How to avoid being the sacrificial lamb opener at a one-nighter…

A lot of the one-nighters you book may be fundraisers for a great cause.  This means that the main goal of the night is to raise money.  The people who put it together are volunteers, not comedy club managers, so they often don’t know how to run a show.  Other things will be going on before and during the show: silent auctions, 50/50s, and amateur bartenders taking orders.  All of this translates to noise in the room.  The worst part is that often times when the show starts, people are still in the middle of these other activities.  Without proper lighting and a pre-show announcement, the crowd has no idea that talking amongst themselves or getting their wife Peggy’s permission to bid $150 on a power washer isn’t the norm while the show in going on.

Multiple times I’ve been at a gig where the person in charge walks up to the mic, mumbles something and then announces the beginning of the show (Wait, did he just say my name?  Did we just start?).  Meanwhile the opener has to bump his/her way through a crowd who isn’t paying attention in a fully-lit room and begin doing a ten-minute set while no one is listening, thus the sacrificial lamb role (This is why you always bring an MC if you’re the feature).

So what do you do if you’re handed the mic in this awful situation?  How do you break into your thought-out material when no one can even hear you?  I’ve been there many times unfortunately.  I finally figured out a few ways to avoid this situation.

First, see if you can prevent it by making it extremely clear to whoever is in charge that you need the room completely seated and quiet first (as well as all of the other ideal conditions such as killing the house lights–even if the show must start late).  Second, stay near the stage so the person in charge can’t stumble up there and start things without you knowing.  If it’s pandemonium, don’t walk out on stage.  Tell the person, “Get them quiet first,” and leave him or her hanging in the spotlight.  They’re not afraid to address individuals (sometimes by name) and be the “teacher” who has to settle everyone down.  If the noise starts back up once you get out there, you have to get “the mob” in unison.  This even happened in my own home town on St. Patrick’s Day about 5 years ago when I was headlining (note: don’t do one-nighters on March 17 or in your home town when they’ve seen you enough).  Start with the basic, “Round of applause” for whatever the cause is.  Remind them why they’re there without making it somber or morbid.  Finally, if all else fails, get them to repeat a phrase after you.  Some sort of phrase that can falls between the polite “Stop talking, I’m here to laugh,” to the more direct, “Shut up, I paid to get in here!” The redder the state, the more direct you can be.  Have them repeat that until the rest of the crowd notices that a show is going on.

You’re going to have to speak up, but once you get it to a tolerable level and get your set going, change strategies and on one of your longer jokes, slow down and get quieter just for a line.  This will actually make the last few loud-talkers aware that the rest of the room can hear them–because the rest of the room will turn, stare, and shush them.  From there they usually police themselves.  It’s really amazing and effective when this works.  Focus on chunks of the crowd, not the entire room at once.

This is not an easy thing to do, and unfortunately it’s just part of paying your dues on the road.  It takes a lot of failures and experience for some comics (me) before you can prevent it from happening ever again.  You just have to get a majority of the crowd on your side–and they will be.  If none of the above works, plow through and do your time.  You still get paid no matter what.  The manager should be able to tell it wasn’t your fault and you did your best.

For more tips on how to make money in comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  Available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.  Amazon currently has some new copies on sale.