Performers have a word for the non-show biz people who attend a show for the first time: civilians. Some civilians like what I do at that first show and want to come see me again. That makes ‘em fans. (In comedy, people rarely give you a chance to disappoint them twice.)
Now these civilians are mostly total strangers. Strangers are the ones I depend on for developing bits of material. I’m not a household name, so winning over people who don’t know anything about me is an important part of stage success.
Once on that stage, I win or lose the audience’s laughter based on what I present in the time allowed. They can judge from a general perception, to my specific point of view, to the surprising twists that I, or any comic, might present. Could be a turn of phrase they like (or don’t) or a combination of thought and explanation of new (maybe skewed) logic they never considered. The actual “history” of my life, other than what I present as my history, isn’t a major part of what they get to laugh at.
That’s how I see it when strangers fill an audience. Luckily, the world is full of strangers, and it follows that most of my shows are full of strangers. The other type of civilians are family members and longtime friends. And I’m lucky to say, there’s a lot of those out there. It’s not in the billions like strangers, but when family and friends turn up in full force at a show, they sure do weigh more on my thought process. These are people that helped convince me that I was a funny guy from the beginning of whatever time my humor clock started ticking. They laughed at my observations, and like it or not, helped my personality stretch in the comedy direction. They encouraged me and that has made this life so full professionally and personally.
Last weekend I performed at The Laugh Cellar comedy club in my hometown, just a few miles from my house. I had introduced myself to the club owner to offer myself as a back-up comedian in case a scheduled act missed a flight or got sick.
Okay, I had an my ulterior motive: I wanted a place to “play” where people are paying to see comedy. When someone pays to see a comedy show, they have some “skin in the game.” More often than not, they want the comedians to succeed because they came to laugh. I like trying new bits in front of an experienced comedy audience. It’s a higher form of experimentation.
So this was an established comedy club…in my hometown. I got booked on my own merits (and not another performer’s flat tire or broken leg). The audience would include strangers and also people who knew me from way, way back. They all know how I did in school and if I was any good at sports. They remember those unfortunate fashion choices and odd haircuts. People who have witnessed my successes and failures—not the comedic spin I might give those experiences. Having this many loved ones in the audience caused me some serious contemplation about my material.
Actually, I was more stressed out about this show than many much larger shows I’ve done over the years. There have been just three or four shows in my career with an audience chockfull of family and friends, and each one has made me nervous. I seriously questioned my decision to promote the show knowing my friends would be quick to support me.
The Laugh Cellar show was a full house. Everyone was there from the club’s usual patrons to my friends and family to locals who had heard I was a comic, but were not completely convinced it was true. On one hand, the audience liked comedy and many liked me even before I opened my mouth. On the other hand, if a joke fell flat, I’ll hear about it over coffee, at a birthday party or in the middle of Christmas dinner.
To get to the spoiler, the show went fine. I was happy to make people laugh from all stages of my life—elementary school, middle school, high-school, (including two prom dates!), and college. The audience included a comic pal I started with, my 90-year old uncle (at left) and his circle, and, of course, my fabulous muse-wife Teresa. Actually, that show did not have a lot of strangers.
About 15 minutes into the show, I realized I had them! My stress level went down a notch and kept falling. I loved giving them the gift of laughter. That is the biggest “win” in the comedy “wars.”
At the end of the show, I suddenly remembered (once again) that succeeding with people who like you off stage makes life worth living. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity and the residual glow of succeeding. I like making strangers laugh—it’s one of the most gratifying sounds in the world. It’s only surpassed by the love I feel when I get to hear the laughter of wonderful family and dear friends.