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Three things no comedian needs: heat, hecklers and hubris

Stage time is often golden time. This stand-up comedy show-biz “thang” needs to be kindly cultivated and given adequate time for random thoughts…to become jokes…to build an act…to land  a gig…to (maybe) sustain a career.

I see it this way: There’s the thinking and deciding what’s funny (or not), there’s the writing and picking words to make the thought clearer and funnier (or not), there’s the editing and practicing to make it performance worthy (or not), there’s the connecting to the people in power to get on stage and deliver (or not),  then there’s the actual performing and making the audience laugh (or not), and finally there’s the re-thinking, re-writing, re-performing, (sometimes the re-ego-ing), sometimes re-connecting in making things move forward to the next time (or not).

I am pretty good at some aspects of some of these. I write a lot, edit a lot, obsess a lot, and last night went to perform a little. Headed to an open mic with sign ups but somewhere between reading the flyer and the night of event, the venue had changed to a showcase format with performers slotted ahead of time. So I transformed into supportive audience member knowing that connections for the next time were also one of the ingredients of the above incomplete recipe for some limelight success.

I haven’t been only an audience member for a while. At performance showcases or open mics, I try to support the folks who have supported me on stage. Plus I like to laugh.

This was a solid night of performance on a great stage and featured a mix of different types of comics and material and subjects and pitfalls. It was over 90 degrees in the house, so I can’t imagine the temperature on stage. After the first five comics, anyone would see the audience response was on the quiet side.

Yet a comedian’s skill in maintaining presence when a good bit does not  landing squarely was a reminder of how to be and how not to be. And if the heat wasn’t heckler enough, a front row patron yelled out in the first 50 seconds. Between the temperature and the loudmouth, it looked like a long night, but the audience was on each comic’s side and hung in for the entire two hours. It helped that the host commented that most folks were there to laugh at the material coming from the stage, not from the heckler in the audience. In short, play by the rules.

Surprisingly, there were very few headlines in the material. The scant rants on a politics is a big difference from late night TV. Mostly material was based on self revelation, self-deprecation, and some audience participation. New stuff abounded from notes, and some of it hit. Everyone laughed at something but as an audience we couldn’t unite to laugh at the same thing all at once. It bothered some performers, and others took it in stride.

That’s another ingredient necessary for good comedy: composure. Even when you feel you’re not doing well, the audience takes a grand clue from body language and attitude. Anger at the audience was not rewarded. Seducing us with kind remarks only to then berate us later was a death knell. We didn’t mind an honest observation that a piece had landed flat, but casting blame took a non existent laugh to a brand new level of quiet. A few learned from the act before them, others fell into the same trap.

I feel quite lucky in my job. Every night in stand-up comedy is different, even with much of same material because the audience members are new with new dynamics, histories, opinions and thought processes. And to that inconsistency I say “how wonderful!”

If your piece makes groups laugh all over, money is grand, but knowing you can reach so many people is as good or better. For me, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop re-learning what to do, and what not to do. I certainly re-learned a great deal in the audience last night, and can’t wait for the another round where I might be one of the folks getting the new group of audience members to laugh. Or not.

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