Welcome to Week Ten.
Welcome back from Open Mic Land. How did doing crowd work feel? Maybe you loved it and can’t wait to incorporate more of it. Maybe you hated every minute of it. Even if you don’t intend to do crowd work in your act, I am glad you felt what being out there without a net feels like. The more fears in comedy you can conquer, the better for your overall comfort level on stage.
Half of the progress you make as a comedian is simply accumulating enough experiences on stage that you develop a deep, robust internal confidence. Each time something happens on stage that is new to you, you file that away in your mind. When those things happen again (someone talking during your setup, a waitress dropping a bottle) you’ll draw on those experiences to respond. This time it won’t rattle you. Your memory bank will grow to include more of the possible things that can happen during a performance. You will gain confidence that you will be up to any challenge. That confidence will subconsciously influence your voice, posture, face, and every movement of your body. The audience is that much more likely to laugh with someone they feel comfortable with. They will not feel comfortable surrendering control to a fearful person. Whatever aspects of comedy frighten you the most, whether it is working without swearing, working without a mic, working without leaning on the mic stand, these are the things to do as soon as possible.
One of the most frightening aspects of comedy is being heckled. I will not assign you to attempt to get heckled, but I do want to give you some things to think about for when it happens.
First of all, you are unlikely to get a straight “You suck!” heckle. I can count on two hands the times that has happened in my entire career. What you are more likely to get are people yelling stuff out while you are trying to do your act. This is just as bad. It doesn’t matter what they say. What matters is that they are talking when you did not wish them to. You need to stop this. The same goes for people talking loudly to the people at their table. And anything above a whisper counts as loud.
Whatever unwanted talking is going on, unless the show is almost over, or the show is already such a disaster that it is pointless, you have to deal with it. “Powering over them with your jokes” rarely works unless the talker is being drowned out by the laughs of a big and very supportive crowd. And if someone says something TWICE, this “just keep going” approach has already failed, and now you must restore the authority that you need to perform a successful act. When dealing with an unwanted talker, remember three things:
A. The audience is your ally. You are supposed to be talking and the other person is not. You are defending the social order and you also hold the key to whether they enjoy their night in your hands. They WANT you to win. Unless you have been bombing unmercifully or have been rude to them, they want this disruptor punished for interfering with the show. Getting them to shout at the heckler to shut up, or getting them to applaud when the person finally shuts up, are very effective anti heckler weapons. You have to sense that they are on your side enough to attempt this, and you should probably wait until you’ve tried to shut the person up yourself at least once, but you have a crowd of people on your side and you should not hesitate to pit them against the heckler.
B. Do not show genuine distress. Even if you are boiling on the inside against this dipshit, remain calm and filter your thoughts through the perspective of your stage persona. Maintain the composure you would maintain when doing crowd work, even though your “scene partner” is hostile and was not asked to participate. The audience does not want to see the comedian show any signs of losing control. They do not want to see you get rattled. Once your anger breaks out from behind your stage persona, you lose authority in their eyes, and the audience begins to lose faith in the show. A heckler can seldom turn them around to their way of thinking, but they can destroy the trust that allows the show to proceed. Don’t help them do that by flashing uncontrolled emotion.
C. Remember to keep your responses proportionate. There is nothing wrong with having some stock heckler comebacks written and ready to go. But whether scripted or improvised, you need to make sure your response fits the offense.
Think of having heckler comebacks on a scale of one to three. A Number One is a light slap like, “Don’t worry, sir, when it is time to talk, the lights and microphone will be brought to your table.” This is good for your first response. It is only once the heckler has been given an opportunity to stop being disruptive and clearly NOT TAKEN IT, that you can ramp up to a genuine insult about their intelligence or manners, though not their appearance. This is what I would call a Number Two. Commiserating with others at their table about what a pain they must be to endure or criticizing their manners or alcohol use are good number two responses. Then you should give them another opportunity to retreat on their own. If they persist, it is fair game, and you can ramp up to an infinite universe of Number Three responses, which can be as mean as you want them to be.
But it is important to remember to always publicly ask the heckler to cease and get an answer before ramping up to the next level of insults. This allows the audience to see that you have “played by the rules.” You tried to be nice. They have now clearly brought this on themselves. If you don’t, you can be perceived as mean, regardless of the other person’s behavior. This is especially true if the set is not going well. Which it often isn’t, just before someone starts talking.
“Fuck that,” you might be thinking, “I’ll say what I want, when I want, and the fucking heckling piece of shit can suck it.” Many comedians I know would agree with you. You are totally free to use that approach if you wish. The advice above is for when you want the best chance of the rest of the show being saved. If you are comfortable with a scorched earth situation, by all means, go ballistic, but know from experience that that method has a high chance of making a return to normal joke telling impossible.
Response to heckling isn’t the only element of crowd “control” I want to discuss. This week I want to talk about holding and keeping the audience’s attention, both from the writing side of your act and from the performing side. Chris Rock said something very astute on this topic in HBO’s Talking Funny special. In fact, that whole special is full of good advice, so why not watch the whole thing right now:
To paraphrase Rock, your first goal is not to get them to laugh, your first is just to get them to pay attention. So true. And even more so in the world of Open Mic comedy, where almost everything about the space is working against you. Fortunately there are things that a comedian can do in the moment to accomplish this. There are also things they can do in the writing process to make this job easier before they even walk on stage. First, here are some things to keep in mind from the performance end.
1. I have said this before, and I cannot over emphasize it enough, don’t just walk up there and start blabbing your material. They make their decision on how they feel about you in the first few seconds of your performance. They judge you based on some things you can’t control, like your looks, and the way your speaking voice naturally sounds. You can’t control those aspects of yourself, so you should try to make sure what you can control is nailed down. Help them like you.
One way to do that is to allow the audience that time at the start of your act to process you. Don’t confuse them by asking them to digest a joke set up at the same time. That annoys them. Just walk up, as confidently as you can, greet them, and stand there. Own your enthusiasm and performance energy. In the first fifteen seconds, don’t ask them to digest any more information than what you look like, what your voice sounds like coming out of your head, and the fact that you are excited to be performing for them. That is plenty to digest already. They don’t need the fact that you “recently saw your ex at Chipotle” to add to their mental workload. Nothing more than “Hello’s” and “Good to be Here’s” in the first ten seconds.
If the thought of opening with generic stage patter makes you gag; If you REALLY want the first thing out of your mouth to be a carefully crafted, startling joke for maximum effect, make sure you have first given them five to eight seconds of silence so they can get accustomed to you. Then give them your opener. The “let them process you” rule still applies even if you don’t feel like telling them how happy you are to be in Santa Monica.
Comedy is subjective. I can’t tell you what each person in the audience wants to see in those first seconds, but I can tell you what they don’t: fear, distraction, or confusion. That is why I ask you to get in the proper mind state before going on stage, whether with affirmations or some other technique. The moment before your first joke can win them over for the rest of the set. If you are internally focused and confident, they can perceive it. They will be more likely to start with a good impression of you.
2. If you feel the audience slipping away from you, not paying attention, or whispering to their friends: slow down your delivery. This will be counter intuitive. Your body will want you to speed up in order to “stop boring them” or “get to the big punchline” or just increase the energy you are putting out by talking faster. This is the wrong move. The less speed and volume you put out, the more actively they have to listen. Words said slowly and carefully seem more important. A blast of many words in an instant is easier to treat as insignificant and dismiss than a few carefully chosen words in the same time span. When someone is chattering away, it is easy to tune them out. By slowing down and allowing some silence, any people whispering in the crowd become more conspicuous. Often people are not aware of how loud they are, and if you are also talking loudly, they won’t realize that they need to shut up. Slowing down allows this to happen. It also pauses the flow of your ideas long enough for everyone to tune back in and re-focus on your joke.
The comedian Fred Klett once said, “if it’s not going well, and you think you are going too slow, slow down even more.” I have seen this work wonders in getting a crowd that is unraveling back on board for more jokes.
3. Don’t waste their time. I have already discussed polling the audience (“Any drinkers here tonight?”) as unnecessary. In fact, once your material has begun, any words that don’t directly aid in understanding a punch line are hurting your act. Get rid of them. This includes saying “What else is going on?” when you are switching topics, “this is true,” before a premise, or the always annoying “I uh……” either before or after bits. All serve no purpose except to waste more of their time when they would rather be laughing.
As you want them to listen to your every word, make sure you keep up your end of the bargain by making sure you are only saying things that are worth listening to. If you’re constantly saying things like, “Man, things are crazy.” they will start to realize that in fact, they DON’T need to listen to everything you say, because some of it is actually pointless babble. Avoid this.
4. Don’t confuse them. Be clear when doing a character within your act so that it is distinguishable as such. When doing a dialog between two people within a joke, make sure the audience knows who is talking. Look in different directions when switching “speakers.” If you are not going to say who the speaker is before each sentence, make sure your voice is as differentiated from your regular persona as possible, like Maria Bamford does in the clip you watched earlier. Not knowing what is going on is another common reason an audience will drift away from you.
5. If you have not chosen a deliberately monotone delivery style as an artistic choice, use as much of your vocal range as you can. Just as a song goes from soft parts to loud parts to hold your interest…
So can a standup vary his vocal inflection to the same effect. If Sam Kinnison screamed through out the entire act, it would get old quick. Without the long moments of near silence and chuckles leading up to it, the screaming would have no impact. Think about all the ways you speak in everyday life. Passionate, worried, whispering, yelling, empathetic, cold, angry, sad… all of these can and should go into your act. The greater variety of ways you can present your words; the more sides of the compelling character that is you they encounter, the more engrossing your show will be.
Several times I have compared your act to a conversation. A conversation where one person said every sentence in the exact same way would start to get both weird and uninteresting. Think of the audience as the other person in that conversation, and make sure to show them so many facets of your personality that they
are constantly seeing a new side of you. You want them to experience a deepening understanding of a multifaceted persona. If they feel they are listening to the thoughts of a one track mind, they will get bored and tune out. Comedy must be surprising after all. And try to mix a positive emotion or two in there If you can. By its nature comedy uses negative emotions for fuel, but a conversation partner who does nothing but complain is unpleasant and tedious.
In week three, I had you write out your emotional beats for each joke in your act. Please do this again, including any bits written since then. Then see how varied you can make the emotional palette of your act. Where is there an opportunity to act how you do when you are in a fight? Where is there an opportunity to talk like you do to your boyfriend or girlfriend when cuddling? Always look for opportunities to vary your vocal dynamic and surprise them with a different side of yourself. The more places on the emotional spectrum presented, the more fulfilling the theatrical performance will be./p>
I KNOW some acts use the same emotional stance on each joke throughout their set by choice. I will address this in the writing section.
If you find you need to work on any of the above things in your act, please make sure you tackle each area as a Performance Goal as you progress in comedy. And, just as instructed in previous classes, work on one at a time. Allow each Performance Goal time to sink in and become automatic before working on the next one.
Now to ways you can help keep their attention with your writing:
1. What if you have decided, like Dan Mintz, that you want the same, specific vocal style on every joke? Or what if, like Lewis Black, you come at each joke from a place of frustration, or like Rodney Dangerfield, you come at each joke from a place of defeatism? If one element of your act is going to remain constant, the other elements have to be AS VARIED AS POSSIBLE to make up for this.
Lewis Black makes sure that his grumpiness is applied to as wide a variety of topics as he can, from the weather to food labels to war propaganda. Dan Mintz’ jokes have an insane variety of subject matter, from samurai armor to the Holocaust, and it changes drastically from joke to joke. If you are going to keep one element of your act constant, you must surprise them with other elements or you become a boring conversation partner.
2. Make sure they always know why they are listening to each bit. This is especially true of stories. Say a clear sentence at the top of the bit that tells them why this is compelling. “My uncle caught me shoplifting and it made me cry.” or “This is the worst time I got fired.” Jon Mulaney’s classic bit about putting Tom Jones on the juke box takes many turns, but he gets the audience to listen through them all by saying it at the start that this was the best meal he’s ever had. The audience sticks through the story to find out why.
3. If you suggest something in your setup, make sure you deliver what you teased. If you say your mom leaves annoying messages on your voice mail, you now HAVE TO GIVE EXAMPLES AND THEY HAVE TO BE FUNNY. Even if this is a side issue to your joke. Your audience expects that all the information you give them will be paid off in humor, or why are they listening? If you are not able to make your mom’s voice mails funny, why mention them at all?
Even a general statement like “I was the worst employee ever “ should ideally tbe backed up by at least one example and that example should get a laugh.
Even if you didn’t intend it, you have put a question in the audience’s mind. They are now thinking “why was he the worst employee ever?” If you don’t explain it, It creates a vague frustration in the audience’s minds. They may not be able to put their finger on why, but it will begin to make them annoyed with your act. A friend and fellow comic had a funny story about a childhood friend faking amnesia for a month. There were some funny details but it didn’t hit like he wanted it to. It’s because he never told them how the friend got caught. They were still restless and full of questions. If you say it lasted a month, they immediately want to know how it ended. If they don’t get to hear it, they won’t be listening to your later jokes because they are still wondering how he got caught. They are also annoyed at you for teasing a topic that you didn’t fully deliver on. Remember how I said comedy requires expectation and fulfillment? Any details you give will set an expectation that the audience will expect you to fulfill.
Look through your act and make sure that any questions you bring up in the audience’s mind are put to bed and put to bed in a funny way before moving on to another topic.
4. Lastly, if at all possible, eliminate segue-ways from your writing. These are lines like “speaking of football, my high school coach was a dick.” Unless you have written actual jokes that take the form of a segue-way, these are your enemy. Just more useless words that aren’t making anyone laugh. Try and arrange your material so that they don’t have to be there.
The best way to do this is to arrange your bits so there is at least some thematic glue that holds the bits together. In the above example, if the comedian just did an NFL bit and then wants to go into his coach bit, just end the NFL bit, and say, “I played football in high school. My coach was a dick.” New topic, clean start, no useless words. The audience knows you were just “speaking of football,” without a reminder, and the common thread of football is enough to link the jokes without extra words.
You have a lot of leeway here. You can follow the high school football bit with, “I’d hate to be a teacher,” without “speaking of high school,” too. Just make sure there’s a bit of a connection between the two. And you know what? If you run out of topics that have common elements, an extra long pause and a little bit of inflection can signal that this is a new topic. Segue-ways are unnecessary.
Your assignment this week is to continue the Comedy Refinement Process towards building your five minute showcase set. In addition to the steps you have been taking each week, apply the lessons from today’s writing section towards your set.
If you have completed your latest Performance Goal, think about working on one of the points from the above performance section. Then, watch the following video clips in order and make a list.
Write down every technique Mr. Galafinakis uses to grab and keep the audience’s attention. Pay special attention to the way he varies his approach throughout the act and keeps them on their toes. Enjoy. Kill ‘em and I’ll see you next week.