I started doing standup in the 90’s and for some reason, intro music seemed like it was an important part of the show. Sam Kinison in the decade before had brought rock music to his theater show and Bill Hicks had his own version of it towards the end of his career. (Dennis Leary followed suit.) Since these 3 comics were among my biggest influences at the time, I felt like it would help me be more like them if I had some ass-kicking music at the start of my set. My buddy, comic Todd Toney felt the same.
We did some fraternity house shows at some local colleges when we began. These shows are about as bad of a show as you can do, as the audience is usually totally shit-faced when you begin. It seemed like the thing to do as frat house at the time was to have a Golf Party. This was a set-up where 18 rooms would have a different alcohol. It was the kind of binge drinking that gives fraternity houses their great name. So what do you get when you have 30 totally drunken frat guys… yes, I know it sounds like the beginning of a date rape joke.
Add to this that we comics were the foreplay to help them get laid by the sorority that was part of their mixer. Not good. Still, when you have been doing comedy for a year and you are looking to do a show where you are getting paid some money, plus getting to do 30 minutes of time, it definitely could be worse. Since we (Todd and I) were 2 guys in their mid-20’s running the show, we made it the way we wanted. We said what we wanted, no restrictions. We also got to play whatever music we wanted. We were living the rock star dream.
Somehow in my delusional brain I felt if I played Rage Against the Machine while walking up onstage, it would create some type of transcendence where I was a rock star of comedy. I was punk rock and gangsta rap all rolled up into standup. Killing in the Name is perfectly cued up to this part.
Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me! Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me!
Shit man, I am feeling it. I explode on to the stage…and then what. I could be as animated as possible, but my jokes just weren’t going to be as in your face as Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me. As soon as the music goes off, so does most of that energy. As much as I wanted it to be, you can’t make standup comedy reach into people the same way music does. Comics like Kinison, Chris Rock, Dane Cook, etc, have been about as rock and roll as you can onstage, but they never even got that close. Comedy is about ideas and timing. Sure you are on a stage, using a microphone, but that is the end of the similarities to being a rock star.
As silly as I was at the time, thinking my intro music was going to change the way I was perceived, black comics at the time were even crazier about it. At the time, Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam was blowing up, with Grandmaster Flash DJ’ing each comic to the stage. At almost every open mic, the poor person running it was deluged with comics who were very particular about the intro music they would walk up to. Kind of like they were baseball closers who needed to walk from the bullpen to AC/DC or Metallica to pump themselves up. The problem with this is unlike a guy throwing a 95 mph fastball, too much energy out of the gate as a standup seems forced. I’m telling you, it was crazy.
I can recall being at some shitty open mic at a dive bar where one of the comics said he needed this music or his show wouldn’t work. The bar manager said that he didn’t have a CD player, so the comic ran out, got into his car so he could drive home and get his boombox. Then in front 0f 12 mainly disinterested middle-aged redneck audience members, he walks up onstage with his ghetto blaster blasting Public Enemy. He proceeds to stand there with his arms crossed looking I’m sure to him, very badass, until the part of the song where Flavor Flav said BOYYYY, which he said into the mic with him. Only time I’ve ever witnessed rappin’ comedy karaoke. I was in the back laughing my ass off, but it didn’t seem like anyone understood the unintentional hilarity going on.
This crazy focus on intro music was still going by the start of this century. I can remember being at the short-lived Baltimore IMPROV. One of the big problems it had was that they had a great soundsystem. Because it was so good, the management felt they needed to hire a DJ before the shows. This dude blasted the music at techno club levels. Since most of the audience members weren’t fans of this music, they squirmed in their seats trying to get in a few words to their friends before the show. The DJ was a real prima donna and when people actually came over to ask him if he could turn it down, he said that wasn’t going to happen. I was working with Frank Caliendo, who is not a big fan of music in the first place. First night he has DMX’s Up in Here slamming before Frank walks up to the stage. Really a bad mix.
Not as bad as this one, though. I was at the Tampa IMPROV one week where the first night I walk onstage as the DJ had some hardcore gangsta rap playing while I went up. Come on man, does that look like something you should play before I go up to a totally white audience? Well, right when I grabbed the mic, what blasts through the speakers but this.
It’s the Nigga You Love to Hate…
Now I like Ice Cube, but it isn’t what I need to follow with my silly little opening joke about Target. I have a hard time ignoring stuff like that so I told the audience, which was mixed, that if they were curious, I didn’t not request to be brought up to a song that drops a N bomb right as I take the mic. Sure I love to say the N bomb as much as the next white guy, but I like to do that in the sanctity of my gated community. It still makes me laugh, but the audience weren’t buying it. Ended up taking me a few minutes to get on board with the crowd, as Ice Cube didn’t help my initial impression with the audience.
So here we come to the end when I wrap this up. The only way your opening music will have an impact on your show is it could be a negative. Oh and whatever you do, if you are an open miker, don’t ask the manager to play some special intro music for you, as they hate that shit.