Here’s something we’ve all been guilty of, especially me. I’ll start by saying that I’ve had a handful of people read Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage and tell me that it helped them realize that comedy is not the right path for them. That was actually one of my goals. Our St. Louis open mic once had over 50 people at the sign-up meeting so I’m thinning the herd.
Sometimes comics like myself would get to gigs and instead of exchanging fun road stories (I don’t have that many because I’m lame), we just bitch about the bad things that have happened to us in the business. For example, I can tell you about a three-day trip to Charleston where most of the shows were canceled on me which resulted in a net profit of $2; There was a time I was supposed to MC for someone fairly famous and had over a dozen people in the crowd when the manager called and told me I wasn’t needed on my drive to the show. Or like two weeks ago when I drove 8 hours to Ohio to headline a very well-paying gig (for me) that got canceled because a tornado wiped the town out the day before. These things happen. Actually much much worse things happen. These are mild.
What’s even worse is when you get screwed over by people you know and trust. That happens a lot too, but it’s showbiz. You have to expect it. It’s like these NFL players who can’t believe they have long-term damage to their brains. It’s part of the business. Every profession has it. Teachers, servers, whoever–there’s always going to be something unfair. Showbiz just feels worse because of the emotion we put into it and a lot of us aren’t used to it. It makes no sense. It’s the most superficial industry on the planet.
Again, I’m still guilty of it. So when things happen that don’t seem fair. It’s okay to vent (please not on Facebook or on stage), but after a few days just accept it and move on to the next gig. Sounds like a breakup huh? Yeah, stop posting about those on Facebook too. We all just laugh at you from afar.
When I was emceeing early in my career at the Columbus Funnybone, we had a guy come through and do a guest set on a random night. I had heard that he had made writing contributions for Seinfeld’s show (which was true) from the headliner. So when I brought him on stage, I mentioned that in his introduction. This was the wrong thing to do. He was fairly new to stand-up, and fell way short of the expectations his introduction had set.
I’ve been on the other end of this as well. I once had an emcee introduce me while mentioning something about me wearing braces (I did at the time), looking like Jeff Goldblum, and being a substitute teacher (which I was at the time). He managed to step on three jokes at once.
This week’s lesson: Do not make up your own introductions for the comics you’re introducing. Along with stepping on material and giving the crowd false expectations, a number of other things can go wrong. Even if it’s just a guest set, find that person’s introduction and write it down. They’re doing a free show hoping to get work and you’re messing up their audition. If an introduction isn’t provided, use a generic, “He or she performs at clubs and colleges all over the country…” Introductions really can’t help a comic, they can only hurt. They need to be like a good umpire…there, but not remembered.
The largest chapter in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, is focused on emceeing. It’s the first step to making money and getting to perform in front of real comedy crowds on a consistent basis instead of random bar shows. You’ll also get to make better connections and occasionally work with famous comics (which I also write about).
Next week I’ll be away, so forgive me if I’m not able to post anything. In the meantime, please share this with as many comics as you can to prevent emcees from accidentally stepping on your material too.
Nothing can kill a show’s momentum, open mic or paid show, like a comic who stays on stage too long. Comics stay on stage for too long for several reasons. Sometimes they aren’t aware of their time. This happens more at the amateur level. Sometimes they can’t get a big laugh to end on. This happens at every level. Your closing joke doesn’t need to be your best joke, but instead, your most reliable. Certain jokes have a risk factor of not working. When they work, they might be your biggest laugh, but occasionally they could flop. Avoid using these as a closing joke and choose one that works every time.
Here’s a mistake I see a lot. Comics will do a great joke in the last minute of their set that gets a big laugh. Instead of closing on it, they’ll keep going and do a different bit that flops. Your set is only as strong as your last joke. This is important because crowds will tend to applaud you louder than the response they just made for what should be your closing joke (reread that until it makes sense). Don’t feel like you have to force in that last joke when instead, you can get off on a high note. Why is this important? A loud crowd response will gain the attention of the manager. If you can shift the momentum of a crowd in a positive direction week after week someone’s going to notice and start giving you paid gigs. On the contrary, if you risk going over your time to fit in a mediocre joke, it shows that your stage sense is lacking and you’ll remain an amateur.
Also, don’t attempt to do what few headliners can pull off by closing on crowdwork or some cheesy speech about “I’m so lucky to be doing what I love and it’s all ’cause of you guys!”
1. Know your time.
2. Have a trusty joke to exit on.
3. If something right before it works just as well, you can close on that.
4. Be sure it’s a joke, not an interaction with a crowd member or some cheesy line that kisses the crowd’s ass.
Don’t have a Kindle to read Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage? No problem, find it on iTunes or get a signed paperback here.
Comics often get upset with crowds when they moan and groan at different jokes. “It’s a comedy clubs, relax!” If you hang around with a group of comics, the jokes extend beyond the stage often at one another’s expense. No matter what’s going on at home, the club is no place to bring your problems and baggage, only your humility. Put your ego aside when you come to a comedy club (and while you’re at it, on Facebook as well).
That doesn’t mean you can just go in and make fun of anyone. There’s a bit of a pecking order and for you to determine whether your ball-busting comment is worth it. Think ahead of time, “Will what I say influence whether I get work or not?” That doesn’t mean a veteran can just go round cracking on everyone. There’s a long list of headliners that nobody likes. We joke with the ones we
love can tolerate to be around so don’t go attacking comics you’ve barely talked to.
At the same time, learn when to time your cracks. For example, if you’re going to make fun of the MC during an open mic or a regular show, remember that the MC will get the last word after your set. The pecking order warning from above is also there because odds are the more experienced comic is better at comebacks than you. I’ve been on both sides of this exchange over the years.
Honestly, unless you’re a headliner getting a door deal, you need the club more than the club needs you. That means everyone who works at the club is more important than you, so be careful what you say even if you’re just joking around. Also, learn not to take yourself so seriously. You should be mentally focused before taking the stage, but that doesn’t mean you should be strutting around as if you’re about to take the ring in a UFC fight. Calm down, you’re doing five minutes. The more you act like a super-star, the more you’re going to get mocked.
Stay humble on Facebook as well. For every great accomplishment you post, throw in one or two remarks about your real life struggles or shortcomings as well. And if you can’t think of anything wrong with yourself, ask Joe Lehnig. He’ll be happy to keep you grounded. And if you think I’m being a hypocrite in this entry, we just don’t know each other well enough. I’ve made plenty of mistakes on this topic, come find me.
For more tips on handling yourself better on and off stage, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.