with people I trust and put into situations where I will grow, regardless of whether I succeed or fail, as long as I grow.  Standing still and staying the same are not options anymore.  Maybe performing for the church congregation, whether at the church or at a comedy club, will give me the education I sorely need to catapult myself forward in comedy.

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