A few months ago, I wrote about getting started in stand-up comedy. Continuing for a few more months has given me a little more to write about.
A “bringer show” is a marketing technique in which the promoter relies primarily upon the performers themselves to drive ticket sales. On the one hand, it’s important to get stage time, and having an actual venue improves the experience both for the comics and for the audience. On the other hand, incessantly nagging my friends and coworkers so that they will come see me tell jokes seems like a great way to have fewer friends and annoyed coworkers. Weirder still is getting paid a cut of the ticket sales; it feels a little like a pyramid scheme, but instead of selling overpriced essential oils or kitchen knives, we tell people jokes they’ve already heard.
Rooms themselves matter
We wouldn’t keep doing this if nobody ever laughed. Part of what helps people laugh is the intimacy of the space, which makes it easier to want to pay attention. I’m lucky to live close to Edinburgh Castle Pub, which has an excellent, dimly-lit room with a low ceiling.
The host at Edinburgh, TK Moyer, is frankly the best in the game; the other comics who are regulars are excellent and respectful; the bartender is even cool. I don’t want to discount any of those factors. But I’ve seen a lot of the very same comics perform in bars where the geometry simply isn’t as good: often there’s no stage, the ceiling is too high, the geometry of the space doesn’t lend itself to having an audience close to the comic, or there are distractions elsewhere in the room. While there are ebbs and flows and randomness to how well any of us do on any given night, comics get better laughs on average in a room like the one at Edinburgh.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t get laughs in other situations, or that it’s somehow the building’s fault if you bomb. It’s still your responsibility to perform as effectively as you can, to put your best foot forward and show respect to the venue in exchange for being permitted to use their microphone. But all other things being equal, try to find a room with an actual stage, dim light, a low ceiling, and without TVs showing football games.
In his autobiography Born Standing Up, Steve Martin talks about having told jokes to totally empty rooms – he’d try to get laughs out of the waitresses. And it’s your responsibility, when you’re performing, to get up there and tell jokes even to an empty room. But it sure feels a whole lot better when people are laughing!
This goes hand in hand with the above: one or two audience members who are actually engaged, who are paying attention and who like the performer, will really bring up the energy of the room around them. This creates a positive feedback loop which results in everyone in the place having a better time. It’s easier to pay attention when you’re sitting close enough to the comic and when you aren’t distracted by a playoff game on a TV over there, and it’s easier to feel the influence of the people laughing around you if those people are sitting close to you.
At open mics, the audiences are other comics, all of whom are waiting for a turn. Much of the time, the comics are reviewing their own material on their phones or socializing. I’m guilty of this myself – being engaged for more than two or three open mics a week is intellectually draining, and if you’ve already seen the comic before, it’s hard to laugh at the same joke again.
A dozen “real people,” though, who are there on purpose just to hear jokes? They’ll laugh! It’s a rush, like a runner’s high.
I was going to say “writing matters,” but you know what? Writing matters only because you must have jokes. That means, effectively, that you must give the audience a punch line with enough setup that it’s funny – give them a punch line early enough in your set to drive engagement, and often enough throughout your set to keep them engaged. Other than that you can play with the ebb and flow of the crowd’s energy, particularly as you grow and perform longer and longer sets; I still don’t have nearly enough material to worry about it. But I watch back over videos of even my recent performances and I cringe sometimes at the time it took me to get to the first punchline, or at the length of a setup for a punchline that didn’t get laughs.
Delivery matters. When I started, I thought I wasn’t nervous, and that people were really digging my high-energy delivery. I’d sprint up on stage, scream jokes in a crackly falsetto, and fidget like crazy. “I’m not nervous,” I’d tell my friends when they’d mention it.
Whether I was nervous or not (I was) doesn’t matter. What matters is that the audience perceived it as nervousness, and nervousness in the performer drives restlessness in the people watching. That’s contrary to engagement.
By one definition, ‘charisma’ is a metric of how comfortable other people feel in your presence. A big contributing factor to that is the ability to be or at least appear to be comfortable around other people. It’s part of what we term “breeding,” as when a member of the landed gentry addresses a flustered social inferior on Downton Abbey.
We as comics can address failures of confidence in a number of ways. We can watch video of our own performances and consciously look for what other people might consider nervousness, whether we ourselves do or not. This means most often refraining from nervous pacing or rocking, limiting unnecessary gestures with our hands, and avoiding playing with the microphone cable. The microphone cable is not in the way. It will not become less in the way if you flail it gently like a lazy bullwhip or put it slightly left of where it is. It will not become less in the way if you move it back to the right, where it was in the first place. The audience doesn’t care where the cable is. They notice it only when it moves.
Improving jokes over time
Having written a joke is a good thing. It’s harder than it looks to have a real joke with a punchline and not just a story that you hope people will laugh at! For instance, here is a paragraph that I needed as a transition between two other jokes, which I tried to deliver humorously:
Airplane pilots always talk the same way, you ever notice this? They get on that intercom and they’re like “Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out over the right wing of the plane, you can see Mt. Rainier.”
That’s not a joke. It was okay in context as part of a larger bit about other professional voices, but it was a bit during which there wasn’t a good place to laugh, and the set needed a laugh there. So first I gave it a punch line:
Sometimes though you can’t understand them! They’re just like “mumblemumble, Mt. Rainier.”
That’s… well, it’s not funny. It’s not surprising the way a good punch line is. There’s no delight to be taken by the audience. The best we can hope for is that the audience has also ridden on an airplane, that they have heard a pilot mumble into the intercom, and that the shared context is enough for a polite chuckle. I recorded audio of my set with that as part of it, and it didn’t work. Let’s try again.
Airplane pilots always talk the same way. They get on the intercom like “Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out over the right wing of the plane, you can see Mt. Rainier.” Like I’m even on that side of the plane! Hey, you testosterone-and-xanax-voice having jerk! Turn the plane around! Let everyone see the mountain!
That’s better. That’s a joke. If that’s how long I need it to be, that’s how I’ll tell it. I recorded a set with that version; people laughed. But we can also make it longer, and get a few more laughs out of it pretty cheaply:
Airplane pilots always talk the same way. It’s like day 1 of pilot school is how to drive the airplane, and the other 399 days are how to talk on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out over the right wing of the plane, you can see Mt. Rainier.” Like I’m even on that side of the plane! Hey, you testosterone-and-xanax-voice having jerk! Turn the plane around! Let everyone see the mountain!
Okay, the tag worked! People laughed more! Let’s keep going!
Airplane pilots always talk the same way. It’s like day 1 of pilot school is how to drive the airplane, and the other 399 days are how to talk on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out over the right wing of the plane, you can see Mt. Rainier.” Like I’m even on that side of the plane! I think that’s why they don’t give me an intercom going back the other way. Hey, you testosterone-and-xanax-voice having jerk! Turn the plane around! Let everyone see the mountain!
Ha, ha! It’s brilliant, right? Because the notion of passengers having an intercom would be fair and egalitarian, but it’s also totally absurd. Everyone sure will laugh!
They don’t. They actually laugh less at the part about turning the plane around when it is prefaced by the “that’s why they don’t give me an intercom” line – so if I do a show that matters, it won’t include that line, no matter how funny I think it should be.
We can continue to play with the structure of that joke, of course. I don’t know how much mileage the premise has, since observational humor about airplanes retroactively stopped being funny right before the first time Seinfeld did it. But if we continue to deliver different versions of the same joke at open mics and small rooms, and listen back to the recordings each time, it’ll allow us to determine what people actually laugh at, and tell our best jokes at the big shows.
It’s important that we do this by actually recording and listening to the audio from the set, rather than relying on our fallible memories.
Writing in groups and receiving feedback from other comics can be helpful. Other people can come up with tags and punchlines that didn’t occur to you. Fundamentally, though, you have to get up on stage and try out the material in front of an audience, and you have to record it.
Anything that drives audience engagement is a good thing in that it makes it easier for the audience to want to pay attention and laugh. I’m using the term “gimmick” here not as a pejorative, but to distinguish non-joke things that a comic might do in order to promote engagement via reactions other than laughs.
The single best gimmick I’ve seen is one that the host does on behalf of the performer – that is, to act as a “hype man” for the next comic before that comic even goes on stage. Again, that’s a huge advantage that Edinburgh has: TK has been doing this for a long time, and his enthusiasm spills over and brings audience attention in a big way.
Comics can have our own gimmicks, of course. The other day I just got up and sang “Wagon Wheel” and played guitar. People responded better to that than they usually do to my comedy! At another venue the same night, I did the song again, but then followed it up with jokes: it was late, and the audience wasn’t engaged with the other comics who went up around the same time I did, but they engaged strongly with the music. Now, after the song, many of them went back to ignoring the comedy, but some of them remained engaged throughout my set.
I’m torn on continuing to use this gimmick, because while it’s driving engagement and making my job easier, it’s not making my jokes or delivery any better. Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld don’t go on stage and lead the crowd in a rousing John Denver sing-along.