Laugh. Damn you laugh. Now!

It’s hard to warm to someone making unrealistic demands, and so here follows a cautionary tale with, I hope, useful learning outcomes. It’s not often I write about getting things right (disasters are funnier) but on this occasion I did exactly the right thing. Names and faces have been changed to spare the guilty.

‘Twas a sultry eventide in old London town, and your reluctant narrator had stretched and gurned in preparation for a strut and fret upon the square of platform in a comedy club. The set delivered, I left to applause and laughter and returned to the back of the room to rest my damp forehead against the cool doorframe whilst the MC took to the mic to introduce the next act. For some entirely unaccountable reason, he attempted to engage me in conversation as I stood there quietly. ‘Can you take some advice?’ he said, to which the answer is ‘Yes, but usually I prefer it if it’s given privately, and not amplified across the crowded room I’ve just played to.’ The unasked-for evaluation was: ‘Your end was much stronger than your opening. I always say do your good stuff at the beginning of the set,’ he said.

‘Why don’t you lead by example?’ I thought, or thought I thought, but immediately after realised I had in fact, said. Oh dear, it’s not how I usually am, reader, but while I am in my stage gear, you patronise me at your absolute peril. The dog is out, and guards his territory with force and instinct.

What I didn’t have the time or inclination to tell the MC was that my performance was along the lines of a very specific strategy, and one which served me well. Had the night been going well, I would have done something else. But it wasn’t, so I adopted an approach to get the best response possible.

What was wrong with the gig? Physically not much: the lighting was good, the sound was great, there was a platform raised four inches off the floor which was right for the size of room. There was a decent sized audience – maybe a bit too spread out to the sides, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The problem, unfortunately was the MC.

Now this MC is very experienced, has been running open and pro nights for a long time and has a good reputation. On this particular night, unfortunately, he dropped the ball in spectacular fashion. There were a few badly judged remarks about some of the women in the room – both audience and acts – jokes that could’ve landed more deftly perhaps, but on this evening fell with a sort of deadly flop, and sounded like museum-piece sexism. If you were a woman about to go onstage, you wouldn’t have liked it. If you were a woman in the audience you wouldn’t have liked it. And any man who’s ever met, seen or heard of a woman, would have felt uncomfortable. I observed the audience from the back of the room: no focus. A bit of nudging between couples. A sense that this person wasn’t really in control, and wasn’t really aware of himself or what the impact of his words were. I don’t want to repeat it, but the gist was that he was judging women by their bodies and finding them lacking, apparently sincerely. I know this MC is not a bully, but the behaviour looked an awful lot like bullying.

Comic after comic went up and struggled. The audience was nervous, the comedians were nervous, and strong opening lines that should’ve devastated evaporated as harmlessly as dandelion clocks. Last night’s joke became today’s sentence. Good comedy happens in a sort of Eden Project-style biodome, jokes and attitudes evolve, we say and laugh at things, safe in the knowledge that we’re in a protected environment. A joke can ricochet around, a laugh on the left feeds into a laugh on the right, there is focus, a sense of interdependence, the audience feeding the comic with the love and approval that makes these rare orchids bloom. Audiences allow comedians the privilege of stage time, the comedians support one another, set up running jokes, incorporate ideas, share with the spectators. Entertainment requires warm and open complicity.

On this night, an arid and polluted wind was blowing inhospitably through the venue.

I made my plans. As I was announced, I walked through the audience, and said a few nice words about the MC as I checked out the room. On the left, people leaning back, arms folded, their attitude: you won’t make me laugh. In front, a woman sitting side-on to the stage. Bang in the centre, and she wasn’t committed enough to the action to give her full attention. On the right, an older man and woman, he looking at her, she looking at the ground.

‘It’s really nice to be here,’ I said, addressing the audience section by section, stood on the carpet in front of the stage. ‘With such a lovely, friendly, perspicacious audience.’ I was pretending, they knew it, but they let me pretend. I twinkled slightly. ‘May I tell you about the worst gig I ever did?’

It’s a slow burner of a story. Absurdity piles on indignity as it progresses. There are no jokes, just observations, and when people laugh, it is because they are seeing an insane situation through my eyes. Most people don’t like the idea of being a stand up because of the risk of bad audience reaction; here is a story of my abject failure, which an audience can experience at a safe distance.

I talk about the status of the performer. I talk about the difference between having an idea that looks comic on the page but dies on the stage. I talk about committing to a joke, and suffering the consequences. I talk about the performer and audience working as a team. I talk about failure.

The messages I send out are simple and obvious: I like you, audience, but I don’t need you. I’ve taken the worst an audience can do and laughed at it. I don’t need your approval, I don’t need your love. I don’t even need your laughter, but I’m driving this bus and you’re welcome aboard if you want to come on the journey to Laughter City. I’m in charge.

By the end of the story, the woman in the front was facing forward, the older couple were looking at me, and there might even have been the faintest of smiles from the surly folks on the left. Now the audience was together, paying attention, being directed. I was short on time, so gave them some nice sharp jokes. Set up – punchline. Easy, relaxed laughter. I would’ve liked to spend longer warming them up, but my time was limited. All I really wanted was for the next comic to find the room in better shape than I’d found it. Sadly, the next comic was the MC, who made his strange reverse heckle, I think as a way of climbing on the back of my carefully built status. It backfired for him, and I wish I hadn’t gone for the bait. It got a laugh, yes, but it undermined the MC and therefore, the rest of the night. Everything the MC did screamed that he was better than the acts. He wasn’t. But the audience believed him.

I hate self-aggrandising posts about what a brilliant job someone did, and so it is that I close this one by admitting my rather childish comeback didn’t do me, the MC or the other comics any favours, though it felt nice at the time. If you are the MC and recognise yourself in this, perhaps you too would like to admit your mistakes on this particular evening, and book me to MC for you. I can read a room better than you, and I’ll do a better job. We might not make it all the way down the road to friendship, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy working with me. Your call.

Tough crowd? Try this:

* don’t go for strong material that’s obviously in joke structure.
* tell stories, try to get empathy. Don’t apologise.
* don’t sweat going a couple of minutes without getting a laugh.
* is there an elephant in the room that needs addressing?
* don’t be confrontational. It’s not the audience’s fault that they are few in number, don’t find you funny or have been badly served by the MC.
* be nice. Good manners are hard to dislike.
* it’s not you vs them. They are your dad holding the back of your bike as you learn to ride. They will be delighted when you pedal off, solo, across the park.
* don’t be rattled. Don’t be upset. Don’t beat yourself up. You may have laid the groundwork for the next act to do better than they could’ve expected. Afterwards, talk about what you did, and how it changed the dynamic of the room.
* an audience that wants you to fail will not laugh. An audience that wants you to succeed won’t let you fail.
* you need to fail to learn. If it takes 100 disastrous gigs to be brilliant, congratulate yourself on getting one gig closer to perfection.

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