In 2013 I had a week at a club that I didn’t feel went very well. The crowds were large enough, but instead of getting the usual response on certain jokes, I got groans or silence. To make matters worse, the headliner got a standing ovation during the show I considered to be my worst. So why does this happen?
When a headliner comes back to a club year after year, he or she builds a solid following of people who come out every time they’re in town (otherwise they often get replaced by someone who does). If a headliner has a certain kind of style that doesn’t mesh well with yours, as an MC or feature, it can be pretty tough. If a big trademark part of the headliner’s act is something that varies from standard basic stand-up comedy (such as puppets, magic, singing, costume changes, or maybe they’re just a famous actor), you can expect to have a more challenging week. I’m not saying they’re bad comics, but if their style is completely different from yours and the crowd is there to see them and that (whatever it is from above), it’s going to be harder on you. A lot of times these headliners just come from the previous generation of comics (which means respect them no matter what you think of their act).
I’m getting better at telling if this is the case ahead of time. Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these headliners, just that you shouldn’t beat yourself up if their crowds don’t dig you as much. Here are some clues that this might be the case:
1. They have a stage name (though I cringe when they introduce themselves to me using their stage name).
2. There’s stuff all over the stage (sound boards, props, instruments, etc.).
3. They have to put their wardrobe back on in the green room after every show because of all the costume changes.
4. They talk a lot about performing in Vegas.
5. They often get standing ovations.
So what do you do if this is the case?
1. Hopefully the club’s manager realizes the situation and doesn’t think you’re bombing. You could subtly mention that the headliner has a lot of fans.
2. Clean it up! A lot of these fans aren’t regulars at the club so anything edgy might still shock them. Do a more corporate sounding set that won’t make them nervous to laugh if they’re sitting by the table of minorities you just did a joke about.
3. Stick to your time. Often these headliners do longer sets so maybe you get trimmed back to fifteen or twenty minutes–cool, less work!
4. Focus on the rare, positive feedback. There could even be a table who likes your style better and wasn’t there specifically to see the headliner. They’ll walk out early sometimes and tell you they liked your set much better. Thank them graciously and hope that they filled out a comment card. Focus on their praise instead of the mediocre sets you’re having.
5. Don’t care. If you’ve worked the club enough times and don’t feel like they’ll never have you back, don’t let it bother you. Don’t apologize during your set if you do offend his/her “fans.” Show them you enjoy your jokes whether they do or not by standing firm.
The overall lesson is that yes, sometimes it is the crowd and as openers we’re not always strong enough to adapt to every situation yet. There are great musicians who get ignored at concerts while they open for popular headlining bands. It just comes with the territoy.
For other tips from preparing for your first open mic night to surviving the road, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. (Available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.)