Saturday, May 30, 2009

Kill or Be Killed

Last week I had the best show in YEARS- the crowd was hot, the material flowed, and man when the crowd is with you- nothing compares. The giggles were humongously flowing in between the big laughs, and its like a potion. You just want more and you just try to give more. I did my 10 and left- and felt like I gave a group of people who arrived some happy times for a little while. Just made me happy to make people happy.

That's what's known as Killing. "I killed!" "I slayed em" "I destroyed em" very violent. Really just about the energy of the people around you. It helps when the audience moves right up front, and there are not empty spots in the back.

The farther back an audience is from the stage the less likely you're going to have a kick ass show. The reason is simple- laughter is the contagious effect of people finding humor together. They become bonded, common shared experiences- and it's a type of feeling that only the people in the front car of the rollercoaster share. It's the type of feeling that only people who have had the same bad service at the same table every week know about. It's the idea that those who sit nearby are getting things the same way you do.

Last week, we had a few solid groups of people who were there to have a great time. They came in with the idea, "We are going to laugh!" And they were on our side from the first moment the emcee hit the stage. That was Great Element Number 1. The second great element was the dispersing of energy from the performers. Some were HIGH energy, others were low energy, but great at delivery. Still others played with the audience. Have a mixed batch gives the audience the feeling of "What's happening next?" Letting them anticipate is half the fun in comedy. It helps that they also were willing to look at the comedians as human beings and not a tv show.. they were interacting with us, and just giving us so much to work with. The comedians on the bill all got along really well, so we supported each other just as much. That makes for a GREAT show. I wish every show could work as that one did because it was not only a joy performing, but it was a joy watching the others on the bill.

Flash to this week. We have a different set of people in the crowd. The audiences is from a mixed background, and they were seated in pockets through out the theater. I couldn't quite grasp where one group was, but there were obvious empty seats in sections between each group. One group was the young, fired up college crowd. Another was the seniors out on their first date in ten years. Yet another was a bunch of cops, now retired, with their ladies, taking them to a free show in Vegas. Then there were the friends of comics. Okay, what is it about comics and friends of comics that means "Sit as far back as possible"? It's not a cool habit, and it makes it hard for the show to work right when the only laughs are snickers from people in back.

The psychology of an audience works best when the "friends and family" are in front- they know the acts, and pass along the giggles to those who think they are on the inside of the joke. People want to feel included and special. It is NEVER the audience at fault when the entire show is just being viewed as a so-so event. It's a combination. It's the mix of comedians- high energy comics up front, then a "thinker" then a high energy, then a "Regular guy" then a high energy. If you balance the line-up the crowd is happier.

I emceed this evening. Usually when I emcee- I get to see the line up ahead of time and suggest changes. I didn't get to see it this time- and the show was filled with a middle section of low energy people. The problem as an emcee is working the audience back into a state of "what's going to happen next?" You don't do 10 minutes, but you may end up having to play with the people in the crowd, a bit, and then nurture their energy up again. That left me with three large slow spots of trying to get energy back up. That isn't a great job for an emcee- but I've done it in the worst case scenarios, and it's been an education by fire for the last 20 or so years in learning what paces the crowd. I start my show as an emcee doing "feeler" material. I play four or five different one liners and see what is getting a response. At this point, I find where the crowd wants to hear their punchlines and can make the rest of the monologue flow accordingly.

This was a strange night in that one minute the crowd was eager for silly regional laughs, but then got bored by them in moments, then liked the doofy-hubby material, and laughed at this the longest so it became my call back. With four hours of material to use, I had hoped that something in the repertoire would have pulled them in. Unfortunately- I got a lot of blank stares- one woman who got confused as to why I was disabled, another who was asking about my marriages, and one guy who came up before the show- amped and ready, and then sat in the front row appearing deeply forlorn.

One minute they applaud the local material, the next they couldn't care if I had talked about a casino or a shoe horn. I finally made a off-hand reference to a quirky physical condition, got at least a snicker, and then offered awards. Awards were the only things that seemed to keep people interested. That's what I worked with between the sets that had slow to no laughs. It was torture not knowing what to make people giggle with- and more of a torture that when they laughed at one thing, they had no interest in the same material just seconds later. I don't think I ever figured out what was the primary laughter trigger, which has not happened in this many years of emcee work.

The last two acts are high energy. One is a prop comic who gets laughs because he basically keeps it to potty humor but the mouth has been washed out with soap. He says "booty", and "pooper" along with "piss" and "Whiz". Not dirty, but the entendres are there. His props are unmistakably R-rated, and his patter is PG. The crowd loved him- and then after three minutes, they treated him like a one trick pony and were just mildly amused. He really IS funny. But, he wasn't feeling it, and the crowd picked up on it.

Then came the last comic. It used to be that we would call the last comedian of the night the "headliner" and instead of 6 to 10 he'd get 10-15 minutes. It's standard that no comic on our show carry paper with him on stage. Well, he brings out a notebook every show. It's part of his act, but it also distracts from his material. The man comes out in a rather ornate costume and then compares his Alien life to those of the planet Earth. It works in a crowd that is younger, hipper, and into Science fiction, or at least knows what Science Fiction is. This audience was between the ages of 40 and 80, and got the 1950 jokes, but not much else. It was painful because he also did what I had been doing- learning who the audience was and what they liked. The problem was- they were tired of it by then. And, while every other comic was a few minutes, closed and were done, he went on for a much longer time. The audience was long over before he was. Usually he kills, tonight he kind of wounded.

As a comedian it's clearly established, it is NEVER the audience's fault when the room is dead. It can be the layout of the seating. It can be the price of the tickets. It can be the lack of service. It can be the time of night. But, it's never the audience who wants to be there who is at fault when a comedy show isn't working. When every single comment is fighting for laughs and using every direction that is available, it could be a multiple set of reasons. There isn't a "bad audience" there is a bad understanding of that particular audience when the entire show fails.

There haven't been very many nights where I've had few laughs. Usually the room is in tears, and I'm happy about it. I hear "oh man", or "Yeah!" or "exactly" but I usually don't hear, "What does that mean?" Most clubs, you get to see a show in the room, and see how they set things up. You get an idea of the people who purchased tickets and those who are regulars. In a new room, you don't have that luxury. It's hit or miss. Last week, we had a spectacular hit. This week we were as close to a full miss as you can get without playing disco music in a metal bar. Once you know and love your audience, they know and love you.

There were nights at the Comedy Store when I'd see friends who killed for months on end have a night filled with people who just didn't care. I was in a room when Chris Rock was the only act in front of 4 people. He made 2 of us laugh hysterically, and the other 2 were confused. I've been on the bill when Rosanne (Barr) did a drop in set at the Improv and no one had the time of day for her, and the next night she wiped the floor with the tears of laughter. Dennis Blair got more laughs than Carlin on I don't know HOW many nights, yet Carlin got the HBO specials.

It's up to us, as performers, to learn about the demographics in venues, and how to best perform for them. Last week, the crowd was younger, hipper, Latino, and we expected the same this week. But, the casino didn't offer us those same people. It offered us the people who bought time shares. It offered people who were retired. It offered us people who were on buses, visiting a show room. In most circumstances it would have worked just dandy. But, in a new venue, with a new show- it became just a learning experience. We figured out that the energy needs to be tourist oriented, and not too heady. We learned that the audience needs to be seated properly. We learned that the awards didn't really matter. And, we learned who needs to put some energy into their acts. It wasn't much of a failure after all.

No go forth and multi-giggle.