When people ask me what characteristics go into being a good standup, my response is that they are one part self-absorbed and one part insecure. To standup in front of people with the belief that you have something to offer which is so interesting people should pay you to hear it is pretty insane on the surface. To be successful, though, it goes beyond just being a narcissist. You also have to be filled with enough insecurity that you don’t come off like you are a cocky jerk the whole time on-stage. Now there are a few exceptions to this, but for the most part an audience responds best to someone is confident, but shows a little vulnerability.
Considering that comedians are this strange mix of self-absorbed and insecure, it’s not a big surprise that very few of them can put out a compliment to each other. Dumb strategy though, if you want to move up in the biz. Just like in any job, networking is important. While no one (well almost no one) likes a suck-up, it doesn’t hurt to say something nice or encouraging to a fellow comic.
I try to be very honest with comics I work with, pointing out the flaws I see in their show. I have been wrong before, but I think most of the time I have good instincts for it. If I think you have potential, I will mention something I like about your act. I am a fan of standup comedy and I try to be a positive voice to people I think should continue to pursue it. Most comics I know rarely offer constructive criticism or complimentary comments to other acts because they are all so focused on themselves. I know that all comics are competing on one level, but if I like you, I try to offer any help I can
Now when another comic says something positive about my show, I get uncomfortable because I didn’t grow up hearing a lot of positive stuff from authority figures in my life. It doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t appreciate the words. When I think about it, I find it kind of amazing how few times I do hear an opening act compliment something about my show. I don’t need a total reach-around, but you could give my ego at least a couple of strokes. There is a fine line between being sincere and being a suckup, but showing some professional respect for someone is not that hard. It won’t automatically get you glowing references from a peer, but it will make that person more predisposed to liking you. I mean, pull your head out of your ego enough to give a little good energy out to someone you like.
Recently I worked with a feature act for the first time that I had heard good things about as a standup. We are sitting in the green room together for a few minutes before the show and he doesn’t say a word to me, he just talks to the MC. It was so awkward that I tried to get him involved in a conversation a couple of times, but he seemed to have no interest in this with me. Now I’m not that insecure, but I will tell you that it wasn’t feeling great. The guy had a real alternative style to himself, so I was thinking did he go online and watch my clips and not like what he saw? (Ok, maybe I am more insecure than I think I am.)
So the show starts and I watch his act and as much as I’m not wanting to like the guy, I can’t pretend that I don’t think he’s funny and original. So the rest of the week goes this same way, with him pretty much ignoring me or seeming uncomfortable around me. I actually spoke to a mutual friend of ours who helped me feel a little better about this situation, as the friend told me that he’s heard this same type story from other comics who have worked with him.
Now I understand that some people struggle with interpersonal skills, but unless you are one of the few people who have a singular talent, you are going to need some fellow comedians in your corner to rise up the food chain. When an agent who had seen that I worked with the comic above asked me about him, I responded by saying I thought he was a really good feature act on-stage and first-class douche off-stage. This was as honest of an assessment as I could offer. The guy is really funny, but why do I want to help someone who can’t show a modicum of respect for me? There is no shortage of comedians. You don’t have to be Mr or Ms Positive, but it will probably help your career if you come off like someone who cares more than just about yourself.