Why does this headliner’s crowd hate me?

In 2013 I had a week at a club that I didn’t feel went very well.  The crowds were large enough, but instead of getting the usual response on certain jokes, I got groans or silence.  To make matters worse, the headliner got a standing ovation during the show I considered to be my worst.  So why does this happen?

When a headliner comes back to a club year after year, he or she builds a solid following of people who come out every time they’re in town (otherwise they often get replaced by someone who does).  If a headliner has a certain kind of style that doesn’t mesh well with yours, as an MC or feature, it can be pretty tough.  If a big trademark part of the headliner’s act is something that varies from standard basic stand-up comedy (such as puppets, magic, singing, costume changes, or maybe they’re just a famous actor), you can expect to have a more challenging week.  I’m not saying they’re bad comics, but if their style is completely different from yours and the crowd is there to see them and that (whatever it is from above), it’s going to be harder on you.  A lot of times these headliners just come from the previous generation of comics (which means respect them no matter what you think of their act).

I’m getting better at telling if this is the case ahead of time.  Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these headliners, just that you shouldn’t beat yourself up if their crowds don’t dig you as much.  Here are some clues that this might be the case:

1.  They have a stage name (though I cringe when they introduce themselves to me using their stage name).

2.  There’s stuff all over the stage (sound boards, props, instruments, etc.).

3.  They have to put their wardrobe back on in the green room after every show because of all the costume changes.

4.  They talk a lot about performing in Vegas.

5.  They often get standing ovations.

So what do you do if this is the case?

1.  Hopefully the club’s manager realizes the situation and doesn’t think you’re bombing.  You could subtly mention that the headliner has a lot of fans.

2. Clean it up!  A lot of these fans aren’t regulars at the club so anything edgy might still shock them.  Do a more corporate sounding set that won’t make them nervous to laugh if they’re sitting by the table of minorities you just did a joke about.

3.  Stick to your time.  Often these headliners do longer sets so maybe you get trimmed back to fifteen or twenty minutes–cool, less work!

4.  Focus on the rare, positive feedback.  There could even be a table who likes your style better and wasn’t there specifically to see the headliner.  They’ll walk out early sometimes and tell you they liked your set much better.  Thank them graciously and hope that they filled out a comment card.  Focus on their praise instead of the mediocre sets you’re having.

OR

5. Don’t care. If you’ve worked the club enough times and don’t feel like they’ll never have you back, don’t let it bother you. Don’t apologize during your set if you do offend his/her “fans.” Show them you enjoy your jokes whether they do or not by standing firm.

The overall lesson is that yes, sometimes it is the crowd and as openers we’re not always strong enough to adapt to every situation yet.  There are great musicians who get ignored at concerts while they open for popular headlining bands.  It just comes with the territoy.

For other tips from preparing for your first open mic night to surviving the road, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  (Available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.)


The #1 investment a comic has to make…

Reputations are established fairly early in a comic’s career.  Sometimes they don’t even have anything to do with how funny the comic is on stage.  It can be something else like drinking too much, always requesting a pay advance from a club, or chasing ass after a show.  One of the most important things is reliability.  Not making it to a gig can doom you in a booker’s mind for years.  If they hear more than one instance of this, you’re done getting work from that booker.

One of the biggest decisions a comic must make is whether or not they can finally quit their full-time job (or well-paying part-time job) to make comedy their only source of income.  Sure it’s important if you’re funny enough, but can you make it everywhere?  Do not attempt to become a road comic if you don’t have a reliable vehicle.  Needing a ride somewhere is crippling because once you’re known for that, comics will stop answering your calls.  (Yes, we bust the chops of one of our locals because he’s so young he doesn’t have a drivers license yet, but he’s getting there with his permit.)  If you’re asking favors of other comics, you’re now responsible for making it up to them.  What if they aren’t funny but they ask you for a recommendation to a booker?  “Yeah, I know you drove me to four gigs last years, but I’m not telling Eric Yoder you’re funny!”

In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I mention when I relied on my girlfriend at the time to drive me from Columbus to Dayton for a gig.  HUGE mistake.  She was over a half hour late and then got in an accident in Columbus rush hour.  We made my set by two minutes.  You cannot afford to put your career in someone else’s hands ever.

So if you have a goal date for quitting that job and making the plunge into even more poverty full-time comedy, bump it back to whenever you can afford a better car.  It could be another 6-9 months, but it’s worth it.

*This post inspired by the check engine light I was greeted with this morning.  I have to drive over 400 miles to Chattanooga in two days so my Civic is at the shop.  Please buy a book on Amazon, Kindle, Nook, iTunes, or any other format so that I can pay for the repairs.  Thanks!

 


Something every comic should have…

Let’s say you had a really productive morning and wrote for almost three hours.  You rehearsed your new jokes/bits and feel like they’re ready for trying out at open mic tomorrow night.  You could write more, but three hours is quite a bit for one time and you only get five minutes so you’ll have no problem filling that.  Now what?

This week’s tip is to have at least one other creative outlet.  Some people believe in putting 100% of their lives into stand-up, but doing something else creative isn’t taking away from that 100%.  Find other means to use your creativity, otherwise you’re limiting yourself (and probably your income).  Here are some other ideas:

1. If you’re in the same boat with some other comic buddies, form an improv group.  I was in one for two years and though it’s hard to make money when you have to split it six ways, it helped me become a better comic.  You learn to act and get more comfortable on stage without having everything planned.  Being around other funny people always helps.

2. Start a web series.  You all have some form of camera.  It doesn’t have to be great but who knows–it could go viral and give you a nice jumpstart.  (Speaking of web series, check out this one my friend Maria Shehata is in)

3.  I hesitate to say this, but start a podcast.  We need more podcasts by comics.  We don’t actually, but it’s something to try at least.  Maybe yours can be unique.  Have a theme to at least set it apart from the millions of others.

4.  Blog.  I wrote on livejournal pretty consistently for five or six years before I started narrating my life one sentence at a time on Facebook.  It doesn’t have to be about comedy.  Find something unique (just like your podcast idea).  Sure half of my blog was about going to the store, but it really improved my writing skills so that I could…

5.  …Write a book.  Sorry, had to mention it.  In the two and a half years since Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage came out I’ve made more contacts and even scored a professional job.  Putting something in a binding is a sure way to get some level of respect from at least a few people.  I’ve also met dozens and dozens of people who are writing a book, but almost all of them fail to complete the process.  See the first link in this step for advice.

6.  Exercise and read.  This is just a tip on good ways to fill your afternoon without pot or video games.  They’ve both been shown to help creativity.

7.  Audition for commercials and industry videos.  Most cities have some sort of talent agency and yes, they’ll charge you for headshots but you probably need professional headshots done anyway.  Even if they only use you once or twice a year it’s still great money for the small amount of effort.  It’s weird how some people are so good at landing these things (I’m not but maybe you are).  Caution:  On average it’s takes 15-25 auditions before you land something.  18 for me.

It’s easy to get into the habit of wasting most of the daytime.  Looking ahead to a big show later on in the week is the worst thing you can do.  Find a way to be a productive comic now and get to work on it.  Put down the PS3 controller and do something.

 


Some random tips including great advice from Rik Roberts

It’s summer, my focus has been on new material and another book so I’ve asked permission to post some advice from Rik Roberts. You may have seen his post in a few comic groups but it’s worth repeating…  Rik and I first worked together in ’01 when he repeatedly BUIRED Pauly Shore.  He’s a clean act and can please any crowd.  Find him at www.rikroberts.com for more info.  Rik writes:

I’ve been at this 20 plus years and have had a great time. Anytime I got off track it was usually because I lost focus. I found I was often guilty of asking the wrong questions. Usually, I only need to start focusing on the right result to rephrase the question. I hope these help anyone who may be caught up in the same situation.

“Ask this … not this.” Some food for thought for hungry comics.

Ask this: What makes that comic so bookable and in demand?

Not this: How come no one is hiring me or booking me for gigs?

Ask this: Do I work hard even when no one is looking?

Not this: Why does everyone else get all the breaks?

Ask this: Am I willing to dedicate 3-5 years of my life getting on stage everywhere I can to get this thing going?

Not this: Where are the good open mics?

Ask this: What can I offer an established comedian in return for some of their time and experience?

Not this: What comics can hook me up with gigs?

Ask this: How can I rewrite this bit to make it work more consistently?

Not this: Why don’t people get my jokes?

Start each day with a goal to create, relate or update and move that ball a little further down towards the goal. Success is eventual not an event!

Hope that provides a little motivation.

 

Thanks again, Rik!  Those tips are very self-explanitory.

My other advice comes from my last three road gigs.  One was a 4-night gig 3 hours away, one was a one-nighter 7 1/2 hours away, and the other was a one-nighter  2 1/2 hours away.  You know what the most exciting story was from six nights on the road?  I almost ran out of gas in Tulsa.  In other words, the road isn’t that exciting and that’s fine.  If you’re squeezing every last drop of potential happy-party-good-time out of the road, you’re losing focus and energy from your act.  Maybe at 26 you can keep this up for a bit, but it will wear on you.  The most common thing I hear about most comics after not seeing them for awhile is, “Wow, he/she looks terrible.  What happened?”  Very rarely do we note physical/mental (attitude) improvements in each other.

The other thing that laying low on the road allows is you actually accumulate some money.  Clubs aren’t feeding us and giving us free drinks like they used to before ’08.  Don’t waste half your pay on a bar tab.  Yes, I may sound like your mother here, but odds are your broken relationship with her has something to do with why you’re a comic in the first place.

Yes, it’s okay to have fun on the road sometimes but don’t force it.  You have a responsibility to give just as much energy to the Sunday night crowd as you did for the crowd on Thursday.  Sleeping in until 3 p.m. isn’t what I’m suggesting either.

For other tricks and tips on how to survive the road…or just advice on how to get there, read Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.


A big tip for comics who can’t just sit down and come up with jokes…

I’m not a comic who can just sit down and write material. I’ve tried and it’s awful. My better material is stumbled upon at random times in the day. The problem is I don’t seem to be coming up with as much new stuff lately and I couldn’t figure out why.

Last night I was in a meeting dealing with book marketing and such and some of it was review so I caught myself daydreaming. All of a sudden a few new bit ideas came to me. This same thing happened on Easter Sunday while I was sitting at church. Again, flooded with potential bit ideas instead of listening. These little “creative floods” have become rare in the last two years and I had always blamed the fact that stand-up isn’t my top priority in life anymore. That wasn’t it. What did last night’s meeting and church have in common? I went more than five minutes without being on my phone. I got an iPhone a little over two years ago (shut up, I was poor), and since then I’ve grown the common addiction many of us have. I check it probably hundreds of times a day. I’m on Facebook, Wordfeud (I’m Robagain2, bring it on!), Ruzzle, Twitter, and even the weather app almost constantly. I don’t have time to daydream anymore.

This can’t be only me, right? Last night when I got home I fired up the citronella candle (that’s not a euphemism for pot, I’m 36)and just sat out on my deck for an hour and a half. I wrote out a few of the bits that I thought up during the meeting and eventually stumbled on one or two more ideas. Most of them won’t even make it to open mic night, but there’s potential for at least one to make it into my show set. So this week’s tip is to put your phone away once in awhile and be amazed at what it’s like to daydream again.

Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage is my how-to-do standup book, but it’s limited in how to write funny material. I don’t think you can teach funny (there are other books that try), but it will tell you what to do if you are funny. It definitely covers what kind of material and actions NOT to do on stage as well as the business side. Please check it out if you haven’t already.

 


What to do if there are kids in the crowd…

At a recent show setup by a booker who prides his comics on being towards the clean side, I looked out and spotted two children in the crowd (five and seven years old I guessed).  My act isn’t that dirty to begin with, but I do mention sexual topics several times.  I only had to do thirty minutes, but on the fly I would have to alter my setlist.  I was caught off guard, so instead of trying to hide it and probably appear awkward, why not make it funny?

I pointed out my surprise about the kids being there and mentioned something about them learning some new things tonight.  I actually overplayed how big of a deal it was and the crowd enjoyed that.  If I got to a point in my set that I needed to adjust, I paused and said, “Can’t use that one tonight…”  These aren’t as big of laughs as the joke would’ve gotten, but it helped fill the void and it gave me time to substitute the setlist with other bits.

I then just decided to have fun by being coy about the topics.  For example, instead of saying condoms, I worded out something else explaining that I was in charge of the birth control, etc.  The crowd seemed to be in on the whole bit of editing for the children and my 5 minute warning timer (cellphone in pocket) vibrated way sooner than I thought it would.  Overall it was really fun to see what they laughed at and what they didn’t get (the five-year-old fell asleep, who can blame her?).

Some people might ask, “Why do you have to be the one to change?  It’s not your fault they brought their children to a comedy show.”  True, and if you want to do your regular stuff, go ahead.  But with this particular booker and venue I thought it best to go the route I did.  I was in a reception hall at a campsite an hour south of St. Louis and the crowd (and owner) came off as rural and conservative to begin with so I thought it would be best.  If the crowd is uncomfortable with children hearing about adult topics, they’re not going to laugh at my jokes.  Their focus will be on the children instead.  (Welcome to the Midwest!)

For tips on how to be prepared for other odd situations you’ll face on stage as well as help on many other topics in stand-up, order Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.

 


Different types of hecklers

When it comes to dealing with hecklers you can’t go with a ” one size fits all” approach.  The goal is obviously to shut the heckler up while keeping the audience on your side.  This is tough because as comics, sometimes we’re too mean in our rebuttal for the crowd’s taste.  Let’s face it, the way we talk around each other would be too much for a lot of audience members’ tastes.  So there are a lot of variables when dealing with a show disruption (location, type of gig, how many are there, how long your set is, how tight the crowd is, etc.).  For this entry, I’m just going to focus on the types of hecklers.  There is one thing that 99% of hecklers have in common: They’re drinking.  That means basic logic and etiquette doesn’t always apply (just like when you deal with children).

1.  The fan heckler–I first witnessed this as a doorman when Christopher Titus was perfomring.  With a special out and a sitcom on Fox he was packing the clubs (as he still does, I imagine).  A few guys in their 20s were so excited during his act that they started yelling out bit requests.  Once he could make out what they were yelling he actually stopped and explained to the crowd what they were doing.  He told them he was glad they were fans, but to be patient and enjoy the other material that they hadn’t heard yet.  (Most of us won’t have to worry about this happening to us.)  If you develop a trademark bit and it’s played on syndicated radio show like Bob & Tom, there’s a chance.  Dave Chappelle is the ultimate sufferer of this type.

2.  The loud talkers–This is the most common type of disruption I have to deal with.  The hard part is that sometimes you just have to ignore it.  Sometimes people are just putting in their drink orders which obviously involves talking, so they have no choice.  It could even be a server if the guest is having trouble hearing.  Often times it’s just a crowd member or two who have lost the ability to focus on the show.  They’ll have a private (which becomes public) conversation at their table unaware at how loud they are.  This has been happening a lot lately so I worked on two methods to overcome this in my last week of work.  The first option is just just pause between bits and make eye contact with someone in the vicinity (if you can’t see out that far give it your best shot).  A lot of times someone at the table who is still sober will realize your hint and shush their buddy for you.  The second method is to lower your voice almost to a whisper during a setup.  This gets the entire room quiet and the loud talker will become self aware on their own (depending on their BAC at the time).  Another danger, as they were discussing on Never Not Funny a few weeks ago, is that sometimes the rest of the crowd doesn’t hear people talking up front.  You don’t want to look like a jerk to the back half of the room, so be careful.

Eventually you might have to say something to the table.  “Is everything okay over there, it’s pretty chatty…” is one way.  I’ve heard some comics use a stock line, “Did you learn to whisper in a sawmill/helicopter/etc.”  This will also (hopefully) get the doorman’s attention.  If it’s a one-nighter, you won’t always have that luxury, so you’ll eventually have to start a verbal conflict.  Remember…when people are embarrassed they’re more likely to fire back and make it worse.  This applies in my classroom as well.  The most effective way to shut a student up is to walk over and whisper to him/her.  If I call him/her out in front of the class, it’s on.

3.  The “loud agreement” audience member is having the time of their life.  Unfortunately, they need to verbalize that after every punchline.  They’ll repeat it, add their two cents or whatever.  It’s the equivalent of someone yelling Praise Jesus! or Amen! at a sermon…or maybe a “You know that’s right!” at a movie theater.  This heckler doesn’t mean to disturb you, but it is annoying and can throw some comics’ timing off.  This is really hard to ignore because it can even make you laugh, but at the same time, it’s nice when it’s not there.  For this you just have to make them aware that they’re doing it.  Sometimes they forget or perhaps don’t see anything wrong with it.  Hopefully a friend or doorman will give them the heads up on their habit.  If you’re a comic who can tolerate it and even make it part of the show, go right ahead.

4.  The conflict heckler is the worst because they’re trying to disrupt the show.  It’s usually a drunk male (or a bachelorette party) who directly yells something out.  Even though these should be immediately taken care of by the club or bar, they aren’t always there for you.  As far as how to handle hecklers, there are tips throughout previous entries in this blog, but the two easiest ways are in my book.  With these, the crowd is almost always on your side right away at least.

Part of the thrill of comedy is that each show is different.  You’ll encounter all kinds of odd situations other than just hecklers.  (You’ll always remember your first stage located within a half-block from some railroad tracks.)  For more detailed help on all of these situations, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.


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