Monthly Archives: January 2012

Is this joke racist?

Friday night I performed at the Poor Souls Society of St. Louis which is an arts center located about a mile or so north of downtown St. Louis on the rejuvenated 14th Street.  I looked forward to this particular set, though only ten minutes, because it was a chance to perform in an urban room.  In comedy, an urban room is one where most, if not all of the crowd, is black.  In my book I explain the adjustments that need to be made because urban comedy is different in some ways than what most of us are used to when we perform around the Midwest.  The reason I looked forward to the set so much is because I wanted to see how the material about teaching at an inner-city high school would do with a black crowd.  I had been struggling to get enough laughs with it in a few of my recent shows which were at a club in Chattanooga and smaller bar shows around St. Louis in front of hipsters.  These crowds were predominantly white with a small mixture of other ethnic groups.  The lack of laughs were due to the majority of the crowd feeling uncomfortable on behalf of those they thought I was offending.

On Friday night, like I said, the crowd was 98% black (the bartender was white) and the same material about teaching inner-city did the best it’s ever done.  The point that I write about is that more often, white people get offended on behalf of people that they think you’re offending.  It’s dumb, but that’s how society works.  There are ways to decrease this problem, but sometimes it’s really up to the crowd.  The bottom line is that depending on the situation and audience, some jokes or bits have no definite answer to the title question.  As the comic, you don’t get to tell the crowd, “No no, this joke isn’t offensive or racist.  Black people love it!  I did an urban show last week…”  Just like with every other joke in your set, they ultimately get to decide how they’ll react.  In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I include tips to preface this kind of material in different situations that will dramatically increase the success of edgier bits as well as other guidelines to the other types of shock humor.  As far as hipsters go…what can you expect from guys who wear glasses even when they have 20/20 vision and girls who cut their bangs to match the path of a windshield wiper?

Two local St. Louis announcements…I’ll be featuring with Dan Cummings this Wednesday-Saturday at the St. Louis Funnybone and my first local book signing will be this Saturday from 10-noon at 6 North Cafe in Ballwin.  Check www.robdurhamcomedy.com for more details.


5 very common mistakes that sabotage your comedy career

I know…great, another list on the Internet.  Before I get to “handling criticism” I had to bring these up because they keep happening over and over.

Here are some very common mistakes that I’m seeing almost every week at various open mics.  Though vaguely mentioned here, they’re all covered thoroughly in my book with explanations (other than because I said so).  My book explains “why” with examples of things that have happened to me or from advice from comedians much more experienced and famous than me.  I’m not pointing these out to be an arrogant ass of sorts, I made these mistakes too.  (If it sounds like my tone is harsh, then imagine me saying these with a lisp to sound less threatening…)

1.  Starting a punchline with the wrong word.  There’s one specific, but very common word used over and over that never works for an effective punchline, but comics keep trying to use it.  “Apparently…”  This angle rarely works.  It takes the punch out of the punchline because you’re trying to state something so obvious that even the crowd expects it.  “Apparently my ex-girlfriend found it strange that I was washing her windows in the middle of the night…”

2.  Promotion…While some people aren’t screwing this up too badly, others are so far off that club managers know of them because they’re so awful at it.  That becomes a permanent scar on your reputation and you’ll never get work once a club manager discovers you this way.  No comic is too insignificant to be gossipped about and made fun of by working comics and managers.  You’d really be surprised whose names come up for all the wrong reasons.

3.  Wardrobe…Obviously I’m anti-shorts, but there are a bunch of other mistakes being made as well.  Even a few tips for the ladies are mentioned (I had a female comic, Maria Shehata, to help write this section in the book).

4.  Being dirty…What are the rules?  How clean does a person need to be?  It’s explained in depth with many reasons.

5.  Career crippling mistakes…Things comics do that will always prevent them from ever getting emcee work which is the gateway to becoming a professional comic.  There are comics who have been performing at open mic for years but have never been paid once.  Often it has nothing to do with them not being funny enough.

To read and learn about these things simply click the link on this page or visit www.robdurhamcomedy.com to order a copy of my book to figure out how you can take the next step towards making money to perform.  Or if you need to wait until that next paycheck I’ll be doing some local book signings around St. Louis.  The next one is Febraury 4th and each purchase will get you two tickets to the St. Louis Funnybone…


Is negativity part of the business?

As the first few people who ordered my book have finished it up I was able to hear one reviewer tell me that my book was very pessimistic.  I have to agree, in fact, I’m kind of glad to hear that.  One of my book’s goals is to discourage people from investing their life into something with big hopes and dreams only to find out later that it’s a terrible industry.  (Think of all the gas money I just saved you!)

The first negative about comedy is the lack of money, especially in this current economy.  Read the way it used to be versus how it is now in Chris Coen’s latest blog.  He sums up several of the common one-nighter problems.  Along with that there are bad road conditions, insulting paychecks, and tough crowds to deal with.  One week you do a set of jokes that kills, the next week people are offended.  “Crowds are like women, am I right?!” hacky 90s comic says.

So how are comics supposed to stay positive on the road?  By carrying on a relationship where they barely get to see a loved one? (that’s an upcoming topic)  Spending weeks in strange cities?  Being validated and judged on a nightly basis by people who they normally wouldn’t care about the opinions of?  These things wear on you and can be devastating.

The key to staying positive is to find other things in life that you build on top of your comedian lifestyle instead of letting it smother you.  No one is going to “make it” just doing stand-up.  While you’re on the road you may want to team up with the comics you work with (the ones you can stand and respect) to find things to do whether it be producing goofy youtube videos (Jake Iannarino does this), writing material, or just hanging out.  Have a bigger project to work on that relates to your stand-up career (obviously, mine was writing the book).  Get to know the people at the clubs so they eventually feel like family every time you work there.  There are a lot of ways to at least limit the negativity you’ll face.  I cover several more in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage if you want to get a better feel for what it will be like.

Next week won’t be much happier.  I’l discuss how to handle criticism in a deeper way than, “Don’t take it personally!”


Advice about and for the friends who support you…

This is a topic I cover in my book but I wanted to add a few other points.  Consider this entry as much for the comedy fan as for the comic.  I love that my friends come to my shows.  So many of them were there for my first time (and cheered me on in a clap-off) and throughout the years.  I’ve been lucky to have their support in a lot of shows.  It’s not the close friends who I want to address in this entry, but rather the acquaintances or non-BFFs if you want to get technical in a sixth-grade sense, who you need to be ready for.  Maybe you’re doing a show in the town they live in which happens to be in the middle of Kansas and you haven’t seen each other since high school.  You occasionally exchange comments on Facebook and have a few fun memories to share from high school, but because you’re not that close, they know nothing about stand-up.

First, realize they’re going to insult you in some way, hopefully it’s at least unintentional.  The first thing they’ll do is hint around and wonder how much money you’re making.  Granted, they usually think it’s more than it is, but it’s none of their business.  Comics make way less than anyone thinks.  Next, they’ll ask for some of your merch for free.  I’ve been selling shirts for four years and sometimes my acquaintances think they should get some kind of discount just because we suffered through Algebra II together in 1994.  Honestly, the early success of any kind of merchandise release, whether it be t-shirts or my book, is heavily reliant on the friends who pay full price to get me back to that break even point.  As comics, we wouldn’t come to your cubicle on a payday after you’ve worked really hard at your job, look at your pay stub and say, “Hey, saw you got a paycheck today…how about giving me five or ten bucks of that?”

*A Clear Fork classmate’s wife never paid me for four shirts back in 2007 after many emails and requests.  Curious?  (I use her real name in my book).  How’s that for passive aggressive?

I think the next insult is rooted in the jealousy of the balls you have for going for your dream.  I worked with a headliner last year who had a classmate come up to him and say, “Wow, you were a lot funnier this year.”  That’s not a compliment to someone who’s been doing stand-up for almost twenty years.  The amount of improvement from year fifteen to year sixteen of a career is minimal for most, so to say something like that is very insulting.  If we’re established, don’t tell us we’ve improved like we’re a seven year old at a piano recital.  Most of the time the show’s success has to do with how big the crowd was.  We do the same thing every night to various amounts of laughter based on the venue.

Most of my friends have the method of going to a show down pat, but within three hours of showtime expect a dozen calls, texts, and emails from your pals who suddenly forget there’s an internet and have no idea about showtime, location, tickets, directions, other performers, the club’s name, cover charge, if there’s food served, if it’s 21 and up, and what time they really need to be there.  I’ve found that the true friends figure it out themselves.  Also be weary of any friends who can’t hold their liquor or don’t tip.  Don’t invite them.

Another frustrating thing is when they continuously ask, “When are you doing shows around here?”  We have webpages for that.  Most of us post it on Facebook at least a few times.  Then, once we get that week of shows in their random town, they don’t bother to make it.  “Well, when are you going to be performing here again.”  I know, our comedy shows aren’t as big of a deal to you as your own lives, but don’t expect us to perform five minutes from your home ten times a year.  The worst is when you comp someone some passes and they still don’t show up.

I think the comment that bugs me the most is when they talk about the “sacrifices” they made to be at your show.  “We had to drive 45 minutes and pay for a sitter to be here.”  Well you shouldn’t have.  I’m sorry you had to go through all this trouble for a night of being entertained!  I had to drive eight hours, leave my family at home for four days, give up the chance of ever building a retirement fund, sleep in a nasty hotel, and eat fast food for a week to perform in front of people who after seeing me work my ass off on stage still think I want to hear one of their jokes which usually starts, “I ain’t racist or nothin’ but did you hear the one about the three black guys?  You can use it if you want!”

Final advice…

Comics:  Invite only the friends you can trust to represent you well and let them do the rest.

Friends/Fans:  Take the same initiative you would take and behave as if you were going to a movie theater.  We love your support, but don’t undermine the fact that it’s more than just a hobby or job for us.  Your negative feedback isn’t necessary, we know when we suck.

(Feel free to share this with your friends as well.)


How are crowds different for open mic vs. a real show?

Last week’s St. Louis Funnybone open mic was sold out.  Well over 200 people crammed into a packed showroom on a Tuesday night at $5 a head to hear what I consider one of the best club open mic nights in the Midwest.  This packed house atmosphere gave a lot of people their first chance to feel what it’s like to work in a professional show setting since our regular open mic audience numbers are usually under sixty.

The unfortunate thing is that there wasn’t enough room for any of us to sit in the showroom and watch each other.  I say that also to point out that I didn’t see anyone else’s set except the person in front of me (which went well).  My point (and lesson) for this week is that if your jokes flop in front of this kind of crowd, you need to get rid of them.  They might work at a small open mic at Mr. T’s Hoagie Hut (I wish that was a real place).  They might even work in front of sixty at a regular open mic where the bar is often set a little lower.  They could even have helped you do well in a comedy contest, but if they don’t work in a regular show atmosphere, you’re hurting your chances of ever making money.

So how do you even decide if a joke worked?  Obviously laughter and even applause are what you’re aiming for, but what about other reactions…like groans?  If you have a joke that gets groans, especially in a short set, it better be the only one with that response and it still needs to be really funny.  I’ll admit, audiences groan way too often and they think they have the right to openly disagree with something, but there’s no rule against them.  It’s going to keep happening.

As an adult, judge whether they’re genuinely disgusted or just PC offended.  The groans are a signal to you that you just hurt your likeability.  “But Tosh gets multiple groans every episode of Tosh.0.”  He’s Daniel Tosh; he’s on television; his target audience pops each other’s “bacne” in dorm rooms.  See what I did there?  It’s gross and not funny enough to use.  So evaluate your set and think about the reactions that your jokes are getting.  A club manager is not going to let you open up a show and disgust his/her audience while they’re placing food orders.  The feature and headliner won’t want to work with you.  Every joke that gets a groan makes it much harder for you to get a good response on even your best stuff.  Don’t be lazy, write some jokes that are funny outside of your demographic.  Anyone can get groans, aim for laughter instead.  It will lead to work.

 

And now my attempt at an ad for my book…  “Inspired” by Jonah Mowry’s “What’s Going On” video.