What to do when you’re given more minutes than usual…

If you’re a comic in your first few years and this isn’t a concern, it should be.  Too many amateur comics have stories where they say, “I did a half-hour with no problem the other night…”  If you’re one of those comics, you’re delusional.  On the other hand, if you’re honest with yourself and your set’s ability, you’ll occasionally reach small landmark sets of the first time you get to do a full seven, ten, fifteen or twenty minutes.  You can’t just write an additional four minutes the week of the gig and hope it fits in perfectly.  (If you are, there’s a really good chance it isn’t good enough yet and you’re still delusional.)

So how can you take what you have and squeeze an additional few minutes out of it without watering it down?

1.  Slow down your pace of speech.  This doesn’t mean make the joke longer by adding words, especially in the setup.  This means to simply not talk to so fast.  This has been a weakness of mine for years because the first six years of my career I was mostly MCing 10-15 minute sets.  Pause and let the audience laugh a little more between each joke and each tag line.  There’s a fine line on this but you’ll eventually get the comedic timing down that everyone talks about.  The extra seconds shouldn’t hurt your momentum if your bits are strong enough, and if you can do this correctly, you’ll actually increase how hard each joke hits.

2.  Add another tag line where you can.  Over the years you’ll be surprised how many tag lines in your act are actually courtesy of another comic.  They’re often a different angle that another comic thinks of for you.  They aren’t 100% transferable because we often have severely different delivery styles, but for the most part they can add some extra laughs.  You might even discover a potential callback.

3.  Take your existing bits and build on them.  See if you can find whatever topic you’re joking about and just write another joke or two for that topic.  This will start to help develop your set from sounding like an open mic set of individual jokes into a more professional format of bits made of jokes about the same topic.

Here are things NOT to do to make your set longer:

1.  Recycle older jokes.  There’s a reason you stopped doing these.  If they didn’t work in your less experienced days, they probably aren’t worth recalling unless you can completely rewrite the premise as a more experienced joke-writer.  Never recycle topical humor that is no longer topical (Note to everyone: Bill Clinton jokes expired a long time ago).

2.  Crowd work; there’s a lot more to write about this topic (see Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage) and it takes years to develop this into something that’s entertaining for the entire audience.  Along with the crowd possibly turning against you, it’ll also upset the comics after you as well as the manager.

3.  Transitions;  transitions aren’t necessary when you’re still doing individual jokes instead of longer bits.  It’s hard to write or plan transitions anyway.  Worry about them much later down the road, because for now they’re just lowering your laughs-per-minute.  They shouldn’t be so long that they take up much time anyway.

4.  Cheap hacky fillers;  Watch enough midnight shows with weaker headliners and you’ll see these.  “Let’s all just go to a strip club now…”  Or “Keep it going for the troops…”

This brings me to an important side note:  You can learn more from headliners during tougher sets with small crowds than you can with sold out shows.  Watch Heywood Banks during a midnight show when most of his regular fans aren’t there.  It’s amazing how he works them into liking him compared to the earlier shows where they’re eating out of his hand within the first five minutes.  I’ll try to write more about midnight shows next week unless somethings else pops up.

 Thank you again to everyone who has been reading and sharing my blog and book.  I’ve tried to write just about every post as additional information from my book.  I don’t expect anyone to 100% agree with everything I write, obviously, and for the most part any differences of opinion have been handled maturely, so again, thank you.  The shares on Facebook really boost the number of hits so thank you.  It’s really hard to compete with those blogs that discuss rape jokes every month.

What happens when the crowd is only a few people?

On Tuesday I returned to a stage I hadn’t been on in seven years.  It was a paid gig to headline an open mic night at an OSU campus bar.  I only knew two of the dozen comics and one was the guy in charge of the show.  The room was fairly empty and then about halfway through, a group of seven crowd members left.  Most of us were in the back, but once this group (many of which weren’t paying much attention anyway) left, there was only one table watching.  I don’t know the guys performing, and I’m not going to critique anyone in front of a crowd of five, but the crowd just kept getting smaller and smaller.  By the time I got up, it was a couple, two comics, the MC, and (thank God) a table of five black people who just entered.

So what should happen when there’s an off night at a paid show or an open mic?

First, the other comics should have the courtesy to support each other through the entire show.  I don’t care that they didn’t stick around for my thirty at the end (I’m not writing this to shit on anyone), but during each others sets, sit somewhere that you can at least occasionally laugh to give the comic a hint at timing.  It isn’t fair that the first few people on the list are the only ones to perform in front of an audience.  We often had to resort to this for our shows in Fairview Heights before it closed down.  This also gives the illusion that it’s a respectable show to those who might enter late.  I saw two smaller groups come in and then leave right away because the show looked so dead.  If there isn’t a crowd, the other comics have to make one.

Second, as a comic, when there are only a few people in the crowd, make sure they’re listening.  If you allow small groups to talk, they become the majority of the “noise” and focus instead of the person with the microphone.  One comic finally paused in his set, said hello to the talkers to get their attention, and continued on with his set.  By doing this, he avoided a heckler conflict, didn’t embarrass the little crowd that we had, and got them to stop talking at least for his set.

Third, small crowds are not a reason to not try.  You have to try harder when there are very few people.  When I have a show with 300 people in the room, it’s easy to coast.  If there are only a dozen or so, I better bring my best delivery.  A lot of comics have this backwards.  In your career you’re going to do a lot more shows with “not enough” people in the crowd compared to sold out shows.  Get used to the small numbers.  Long pauses are bad when there isn’t any white noise caused from a bigger crowd.  This isn’t a reason to abandon your set and just do crowd work unless you’re an expert on that (you’re not).  Grind through your material.

For a lot more other comedy advice not included in this blog please check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.

What’s the right way to get work at a local room?

I’m going to brag on St. Louis again. We have at least four consistent paying gigs that are booked by local comics outside of our comedy club .  We have a steady amount of headliners and features to fill these rooms as well as a lot of comics beginning to feature.  These rooms are a good place for a comic to get a chance to do a longer set for the first time.  Often, these rooms have a more narrow demographic so success or failure has a wider range depending on how well you connect with that particular type of crowd/community.  (I think I bitched about the time I ate it in front of some hipsters on here last year.)  

Often, as it is in St. Louis, your peers are the bookers of these rooms.  There are many tiffs in open mic communities, but you have to pretend to like people sometimes.  So how do you get yourself booked other than being nice?  I’ve heard various comics who book these rooms vent their frustration.  Here’s what you need to do:

1.  Go as a patron.  Support the cause and pay the cover a few times.

2.  See if you can do a guest set without getting paid.

3.  Invite the booker to do an open mic or show that you have a hand in.

4.  Buy alcohol for the booker/comic in charge while at a different open mic with him/her.  

5.  Promote the show on Facebook (without inviting people who you barely know from a different time zone).

Honestly, 1 and 5 are the most important.  If you bitch about not being on, it will get back to them and you’ll never get a chance.  When you do, be sure you bring a lot of paying customers as a thank you for giving you a chance.

For more tips on making money in comedy, read Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.

What is a typical week of club shows like?

Nothing struck me as super-unusual this week to give me a specific lesson to write about, so I thought I would write about what a typical week of shows is like at my home club, the St. Louis Funnybone.  I worked with headliner, Vince Morris, and MC, Jon Ve-(hold on, I have to go check the spelling on Facebook) –Jon Venegoni.  I was excited to work with both because it was Jon’s first full MC week at the club and I hadn’t worked with Vince since ’07 (actually, the night I met my wife).

Like most clubs, attendance depends more on the season and not who the headliner is.  Of course there are exceptions for famous acts (who often disappoint), but the real weeks with the real headliners like Vince will vary depending on weather, holidays, and local sports teams.  I won’t get into which months are best and how to adapt to particular holidays, but you can find that in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  As June begins and baseball season is starting to get interesting, club attendance isn’t going to be that great.

Wednesday:  We had almost fifty people.  My default set time at St. Louis is 25 minutes.  Going into this week I was going to make one big adjustment to my setlist for the first six minutes.  For years I’ve been leading off with my jokes about substitute teaching and I’m tired of them.  I’m at the Funnybone every few months so I’m sure there are others who have heard them as well.  It’s not that the rest of my act is brand new, but I was already bored with certain jokes, so I gave them the week off.  Wednesday’s crowd was so-so.  Not tight, but not great.  I worded everything well and sold zero books after the show…damn.

Thursday:  Thursday had about a dozen or so more people than Wednesday.  This crowd was a bit tight but loosened up about ten minutes into the set.  I remember being really hungry (not metaphorically) going onto the stage.  Why don’t I eat more ahead of time?  As I’m going through my set, my mouth is dry.  No matter how much water I drink, I’m still tripping on my dry tongue here and there.  The crowd was good, but if I didn’t say a joke correctly, they let me know with less laughter.

Friday:  I’m finally comfortable with my new setlist.  Unfortunately, it’s May in St. Louis and tornadoes are touching down everywhere.  A group of girls going to the show is panicking, one is crying, so a few others cower with her in the restroom.  They’re hammered, but we still have a crowd close to eighty while the sirens blare outside.  My wife is texting me in a panic because we live on the top floor of our apartment building and my grill is about to blow off the balcony.  I look at her last text, “Rob, I’m scared!” as Jon introduces me and I walk on stage.  I should take my own advice about preshow stress.

This was the only somewhat “unique” show of the week.  I’ve done shows where thunder interrupts a set and distracts everyone, so one of the first things I do is acknowledge the storm and the flickering lights.  I make a rule that anytime the thunder is loud, the entire audience has to slam whatever drink they’re having.  Sounds brilliant, dangerous and/or stupid.  Turns out it never thunders and this is easily the worst crowd (and therefore) worst set of the week.  I get bored with them after a few minutes, so I dip into the vault of Rob Classics (just for Charlie Winfrey).  I did four bits that are over ten years old and made it a little more fun for me.  They got about the same result as everything else.  I sold two books that show (meanwhile Vince is unloading half a giant bag of t-shirts at a higher price than my book…this happens a lot as ‘Merica easily favors funny t-shirts over books.  My t-shirts aren’t as funny so I’ve stopped selling them.  I am jealous of his wad of twenties.).

I’m tired, but the 10:30 show goes fine.  They were really out of it so I had to exert the most energy of any of my shows to get a good response.  I’m not complaining, they’re not even close to as big of a challenge as a two-hour block of sophomores on a Friday afternoon at my teaching job.  The three or four beers I’ve had since 7:30 keep me loose and ad-libbing a little more throughout the night.  They also make the drunk people I talk to after the show more tolerable.  I sell one more book.

Think this blog is long?  Try a three-show Saturday:  My wife, Beth, comes to the 7:30 non-smoking show.  Any tightness a non-smoking show normally has is trumped by the fact that we have well over a hundred people in the crowd.  The set goes very well and I’m finally happy with the whole 25 minutes.  I sell four books.  A 5’11” blonde girl wants her picture with me as my wife looks on five feet away.  Beth is great; she says nothing, thinks nothing of it, and understands that with each $15 purchase I’m that much closer to buying her more shoes.  If your significant other has petty jealousy issues, wow, good luck with comedy.

The second show on Saturday turns out being the biggest crowd.  I paused once to address a couple who was talking in the front row.  I get distracted easily so I asked them a question.  It was awkward, unfunny, but effective in making them shut up.  It took another joke to get the momentum back from the crowd.  The lesson there is, if you’re going to address talkers, have a funny way to do it that isn’t too cruel.  I normally don’t have problems with hecklers so this is still one of my weaknesses.  I sell three more books and other local comics are showing up to watch Vince.  It’s nice having buddies to chat with between sets.

As we get ready for the midnight show, I’m dreading tomorrow.  I have a 5K race at 8 a.m. and I’ll be getting up at 6:40.  I’m really hungry again but Dan from the box office gets me some sushi from upstairs.  I am grateful and will continue to tolerate his Michigan fandom as a result of this act of kindness.  I make sure to wash my hands before starting a California roll while they seat the room.  I’m hoping Matt trims my set down from 25 to 20 minutes.  We start the show a little late and he tells me 15 (even better!).  (I’ll explain one of these weeks about the change that some comics have regarding the labor of it).  This time I skip my whole bit about teaching inner-city and have no trouble keeping the energy going for fifteen.  After the show a tall guy in his twenties walks up and says, “I came here Thursday and brought back all of my friends.  Why didn’t you do your inner-city stuff.  That was my favorite part of the show!”  I wonder if this is how Eddie Vedder felt when he reflected on Pearl Jam’s setlist in Columbus, Ohio circa 2002.  “Guys, great show, but we left off pretty much the entire Ten album…oops.”  Vince decides not to sell any merch and as a result I get three more book sales in.  Woo-hoo!  I get to sleep by 2 a.m.  for a total of four hours and forty minutes of sleep pre-race.

Sunday: As I get to the club Jon is asking me what Sunday crowds are normally like.  In St. Louis for some reason we always have a higher percentage of African Americans in the crowd on the Sabbath.  Sunday crowds aren’t as big as Saturday crowds, but pound for pound they’re often better at most clubs, including ours.  You get more “comedy fans” I guess.  People are a bit more rested, and if they’re going out on a Sunday night, they don’t have a lame sense of humor.  They were my favorite set of the week.  I have a good opener to get the black people on my side that I use every Sunday night in my home club.  Once that’s taken care of, the rest is very easy.  Wording should be in auto-pilot by this point of the week.  I look down into the front row and see a table of three associate principals from the high school where I teach.  I now recall how they told me they’d be out June 2.  They’re laughing at everything, but I cut two jokes from my set about teaching, because I don’t want them attempting to repeat them to others.

I sell a couple of books and am about to pack up and head home when another group of three walks up.  A skeptical girl says she wants to see how my book is and that it had better impress her on the first page.  A minute later she buys it.  I think this was my proudest moment of the week.  It was a successful week and though I wish book sales would’ve been higher, I didn’t have any bad sets.  I head home starving again ready to watch Game of Thrones.

If you’re thinking, “This was long and kinda boring,” yep…that’s a week of comedy.  It’s a great job, but not the crazy action packed lifestyle that a lot of people think it is.  Next week I’ll try to remember to address the question as to why I and other comics don’t mind having our time trimmed down.