When I first got to work yesterday, thankfully no one was there, except for Ryan, who was manning the phones. So I went in to the classroom that I use as an office and closed the door. I sat down at my desk and opened a browser and as I went to open up my email, I started crying.
It was a panic attack. I cry when I’m panicking. So I Googled, “im having a panic attack right now” (no time for punctuation) and clicked on the first article I saw. The first thing the article suggested was to breathe deeply, and that was when I realized that I wasn’t breathing normally, so I slowed down my breathing. I was still crying, though. I’ll spare you the details, but it took me probably about 20 minutes to calm myself down and be able to start working.
I have a new facial tick every week — I really have to quit this job — and my upper lip started trembling. That was new. Fortunately, by the time, Josh got back from his lunch break (Saturday is his day off, but he never actually takes it), I had calmed down a bit. I was clearly not okay, though, so he talked to me about work stuff long enough for me to seem calm enough for him to go back to work. I had a good talk with Wayne during my lunch break, too, and was starting to feel a little stronger. Honestly, I would have just called in sick again, but I’m so behind on booking and Saturday, if I’m not covering showrunning, is the best day to catch up because the office is empty and there aren’t as many distractions and interruptions.
Anyway, I was feeling better because the people around me are little miracles but I wasn’t quite up to being around masses of humans, so I hid in my office during the shows and caught up on some parts of my job. I noticed that someone had bought tickets to the late night open mic. Sometimes, people buy tickets to the 11:30 show thinking it’s the 9:30 show, so I called, just to make sure.
It was a kid who had gotten the tickets on purpose because he was going to try stand-up for the first time at the open mic and he’d gotten tickets for himself and his friends. Adorable. He asked me some questions about how to sign up and what time to be there. I don’t know why, but I ended up giving him advice. I probably shouldn’t have, honestly. People on their first time should just go up with their own excitement and expectations and not with some weird comedy troll in their head, telling them not to talk about their dick. But I did talk to him and he was really sweet and I wished him luck.
I’ve only been around stand-up for 4 years, and to have come as far as I have in that amount of time boggles my mind. That anyone even takes me seriously as a person in comedy blows me away, as well. However, if you take 4 years at 40 hours a week, that’s 8,320 hours, and you need 10,000 hours to be an expert at something, and I just watched a Ted Talk last night that said if you study anything for even 20 hours, you can be passably okay at it. So, whatever, here’s what I’ve learned that you need to be good at stand-up.
First, there is a difference between wanting to speak and having something to say. I’ve seen comedians start with just wanting to talk. They have the stage presence and the joy of being on stage, but no substance. A lot of times, watching these comedians can leave me feeling empty.
However, sometimes the point is just the joy of connecting to other people through sheer silliness and there are a LOT of performers that I really love who entertain without being super personal. So, I can’t say that you have to talk about your family or be super dark or political in order to have an impact on the audience. However, the comedians who are more performance artists than stand-ups have still tapped into the uniqueness of who they are, the way that they walk around the world.
One of my favorite people to watch is Michael Rayner. He markets himself as a “post-modern vaudevillian” and a lot of his act is juggling and silly tricks. Sometimes, performers use tricks as a distraction, a deflection, a distancing mechanism, so that you never really see who they are, but as Dave once pointed out, Rayner uses these tricks to disarm the audience with the end result being a real connection with everyone in the audience. I’ve watched Rayner perform for kids and adults, I’ve seen him do straight stand-up (brilliant political riffs) and I’ve seen him do silly tricks, and he is always amazing because he is always a 100% in the moment.
As Bill Hicks once said, “The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say“. A good performer knows that the most powerful thing you’re bringing to the stage is YOU. Your however-many-years of being alive, experiences, thoughts, emotions, ways of processing the world, etc. Some of my favorite performance artist-type comedians to watch are Rayner, of course, but also Claire Titleman, Marty Wurst, Keith Kelly, Natisha Anderson, Jackie Loeb, Ryan Harvey Pearcy, Jim Tavare, The Martin Duprass, Rick Garrison, The Jasons, and there are a lot more, but those are some that spring to mind.
So, all of that said, sometimes when comedians are newer, they start with nothing to say and also, they don’t know who they are on stage, so they really have nothing offer other than an eagerness to be in front an audience. Those tend to be the roughest people to watch, but I do have to say that I’ve seen some of them develop into interesting performers. And the point is not that you HAVE to have something to say, but to know the difference between having something to say and knowing that you want to talk. You don’t want to force yourself into being a one-liner comic or an avant-garde performer, but you do need to be aware of your natural instinct so that you can rely on your strengths but also so that you can work on your weaknesses.
Second, there is a difference between getting a reaction, and getting a laugh. God, I wish that I could infuse this difference into every shock-y open mic’r who uses abortion, rape, masturbation, etc. as a punchline instead of writing an actual joke. And really, there’s nothing wrong with getting a reaction for parts of your act. That’s audience manipulation, and it’s important to know how other humans react to more controversial issues.
Sarah Silverman opened her latest special with a rape/poop joke. It’s a silly joke, it’s a gross joke, and it’s a dark joke. But as she’s telling the joke, she’s fully aware not only of the response of the audience in front of her, but she knows what their response will be before she tells it because she understands the human condition. The last part of her joke is her responding to the audience’s reaction to the joke. I don’t necessarily love it when comedians get super meta, but I think in this case, the joke is stronger for her acknowledging the effect that it has because she gets to turn a gross-shock joke into social commentary that is funny instead of preachy.
That said, you have to know the difference between getting a reaction and getting a laugh. A reaction is visceral, gutteral. A laugh is more spiritual, it comes from recognizing a piece of yourself in the performer; an experience, a thought, a feeling, shared humanity. A reaction may sound like laughter, but is often discomfort, and you as a manipulator of your audience, need to not mistake that discomfort for enjoyment. You need to be aware of the difference for two reasons: one, so that you can use the power of reaction effectively, and two so that you don’t end up relying on shock-punchlines for your entire act.
An act made up entirely of gross/shock punchlines is unimaginative, boring, and exhausting. It also loses effectiveness the longer you go along because the audience can start predicting where you’re going, and they start to tune you out. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t ever use shock or grossness, but if you’re going to, why don’t you switch the shock and gross to the set-up and let the punchline be a little more creative? Some of the best audience manipulators out there are Anthony Jeselnek, Laurie Kilmartin, and Ryan Stout. But none of them relies entirely on shock — they can’t because it gets old.
Third, nobody wants to hear about your dick’s porn preferences and/or masturbation techniques except for other open mic’rs who feel validated to keep talking about theirs. It’s not shocking or offensive, it’s worse — it’s boring. Fifty percent of the world has the same type of genitals you do — I do know ONE comedian who was born without testicles, and he’s basically the only one that I ever want to hear talk about his dick (that was a weird statement to write) because it separates him from the rest of humanity. Not only does he feel different, but he is seen and treated differently because of this. His dick jokes are also social commentary. Your dick probably isn’t that special. Talk about what IS unique about you.
Fourth, the ONLY thing you need in order to be someone a booker wants to work with, is a decent person. Everyone starts out shitty at comedy and 90% of the time, they get better. My job is technically to “develop talent”, but talent develops with practice, I really have nothing to do with it. People who are excited to be around comedy, always do their best, and are keen to learn and do even better next time, are people that I want to work with. People who are too cool for the room, who aren’t supportive of the people around them, who are only out for themselves with no regard to the venue, the staff, the audience, or their peers, can go fuck themselves.
Fifth is the most important one, and it’s one that I was shamed into remembering by Peter Berman. One weekend, about a year-and-a-half ago (August 2016), he was headlining the Yoo Hoo Room (yeah, I don’t know how we got him to do it, either). Anyway, the mood was a bit muted, I was tired, and fucking around with the bulletin board outside the Yoo Hoo while the emcee went over the pre-show meeting with the newer comics.
The meeting was basically a bunch of don’ts “don’t stand in the doorways, don’t be loud, don’t be mean to the audience” — you know, addressing all of the petty bullshit that gets annoying after working at a comedy club for a couple of years. Anyway, the meeting broke up, and the emcee went in to start the show, and the kids kind of scattered.
Peter stepped forward to all the kids who were sitting there, lost in their own heads, and said something like, “Don’t forget to have fun, right? Did anyone mention that? That’s kind of the most important part, otherwise, why are we doing this?” And I was instantly ashamed, because the pre-show meeting talking points came from me, and I had focused on all of the bad things and forgotten that the point of the pre-show meeting is to answer questions and to get people pumped up to perform.
So now, if I ever give the pre-show meeting spiel or am witnessing it, I always add that having fun is the most important part. Really, as much as structure and audience manipulation are a part of the art of comedy, the main, intangible force of comedy, the reason everyone from the staff to the audience to the performer is there, is because it’s supposed to be fun. If we lose that, we have nothing.