In season 2 of Louis CK’s great show he has an episode where he does a set at a casino lounge that sucks the life out of him. He then ends up having a great conversation with Joan Rivers who is the playing the big showroom that night. While neither comic’s career represents the world I’ve lived the past 20 years, I did appreciate how it showed the ups and downs of being a standup. The funny thing about Louie’s casino room scene for me was that it was a lot better than many casino gigs I’ve done.
Casino gigs are very different than other places we do comedy in. Unless you are a big draw and you are playing a large showroom, you are there so the casino can say they have entertainment each week on that night. Usually there is no cover charge which always takes away the value the audience has for the comics. (How good could this person be–the show is free?) Add to this that there are lots of great gambling going on right outside the showroom and you have people coming and going while you are in mid-joke. It’s really hard to concentrate.
It can even be worse when the stage is not set-up in its own stand-alone room. I’ve done a few casinos where the stage is set-up right in the middle of the casino floor. Recently I did a set-up like this. It looked like it was going to be a nightmare gig and don’t get me wrong, it kind of was on some levels, but here is where my experience took over. Here are some of the things I did to make it a good show for the patrons.
- I made some comments about this being the best set-up I’ve ever had to do standup comedy in. I said this with a sarcastic tone, but smiled while I did it. By doing it this way, the casino couldn’t claim that I was saying anything bad about them (see Louis CK episode where he blasts the casino and gets fired). I was just giving the audience a clearer understanding of what they probably were already thinking, so they might cut me a little more slack and be more willing to root for me to do well. By using a happy face, while I verbalized something different, it comes off less like I’m bitching and more like I’m having fun with it. (I’m telling you I think this works.)
- If things couldn’t be bad enough, a number of times (at least 6) there were really loud overhead announcements that went on in the middle of my jokes. It’s incredibly frustrating, but what I did was just let them happen while smiling. If the joke was a really strong one I would start over, if it wasn’t, I just told the audience the bit that I had started wasn’t that good anyway, so the casino announcement saved them a groan. When you are interrupted midstream in a joke, it’s a mistake to try to reset something unless it’s a big laugh. Now if you tell the crowd you are moving on and they verbalize they still want to hear it, then go ahead with it. In this situation you can’t lose because if the joke doesn’t go great, you can blame them for doing it when you warned them.
- When you have lots of elements that are conspiring against you giving your best performance, it is a bad idea to just plow through your material like nothing is happening. This is definitely the best time to use your improv skills. I acknowledge everything in my environment. There was an elderly security guard that walked through the room during my show. I told the audience that I have not played this room before because I heard there had been some violent incidents at the casino, but they had promised they had a new security guard who made sure things didn’t get out of hand. So let me warn you, watch your staff because this dude will kick some serious ass. (pointing to the security guard who was walking very slowly around the room.) As the audience started laughing hard I then continued to riff on him using a 70’s type TV voiceover. He’s a retired cop now keeping crime away from Michigan casinos…Barnaby Jones is Harold the Badass Security Guard!
You might ask why would I do gigs like this? Well, let me say that there are some great perks with playing casinos. They usually pay a little better. The hotel room is generally first class. They usually (and always should) have a nice free buffet included as a bonus. So you put up with some less than optimal occurrences that happen when performing at a typical gig because offstage you get treated better. Louis CK in his show can go and get fired for ranting at the casino during his show. I can’t. My family needs the money. Oh and the other thing is if I was to selfishly slam the casino, I would potentially take a weekly paycheck from other comics. Even more importantly I would cast a big, FAT scarlet letter around my neck for booking agents, as I would be toxic to them, forever known as someone they can’t trust. Always remember, no matter how much you don’t like how a gig is run, there are proper channels to deal with it. Don’t go def-con 5 onstage. Don’t go crazy on the owner or manager. Talk to the booking agent the next day or just don’t do the gig again. We aren’t team players in standup comedy, but sometimes you have to bite your tongue and deal with something you don’t like so you don’t wreck it for the rest of your fellow comics.