When I started comedy many (many) years ago, I was more excited about getting on the stage than what I said once I was there. My material was not deep (Yeah, some would say it’s still not, but never mind) but back then, the essential ingredient to my survival was the energy and excitement. I needed those two things to propel me on stage, when even a sneeze from the crowd kept me coming back.
I doubt I ever even heard the audience reaction for the first three months of trying out comedy as a career. I was too busy trying to remember what to say, and what to say next. And what to say after that! Pausing—even for the fleeting giggle—was not yet in my comedy toolkit. Timing and audience reaction was not tops on my list. When one of my bits got laughs it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to them.
At some point, I started listening and learned to appreciate not just the “laugh wave” that hits you on stage, but also the trough of silence that is nearly as powerful with its palpable tension-building prowess.
But listening (even when you’ve been at it a long time) is not foolproof. I’ve been on a run of easy shows, gigs that let me perform my tried-and-true material, mix in new bits that are working well, and wrap up with a new closer that I like—no, love—doing.
Every now and then, the universe reminds my ego that the joke is on me because there is no “business as usual” in comedy. What worked last night might not work tonight. I found this out at a recent fundraising event where I lost (and fortunately regained) my “comedy ears.”
When the first joke out of my mouth did not hit, I couldn’t figure it out. But why worry? I had plenty more opening bits.
But when I burned through 15 minutes of material in 10 minutes to a very quiet room, I had to acknowledge the problem. I had 40 more minutes to go. I took off my coat, hung it on the mic stand, told the audience I didn’t think we were connecting, and basically started over.
I had figure out what was going on, change gears, and make it work. Turns out the wait staff was delivering dessert, 100 folks at a time, from the back forward. So for the first 1o minutes, part of audience was eating dessert, others were distracted by receiving dessert and the remainder of the crowd was craning their necks to see what kind of carbs and sugar were heading their way. (For the record, it was ice cream and donuts—essentially the Abbot and Costello of desserts.)
To start over, I had to inject more energy in order to propel the material, and then did the muscle memory of trusting the practiced tempo of pause and punchline. To rebound from my false start, I just bent my being into hearing what they were laughing at, not forcing them to into a box of my imagination. I took my time, regained my confidence, and in so doing, regained their confidence in the performance.
Once again, I was reminded that comedy is not just a profession of talking—it’s one of careful listening, too. That’s what I’ve defined as the main difference between a comedy routine and a long lecture: listening. Sure the goal is that I talk, they listen, I stop, they laugh, but somewhere in there is my part of the equation, after their laugh, I listen too.
I don’t like re-learning lessons from my first months of comedy! It’s way more painful to endure 10 to 20 minutes of near-silence now rather than the those two quiet minutes I experienced in my early days. But active listening isn’t just for long-term relationships. I need to do it with audiences, too. I had a lot of “practice swings” at my recent show with that “listening club” I forgot that I carried. I won’t forget now to swing that one every show for a long while.