Why comics feel pressure on stage…

Often before open mic night, contests, or opportunities for guest sets, you’ll find comics pacing around nervously out by the bar.  Sometimes they’re just excited, but a lot of times it’s easy to see the dread in their face stemming from the upcoming pressure of the set.  I thought about the sets that used to give me a sense of dread as they approached.  We all like performing.  No one’s forcing us.  Other than the first timers, what’s the reason for the nervousness and the sometimes crumbling under pressure?  It’s simply a lack of confidence.  That’s why most professional comics don’t get nervous most of the time.  They’re confident enough and have performed countless times, so there’s no need to worry (like a frequent flyer).  

That’s not to say that pros don’t get nervous.  Talk to a professional comic before a one-nighter that has a few things wrong with the setup.  Is the bar going to keep using that loud blender?  Is there a spotlight?  Is that drunk bachelorette party of twelve really going to get front row seats?  Is that your sound system?  The MC is going to do what?!  There are how many guest sets?  There are only how many people in the crowd?  One of them is the club-owner’s fourteen year old daughter?

The point is, professional or not, nerves and the pressure getting to you only comes from not being confident in your act.  If I knew I was funnier, I would never care about any of the above italicized problems.  If you’re having problems with nerves before shows, know that as you improve, they’ll eventually go away.  In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I wrote a set of tips/tricks on how to overcome nerves right before going on stage.  

There’s one sure way to get over your nerves for 99% of your shows early in your career.  If you can get in a larger show (I realize that’s not always possible), anything at the open mic level won’t seem like such a big deal anymore.  My first paid gig was out of my league; it was a theater of 1500 people.  I was terrified (and showed it on stage), but after that, MCing at the Columbus Funnybone didn’t make me nervous anymore.  

Eventually you’ll be excited for your spot and instead of counting and dreading the minutes until your set, and you’ll become eager for your chance on stage.  If you’re not at this point yet, take comfort in the fact that you’ll eventually get there.  If you’re still dreading the moments before you take the stage month after month, perhaps comedy isn’t the right outlet for you and that’s okay to admit to yourself.  If you’re just not having fun up there, your set doesn’t have a chance.  

How whatever you say eventually gets back to the booker at a club…

At the end of every Saturday night, whether a club does one, two, or three shows, the staff sits around and talks.  Before a showroom is seated and the staff is setting everything up, they talk.  During smoke breaks, slow nights, or drinks at a bar after work, the staff talks.  Big clubs, small clubs, everyone on a comedy club staff is connected and talks.  If they drink after work, they talk even more.  The point is, they all share a same set of ears so if you have something negative to say, don’t.  Sure, there are a few clubs that have a higher turnover than others, but the ones I work the most have the same staff every time.  They become family and when you visit you’re merely like a cousin they see once or twice a year.

Comedy clubs make a majority of their money from the bar.  The bartender has to be one of the most trusted employees at the club.  Sometimes it can even be the general manager or owner of the club behind the bar working.  Where do open mic comics do most of their bitching? (other than Facebook) …With a drink in front of them at the bar.  Sometimes they’re not even bitching about the politics of the club.  Sometimes its just badmouthing someone else or talking delusional BS.  “Yeah, I killed it that set.  The new stuff is working.”  No, no you didn’t, no it isn’t.  Stop talking.

This week’s advice is simply watch what you say and how you carry yourself while at the comedy club.  It’s a very small world and famous or not, no one is more than two or three degrees away from the top comics in the business.  You might badmouth a headliner who hasn’t worked that club in two years.  If he or she comes back, word will still reach him or her.  I used to be a young doorman, I knew how to stir shit up and I wasn’t alone.  I still remember which comics we liked and hated back in 2001.  Bartenders have great memories too.  Some of them have unbelievable abilities to rattle off what each headliner likes to drink whenever they’re working that week.  And if they can remember drinks, of course they’re going to remember the conversations they’re in or overhear.  (It doesn’t help that you talk three times louder after one Bud Light.)

To sum it up, whether you’re talking to the box office, a waitress, a doorman, or even a regular bar fly who seems to be there every week, you may as well be talking face to face with the booker because word always gets back.


To counter all this negativity, there are plenty of things you can do (obviously tipping is one), to make yourself come off more professionally and avoid unnecessary politics.  Read about those in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.

Mother’s Day Edition: “Your Mom” Jokes…

We all have our sensitive spots that we don’t think are funny, and almost 100% of the time the people making the joke have no idea of our background or life story, so they don’t know they’ve struck a nerve.  As comics, we have thicker skin (we’re supposed to at least), so we don’t take a specific type of material personally.  For example, at open mic, we make plenty of racial cracks at our black peers because we know they understand the context (and we’re jerks).  We wouldn’t dare make these jokes to a non-comic.

Audience members don’t always understand this when they’re at the comedy club.  I heard that once someone in the crowd tried to go after Heywood Banks (one of the more innocent headliners of all time), because he did a joke about a train hitting someone.  The enraged audience member had lost someone in a train accident and snapped.  When I was a doorman, we had to calm an ex-Marine down (he actually left the showroom in tears) because he associated a joke about the Persian Gulf with his buddy who died over there.  Sometimes a comic will make a wheelchair joke with someone in a wheelchair at the show.  These are tough to pull off.  Mark Lundholm does and actually explains this phenomenon about over-sensitivity in his act.  He talks about a hypothetical situation of someone getting upset about a joke involving a bag of Cheetos because they had a traumatic experience due to Cheetos.  He said we all have our own “bag of Cheetos.”  Audience members do, comics need to outgrow them and pretty much never be offended by anything in the context of our art form.

It takes maturity.  (Downer time, sorry!)  I lost my mother in ’93, but do you think I’ve heard “Your Mom” jokes aimed at me?  Of course.  Sure, it’s easy to shut that person up, tell them she passed away when I was 15 and make them feel “this big” (and don’t think I haven’t), but now that I’ve outgrown stage three anger, I don’t even bother explaining.  (It also helps to be 35 and not hang out in a peer group who resorts to mom jokes, but you get the point).

So here’s this week’s ladvice:  1.  If you’re a comic, you don’t get to be offended by material anymore.  Most of what’s “offensive” is becoming hacky anyway (We get it, Catholic priests molested children).

2.  Before you do a one-nighter, it’s a good idea to feel out anything that might be taboo ahead of time.  If the bar owner is gay, adjust accordingly.  If it’s a benefit show, BE SURE you don’t do anything remotely near the cause of the need for the benefit.  If it’s a fund raiser for someone with cancer, you don’t get to do an AIDS joke because those are two different things (let’s just blanket this and say you should drop all of your terminal illness material).  I recently did a show that was a fund-raiser for a burn victim.  I did a quick mental audit of my setlist to make sure I didn’t have even a pun that could be misinterpreted.  It’s also important to find the racial makeup of a crowd.  In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I explain how crowds react to jokes involving race depending on how many black people are in the crowd from all-white crowds to all-black crowds and everything in between.

Notice I said one-nighters for this rule.  The reason being, in these smaller towns, everyone knows everyone and they often think alike and sympathize with each other.  In a comedy club you have a bunch of strangers with different beliefs and backgournds so if you offend a few, all is not lost.  In my book I also mention the time Harland Williams did a 9/11 joke a month after it happened and somehow survived.

Sometimes a brief chat with the guy in charge at the gig and a visual scan of the audience can open your eyes so you can make the proper adjustments to your setlist.

One last disclaimer:  This week’s advice is for the guys who haven’t been doing this for decades.  I know pros can sometimes perform without censoring themselves but most of us can’t.  If you get a chance, ask them about a time they said the wrong thing at the wrong time.  A lot of us have at least one story where this advice would’ve helped.

Is it okay to repeat material through rounds of a contest? (and other contest advice)

Last year I wrote about why you should enter your local club’s comedy contest.  I included what to expect from the contest (because you’re not going to win), and plugged my book which has all kinds of tips on special contest situations and how to follow great comics, bad comics, freaks, etc.  For this year’s “contest eve” entry I thought I would share some more inside information which may seem specific for the St. Louis contest, but can actually be applied to whatever contest you find yourself in.

Here’s the basic breakdown of it…in St. Louis, there are 64 contestants and one winner who gets $600 and an MC week ($400 for 2nd, $200 for third).  The finals are on July 1 which makes this thing longer than the NBA playoffs meaning someone who does prelims early on, should be able to improve by July.  You know what else happens in July?  St. Louis opens an additional Funnybone on the southwest side of town.  St. Louis needs MCs.  What this means is that even though you aren’t going to win the contest, this is still a huge opportunity for you to land a paid MC week.  Matt, the booker, is not judging the contest, however, he watched every entry last year and plans to this year as well.  So if the judges rank you lower than you’d like, you still have a chance to get a paid week as an MC.

St. Louis is not short on people who have a funny 5-10 minutes.  St. Louis is short on people who can MC a show well.  There’s a huge difference which you can read about here (this archive is my highest read entry of all-time because other bookers shared it).  The need for quality MCs doubles in July.  That’s $30 a show and more importantly great stage time night after night in front of legitimate comedy crowds who will let you know if you’re funny or not.

Finally, the #1 question I get asked about comedy contests is, “Can I do the same material each round or do I need to have new stuff?”  I know for a fact this year that none of the St. Louis judges will see you twice, so it will always be fresh to them.  If you only have five to eight solid minutes, you should use them each time.  If you can shake it up, especially if you’re confident you can qualify out of your prelims, you may want to save your best one or two jokes for later on.  However, showing that you can consistently be funny is the most important thing.  The crowds will be plentiful and very good (they always are for contests).  Do not try anything brand new the night of the contest.  I’ve seen this go terribly wrong for many comics.

This week’s advice:

1. Don’t expect to win because it takes a lot of variables to line up perfectly for that to happen.

2.  St. Louis needs MCs, so use this as an audition for being considered

3.  Read last year’s blog here and/or order a book here.

4.  It’s okay to repeat material each round and play it on the safe side.

5.  Cleaner = more likely to get work.

6.  Don’t use anything brand new.

Next week I’ll share more information on how certain comics ruin their chances of work before they even get on stage.