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.