(This story took so long to publish, as I wanted to add the little video documentary of the day to add flavor. My android phone doesn’t work well with my Mac computer, so it took me awhile.)
I get an email this summer from my friends, Kevin Cahak and Dave Brula, asking if I was interested in doing a show at a county fair. As someone who had done one before my initial reaction was Hell No…but what is the money? His answer was right at the beginning place where I would consider it, so I told him, I have that date open, so tell the organizers I’m available.
Now I should mention that Gallagher was originally booked for this show, but he had some health problems and was forced to cancel. I don’t believe I’m second on the list to be called after Gallagher, but I had kicked off a couple of Kevin’s and David’s shows they had done in Northern Wisconsin and they knew I would do a good job, so they thought of me. I couldn’t promise I would bring the circus to the County Fair that G-man would have, but at least, I would be easier to deal with off-stage.
As most stories that make it here at my blog entail, a few things have to go wrong to make them really interesting. Besides Gallagher getting ill, the Merrill County Fair had the misfortune of having a tornado go through their humble little grounds the week before. It destroyed their stage and seating. The quick fix was to bring in a large truck trailer they would use for the stage and get some portable metal bleachers.
I know this is hard to imagine so check out the video below this piece, but let me mention this was not aided by it being over 90 degrees, as the truck box steamed and the bleachers reacted to the heat like a George Foreman grill. The people on the aluminum bleachers were like convenience store hot dogs on the metal roller. Now if you live in Texas, no big deal on the temps, but in Northern Wisconsin, this was record heat. There are people in this area of the country that don’t even have air condition because it is so rarely needed, so this was not a good situation to draw people to the show. No shade to be found. Comedy outside is very tricky, as there are so many distractions, but when you add record heat, it’s not going to help ticket sales.
Did I mention that it was open to all ages. Of the 40-some people on the bleachers, a handful of them were kids under the age of 10. I’m not blaming anyone for this, as I had been warned ahead of time. Just want to paint the picture, as it was going to be a 50 minute song and dance of a show.
To start the show was Kevin, who did a great job of getting things started. He has a good act for this group and since he was from the area, he spoke the crowd’s language. That can never be too underrated–knowing your audience and being one of them. It’s why I don’t do as well with a typical audience in Miami, as the people there can tell I’m not one of them. Considering I’ve done well in every one of the 38 states I have performed in I know I am not a regional act, but I do know my strength is with white and black audiences. As you might guess in Northern Wisconsin, you could narrowcast them to Whitey.
Following Kevin was magician David Harris. Most comics I know claim to hate magicians. I either really like or really hate magicians. I think Penn and Teller or Mac King are pretty brilliant, so I try not to be too judgmental. I appreciate the skill it takes to be great at sleight of hand. The problem comedians have with magicians is when they are really corny. My guess is some of this corniness comes from doing so many shows for kids where they have to take any of the edge out of their performance. If you want to be a successful working magician you need to be able to do shows for all ages. There are very few paid gigs where the client is looking for Penn Gillette or the Amazing Jonathan, so you have to go to what keeps you working. David is one of the better magicians I’ve ever worked with and was a perfect person for this show. He kept the ball disappearing (magic speak for ball rolling) with the audience.
In the video below I do a short little interview with him and something came to me off the cuff. One major difference between most comedians and magicians are that most comedians are way too lazy to spend 1000’s of hours in their room perfecting a skill like magic. My guess is that if most comedians had the focus to learn an instrument, they would be in a rock band, not be getting up at open mics. I know this comes off a slam to my own readers, but I can’t stress enough that to be successful at standup, you need to have a strong work ethic. Not since the comedy boom in the 80’s, has there been a situation where you could just be pretty funny and get work. It takes working really hard on perfecting your act, networking, marketing, and making yourself a likable figure to your audience. Even if your material is dark, you need to create a likability to your audience, as they don’t just want to hear some complete stranger complain. Everyone’s got a family member they could visit for free if they wanted to experience that.
So it was my turn. I spent the first couple minutes acknowledging the awkward situation we all found ourselves in. I spent a good 5 minutes sarcastically discussing how great it is to perform in a sweat box–I mean truck trailer. I spoke about all the great things going on in Merrill, Wisconsin…which took another 30 seconds. Then I touted the fair and all the four fried groups were represented. Stuff like this. Let me stress, I never took a shot at the Fair itself, staying positive about it. I know I probably lose some edgy standup comic points for not taking swings at the organizers for putting me in this situation, but I look at it differently. I had been told things wouldn’t be optimal, the people running the thing could not have been nicer, and I was being paid fairly to make the best of this show.
I forgot to mention that a band was going to be performing soon after my show, so occasionally you would hear some self-absorbed drummer pounding on his kit which I guess served as his sound check. Instead of getting pissed off, I just used it for material for me to riff off of. Important lesson in performing. When you are faced with things out of your control, don’t pretend they aren’t there…use them for comedic effect. The audience usually loves this as it makes them feel like they are part of the joke.
Guess what? This show ended up being really fun. The audience left feeling really good about the show. Even though the County Fair lost their ass on the thing, the organizers were very appreciative of my efforts and they were apologetic to me for not having a better situation and larger audience. It isn’t what I would want to do every show, but it left me with another great story and for me, that is my meaning of life.