The “Final Exam of Comedy” Gig

Last Saturday I worked one of the toughest gigs of my career.  It wasn’t in an unruly bar where bottles were being tossed or in an urban room after following a great high-energy urban comic; it was a rather innocent sounding fundraiser for a local school district.  In fact, nearly half of the crowd was either a teacher or working in the education field I was told.  I’m a language arts teacher and a good chunk of my act is about the classroom.  There were around 150 120 there when I got on stage.

I call this the final exam of comedy because it took almost every aspect of things I’ve learned in my total of 15 years performing to pull off what I felt was a good set.  So much of what I’ve blogged about on here or written in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage came up, that it felt just like a test.

As mentioned before, the risk of these fundraisers (though they pay well) is that they don’t know how to run a comedy show.  The MC has no idea how to host and the room is never properly set up.  If I made a mistake, it was not getting more involved with the setup, but then again, is that really my job? (it’s up to you, you get paid either way.)  I got there a half hour early and the crowd was eating a buffet.  My feature act arrived too and we asked about what was acceptable as far as content.  Though she answered us, if you think about it, a woman in charge of fundraising does not know what’s honestly acceptable.  The crowd determines that.  She told us, PG-13 and don’t drop the F-bomb over and over.  “They’re all adults, so they should be fine.”

Should be, but weren’t.  I noticed the bar wasn’t really busy at all and a lot of the crowd’s makeup was older women who were very concerned about the silent auctions going off to the side.  So my first thought was about which jokes I needed to edit out of my 45 minutes.

The room setup was awful.  There was a large stage, but there was a lot of house lighting (on the buffet and gift baskets) so I asked her about dimming the house lights which she was able to do.  The biggest problem was that the tables on the right and left side of the room had about a 30-foot gap between them leaving the center of the room, where everyone could’ve fit, completely empty.  None of the tables on stage right or left were very close either.

Here’s the most relate-able and common problem with one-nighters:  The MC has no idea how to run a comedy show.  He was nice, but he dropped the ball numerous times.  Assume your MC knows nothing at every one of these gigs.  Explain things to him in the most dumbed down way you can.  We gave him our most simplistic intros.  Clubs and college, yada yada, and explained that no one really cares about intro credentials so please just bring us up.  He interpreted that (as many have) as beginning with our names, stumbling through our full bios that he got online, and then “Here he is.”

I brought my sacrificial lamb buddy to do 15 minutes ahead of me.  Always bring an opener!  They serve as a sound check and a buffer for all of the other things that need to be corrected.  I suffered through the years of this role, performing to bars with the lights/TV still on, feedback from hot mics, crowds not listening, etc.  The MC was supposed to wrap up the silent auction and then bring up my opener.  Guess which order he picked to do that in?  So as my feature began his set, a bunch of soon to be retired librarians and school teachers battled it out for the Bath and Body Works gift baskets.  When a good chunk of the room isn’t listening, those who are seated assume that they don’t need to listen and that pretty much wipes out a set.

The MC went back up and finally closed the stupid auction and then announced the 50/50 raffle which would be taking place right in front of the stage…”And now for your next comic…”

This is where it’s okay to step in and own your show.  I told him, “No, you need to let them finish their sales, and THEN I’ll perform.”  He honestly was going to let it go on with people talking right in front of the stage.   I repeat:  Assume the MC knows nothing in most places because it’s often true.  The DJ even dimmed more lighting and played two songs to which a few of the “I gotta dance” girls came up and shook for those 6 minutes.  In a firm, professional manner I explained what I needed him to do and what the room needed to do for a successful show.

Once I got on stage, I did the usual local humor, made fun of the venue, etc. and then went into material…clean, PC material.  I tried a little crowd work and the guy said he knew me from my ex-girlfriend of 9 years ago, so that got a few cheap laughs, but overall it was a successful set.  I made sure not to comment if a joke didn’t do as well, and I didn’t turn on them if they groaned.  It honestly was my best effort for a full set.  Just 2 or 3 years ago this kind of situation would’ve led to me bombing.  It shows that through on and off stage experience you can make the best of a challenging situation.  Some comics have the attitude of, “Well I get paid either way,” but honestly, who wants to be in a poor setup for 45 to an hour?  Plus it leads to better merch sales.  I chatted with the bartender (always a great barometer for what kind of crowd you’ll have) and she took my card for an upcoming gig she was hoping to book me for.  That’s another reason your attitude should be to always do your best no matter the situation.

Years ago (2007), an important booker declined to use me because he said I wasn’t 100% likable even during the tough gigs.  He needed someone who could do well even in a bad room.  I can honestly say I’m at that point (finally).  For a one-nighter it’s not just about what you say and do on stage–getting a show to run properly can be an even bigger difference.

For more advice on how to make money in stand-up comedy, try reading Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage via Amazon or any ebook format (Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.)

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About Rob Durham

With an English Degree, three years as a doorman at the Columbus Funnybone, over a decade of stand-up experience, and a recent certification in teaching high school English class, writing a book seemed like the next inevitable step for Rob Durham. The son of a coach, Rob has an excellent ability to teach and explain things in the easiest and most direct way possible. His (often labeled ridiculous) memory allows him to think of every possible situation that a new comic might face because at one point he was there too. Rob gives an inside look at comedy that doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges every performer faces. Without ego and the myth that “anyone can do it” Rob gives the reader a true feel of what living the so-called dream feels like, from preparing for that first open mic night to touring the country. View all posts by Rob Durham

2 responses to “The “Final Exam of Comedy” Gig

  • Shaun Eli

    Is it your job to get involved in setting up the room? It’s clearly somebody’s job. Who put the show together? If a booker, it’s his/her job. If not, well, if you’re gonna suffer the consequences then maybe it pays to get involved in advance. I’ve arrived at plenty of venues in advance of seating and helped them move tables.

    And as far as content? I use my judgment, but I’m convinced that letting the audience guide you is a bad idea. If 80% laugh tons at your stuff you’ll think you’re killing but if 20% are horribly offended then you’ve failed.

    This should be discussed, in advance, with the organizer. I can’t see that cursing in front of a bunch of teachers at a fundraiser is the best idea unless the show was specifically billed as anything goes or uncensored or adult comedy or similar.

    • Rob Durham

      We discussed it plenty. I got a letter of complaint (mostly against my opener), but I had two emails archived where I asked her about content. We then had a conversation right beforehand. If they want an hour of squeaky clean corporate comedy, they’ll need to pay more than $400. I’d say a grand is reasonable. Thanks for your comment.

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