The first time it happened I wasn’t even thirty yet. I was working Sabo’s “Grumpy Dave’s” room in Bowling Green, Ohio when I had a room full of college kids. This will be cake I thought. The first time I ever did a feature set was a year or two before that at the Hokie House of Virginia Tech and it went well, so why shouldn’t this? College kids are in their 20s, I’m in my twenties–what could go wrong? A few missed 80s references later I realized that college wasn’t as recent as I thought. I was getting old.
I’m now 35 and there have been a few instances since then–college gigs, open mic nights, and bar shows with a much younger demographic. Perhaps the pinnacle of that was last Thursday at Deja Vu on college I.D. night. I probably had the worst set I’ve ever had on that stage in the eight or nine weeks I’ve worked there. The doormen and MC had warned me that Thursdays were getting tougher/chattier/younger. I stared into the back center of the room and saw at least a half-dozen faces glowing from cellphones right before the show started. Opening with two quick jokes about marriage didn’t make things any better. The weirdest part was how offended these kids got (they moaned and groaned at anything that wasn’t PC). To the sides there were tables of adults who I ended up thanking mid-set for “getting” it. They could see I was trying (I refuse to use the word battling when talking about performing) and I even got three applause breaks from them just to help cancel out the moans. On top of that, the bouncers had to shush the back tables because God forbid kids shut the hell up and just laugh when they drink.
So yes, it’s these damn kids I’m complaining about! What can be done? Well, there’s a reason comics get paid so well for actual college gigs. There’s a certain style college kids like that some comics may consider a step down. I’m not saying that great college comics aren’t good–some comics are just universally funny, but for the rest of us, we have to make a few adjustments. First, realize ahead of time which references are outdated to people born in 1994. Second, adjust your opening jokes to something they’ll laugh at right away. How? Use local humor (which is usually a good idea anywhere). Third, be “louder” on stage. Not by yelling, but just by becoming a bigger presence. Treat it like you’re on a large stage at a theater gig. Give them a chance to breathe less often so that they might go twenty minutes without checking their phones. One of the nice things about Columbia is the shorter sets, so you can keep the rapid fire going. College still kids like clever material as much as mainstream crowds, just be sure you own it unapologetically. They’ll eventually catch on that their groaning doesn’t bother you. Deliver those jokes slightly aloof to their response in other words. I think groaning is now their way of letting you know they understand your joke and its cruel nature. As comics we appreciate laughter more, but some of us swear that any response is a good response.
For more advice on special situations like the above, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. I appreciate any sharing of this blog as well.