Last night I did a local show which featured open-mikers getting up before I did 30 minutes to close the show. It was in a fairly rough area and it quickly became apparent comedy was not the reason people were there. Basically, it was a lot of drunken dudes, with a few chicks throw-in who were all about slamming down the adult beverages. And why not? It was the Sabbath and what better way to get ready for work on Monday than building a massive hangover from the night before. Basically, no respect was given to any of the opening acts, except for one comic who was so likable he could not be denied.
Now here is where I share another of my theories on standup comedy. I never judge a comic on a great crowd, as pretty much anyone can thrive with them. I call it stealing, as it doesn’t seem like you have to do any work and you still get paid. All it takes is one of these nights for an open-miker to gain the belief that they should make it their profession, as it does leave you feeling pretty great. I’ve seen amateur comics do standup for years and years, deluding themselves into continuing because they still they can capture that moment again. It’s really an illusion, as it’s just cosmic (not comic) luck.
I don’t judge comedians off a bad show either. Well, not that much. My disclaimer is I do judge a professional comic somewhat when they perform in a front of bad audience, as I think if you are getting paid, you should at least be willing to break from your script a little to try to make the show better. Too many comics I’ve seen just give up and phone-in their performance in this situation. Even worse is when the comedian just blames the audience for being stupid or terrible. I like watching a comedian acknowledge that the show is not going well and then uses that to get the audience back on their side. Look, if the job was easy, every open miker that has ever tried doing comedy would be making it their living. It’s not.
OK, now back to last night. I was impressed last night that all the comics that proceeded me tried their best to make the most of what was a nearly impossible situation. The back of the room, where the bar was at was deafening at times, making it nearly impossible to hear yourself think. Standing up in front of people trying to get laughs seems like one of the most difficult things to do for most people, but it reaches a whole different level of near impossibility when you can’t hear yourself think. It is an important experience to go through as it helps you understand if you have the nerve to do this job. Hellgigs are part of the profession, especially in the early days. Being able to quickly get an audience back on your side and demonstrate that you can roll with the punches and not be robotic to your material is all part of moving on.
Fortunately, I don’t have to do many of these gigs anymore, as I have enough good gigs offered to me that I can fill my calendar with them. Since I don’t do them that often, I really don’t mind hellgigs. It brings a different energy to my performance because I’m filled with a mixture of rage and apathy for the audience, since I have little respect for them. By having these feelings, I feel free to let it fly with pretty much all the vitriolic thoughts I can spew about them. When a comic brings enough passion and confidence to these type of insulting comments about individual audience members who have established their asshole tendencies, well I have found they usually not only turn the show around, but they kick ass. It’s not the type of thing that makes you superstar on TV, but it is a nice tool to have in your chest and never fails to make me feel good afterward. It almost gives me a feeling of beating up the bully who took advantage of some nice people. (see earlier comics) I know this sounds like an inflated view of things, but I’ve had many comics compliment me after one of these flame-throwing exhibitions. Last night was one of these nights. Oh and did I mention that the table that was causing the most problems during the show were so engaged by the end that they yelled “NO, KEEP GOING”, when I told them that was my time. I responded by saying my work was done and left the stage. Not what I like to do on a regular basis, but it is good to keep my standup survivalist stage instincts in-shape.
You might wonder why the bar didn’t kick the people out? Well, almost every bar patron was not there to watch comedy. Pretty much the only people who were politely watching the show at the beginning were the comedians. For the most part, open-mic comedians are kind of like people who go from bar to bar singing karaoke. They just drink soft-drinks or water and the bar would go broke if they tried to cater to these performers. So nothing was said except could you be a little more quiet to the audience and that was pretty much all that could be done. If rooms like this are going to succeed, the bar has to decide if their patrons want to see comedy and show some respect or if they would rather just be a bunch of rowdy drunks. I will be interested in seeing how this scenario works its way out.