Being a Professional Screwball: Getting the Gig, Keeping the Gig, and the Best Advice I Ever Got
And How I Almost Ruined it All in One Weekend
If you are reading this you probably relate to all 3:
- I had a great set, I'm feeling great, I'm want this again. Comedy all day every day.
- I had a bad set, I should probably quit, I'm never good at anything, hey at least the telephone poles are on my side of the street, I could just end it with one turn of this car.
- I don't really want to die, and definitely not on stage. How do I get better and get more gigs?
*If you don't get to #3 than you need professional mental health help that's not found in this article.
Nobody wants to look out and see bored faces in an audience. The faces of people that have given up on trying to have fun, and are now fully committed to just going home.
This is only one nightmare scenario, but once it reaches this point it is almost near impossible to turn it around even with that "killer bit" you had saved for the end because at this point, nobody cares. It's probably, and hopefully not going this bad, but this article is dedicated to avoiding my screw ups.
True Story on my bigger mistakes so maybe you don't have the long drive home where you question your entire existence.
Easiest way to get more gigs on top of being funny:
- Get good at hosting
- Host every show you can, bars, mics, clubs, fundraisers, start your own, but host!
Very general hosting rules:
- Introduce yourself and the show
- Do your time when it's time
- Introduce the other comics
- Keep the time of the other comics
- Club announcements
- Say thank you
Sounds simple enough, but here's how I've screwed up most of these in one gig.
I somehow was hired for a weekend hosting gig for The Comedy Zone when they had a location in a Rhode Island movie theater. I was about a year into comedy barely 22 years old and was very excited that I had the chance to work at a club that had locations spanning the entire East Coast. I was extremely nervous about making an impression, but at the same time, believed that I had way more material than I did. I also thought I was making huge money. (It was a little under $200 for 3 shows, totally normal host money for being local at the time, but I thought it was amazing.) It was never about the money, but it didn't hurt to be able to pay my phone bill. I knew nothing about working at a club.
I thought it was super cool that there was a green room with a secret punch code. I was also blown away that they gave some sort of food discount and free waters or whatever the deal was. It felt really cool, until the other comics walked into the green room.
Don't get me wrong, they were nice guys, but very seasoned road warriors. At first I thought they were just trying to mess with my head cause they could tell I was nervous. They were swapping stories from the road, talking about selling their merch after and I knew I was in over my head. I should have asked for advice, they definitely would have had the answer. Instead I thought I was just supposed to know everything because I was young and stupid and always had to figure out everything for myself historically.
Thankfully there was an automated announcement about silencing phones, keeping the table talk down and introducing the show because I probably wouldn't have known to say anything.
The manager had told me I could break up my material however I wanted to, so I did that.
I did all my material up front at the first show and didn't break it up at all. The audience wasn't impressed with the time I did/ thought I had.
I didn't even know to ask for the comics intros. I was too nervous about getting their names correct that that's the only intro I gave them was their name. The next night was 2 shows, the comics were certainly onto me now. They gave me their intros and said to do a little bit of material in between sets.
I was so dumb that I also did about 5 minutes after the headliner, that is not what they mean by "in between sets." Yeah let's have this comedian that has a whole year follow a f#$&ing veteran! It's not what they meant.
I couldn't understand why my last killer 5 minutes wasn't getting laughs and never bothered asking to get hired again because I didn't feel funny. If I could go back in time I would tell my younger self that I only had 5 funny minutes, that's why the other 15 weren't funny, and why would I try to do that after a headliner?
According to studies I actually didn't make up for a joke, we live in a age where the average attention span is about 8 seconds.
The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.
How do we capture an audience?
How are you even still reading this article??? Amazing attention span!
When people come out to a live performance we expect one thing from them: to listen.
(Hecklers aside, which I have way too much to write about at another time.)
The host says your name, you walk up onto the stage, shake hands, and grab the mic. Then you begin with a joke, saying hello, you smile, take your hat off, whatever the first thing you do is, but you look at the audience. They are waiting for you to entertain them and you have this moment that everyone is with you. This is a magic moment in time.
Story time #2 (About a year later):
One of the first consistent gigs I had was hosting at the Beantown Comedy Vault in downtown Boston. It was an old bank vault that turned into a comedy club in the basement of one of the staple restaurants in the area. One of the only 2 clubs in the city that was open 7 days a week. (It will always be my favorite room, it closed several years ago when the building was bought out, but the club still has several other locations that are amazing.) I only had about 2 years under my belt at the time and was super nervous about not screwing up the opportunity. My responsibilities included getting there early to set up the chairs, set up the microphone, check in the reservations/walk-ins for the show, seating the patrons, hosting the show, and breaking down everything after. I don't remember how much money it was, and it really doesn't matter because it gave me consistent stage time. These shows were almost always sold out and had comedians that were nationally headlining, had some TV credits and most importantly, had way more experience than myself. Management had made it very clear what they expected from me, which was also very helpful for my stupid floundering self. I've never been good at following instructions, I usually hate being told what to do, but thankfully for some reason I followed the club's. I'm very grateful for everything they have taught me, and the fact they took a chance on a often rebellious, but absolutely lost kid to start with.
The backdrop at the club has pictures of Jay Leno, Steven Wright, Dane Cook, Dennis Leary, and more. Like them or not, they are names that started big careers in this very club, some of them even had to put the chairs up at the end of the show, just like me. I felt inspired. There's a long way to go, but I knew I was in the right place to build on it.
The Vault (Miss You)
I got to consistently do my time in front of a paying crowd and watch a ton of great comedy. We all learn at different rates, but at 2 years in and 23 years old, I had not exactly figured out my voice or style on stage, but was determined to find it. That involved a lot of screwing up. I'm used to screwing up though.
I've never felt like I fit in anywhere, but comedy had made me feel like less of an outcast. We are all trying to just make people laugh and chasing the high from that. I didn't think I was a good fit to host because I'm not exactly a "high energy" comic, but I really didn't want to lose the opportunity to work at the club, so I worked on hosting. I felt like I was playing the role of a confident experienced comedian when I got on stage. I thought I had to at least look like I knew what I was doing even though I had no idea. I also kept feeling as if nobody likes me right off the bat, so I thought I had to do something else when I was on stage. I rarely, if ever, even take the mic out of the stand, but I thought a host needed to move around to keep people's attention as if the crowd was a T-Rex and I was invisible if I stood still.
I do not know how to survive a T-Rex attack, audiences can see you either way though.
One of the first weekend gigs I got to do at the vault was working with a headliner from the area that was building a lot of steam locally. Every show that he was on was sold to capacity with good reason, he is hilarious. I'd seen him a couple times before, but this time I watched even closer. I saw him crush the crowd into pieces, people were in tears, and he just sat on a stool the whole time! The craziest part was that he followed the feature comic that was extremely high energy, and I had literally seen stand on tables.
When he got off stage, I looked at him in amazement and said that was an amazing set, which I'm sure he knew, but I needed to say, and he genuinely thanked me for. Then I asked:
"How did you get the crowd right off the bat without being 'high energy', but following high energy? I saw you just take the mic over to the stool, put down your hat, say what's up and crush it."
He told me the best advice that I pass along to other comics in person when applicable.
He simply said: "I get comfortable, have them meet you where you're at."
I had been over-thinking it the whole time! It made so much sense though. Why go up there being someone else? That's not what my material reflects either, I'm not a "bouncy" person.
If you are playing a character on stage, then you need to decide your character's voice and what their movements would be. I just wanted to feel like people would listen to what I have to say as me. Pat Oates has a great article that is far more in depth about Finding Your Voice within your material. I needed to even find that starting point of how to go up on stage and feel like people would listen.
The comic that passed along this sage like advice to me was not too surprisingly a teacher before his comedy career took off.
Huge thanks to Orlando Baxter for not just being funny, but unknowingly giving me the advice I so badly needed at the time and have remembered so clearly.
Not that I don't ever get nervous before performing anymore, but I am truly happy on stage and no longer feel like I have to pretend to belong up there. It's one of the only places I feel normal. Being a comedian is probably a diagnosable illness on a different planet. Why if it brought so much crap internally did I continue? To make strangers happy, yeah that's normal.
Having a good host is key to a smooth running show. You get good at hosting, you'll get more gigs from there.
Pretend like you belong on stage until you truly do feel like you belong on stage.
If you don't know, ask!
Even if you think you do know, ask! Maybe this club is different.
Study the comics you look up to and see what makes them great.
If going out and making people laugh makes you happy, go chase the happy.
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