I’ve been talking a lot with Wayne Manigo lately in preparation for my appearance at DC Digital Week (June 16th, 2010) and somehow tips for new comics came up, and Wayne had some great advice I wanted to pass along:
What are some tips that you would provide to new comics?
Tip # 1. There are 4 levels of standup comedy. Open Mic, Emcee, Feature, and Headliner. Each of these take a huge amount time and experience to advance, and the number one mistake made is attempting to advance to the next level too soon. I was unemployed when I started working professionally, so I worked at comedy 24×7 for a year. That allowed me to advance at an accelerated pace. Some comics don’t have that amount of free time to develop themselves and their material, and yet they believe they can still advance based on stage time…not experience.
Tip # 2. Open Mics – You have to put the time in! There is no ifs, and, or buts! I was fortunate enough to start 2 open mics and attend a number of other open mics in the DC area. That is the ‘Instant Learning School’ for comedians. If you bomb and you come back…great! You’re learning how to become a comic. Not every set you perform will be a great one. I’m the emcee at my open mics, so I’m able to try more new material at a faster pace than the average comic. The other *bonus* for open mics is that you’ll never know who’s in the audience. I’ve booked comics for showcases based on what I’ve seen them do at an open mic.
Tip # 3. STOP saying “Give It Up!” For example “Give it up for the DJ, the emcee, yourselves, my mother who came on a moped with an eyepatch”…you get the idea. You only have 5 minutes or less onstage when you start out. That’s the job of the emcee. Use your 5 minutes wisely! You may not get another 5 minutes if you screw them up!
What is the best advice you would give to new comics looking for a break?
You must network at every show! . Arrive at the comedy shows early and leave late. Speak with everyone in the room: bartenders, wait staff, security. Some opportunities do exist if you network properly, others will appear if you create them. Remember: You are not selling! It’s networking…learn the difference. Once I was asked by a fellow comic who’s been doing it for a number of years how I caught up to his ‘status’ in a year. NETWORKING! When you’re starting out, and you do a set – take some time after the show to meet the audience. This is especially important if you bombed during your performance! It won’t be easy to digest, but if you are willing to accept honest criticism, then you will grow as a comic.
Another thing I would strongly suggest is to find mentors! I’ve opened for a number of headliners, and built honest relationships with them. Ask them “What is the best way to keep in touch?” and commit to it. That has helped me build a school of knowledge that is always available at a low, low cost (because comics are broke!).
Congratulations! You’ve got a venue, you’ve booked comics and there’s lots of people in the audience. Now the real headache begins! One hundred things can and will go wrong every time you run a show.
Before getting into any specifics, if you remember nothing else about running a show, remember to:
Be flexible and don’t freak out!
With that said, here is a pretty standard to do (or have someone else to do) list when you’re running a show. (Some of these steps aren’t necessary depending on the venue.)
Set up and test the equipment, rearrange furniture if needed
Work the box office selling tickets (if you’re charging cover)
Seat people (towards the front when possible)
Make announcements before the show starts (turn off pagers, any drink minimums, etc)
Introduce and bring up the MC (or if you’re MCing, have someone bring you up)
Decide the order of comics and how much time each comic is doing
Keep track of how much time each comic is doing
Light the comic when they have one minute remaining
Let the waitresses know when to drop the checks (if applicable)
Make an announcement to clear the room after the show ends (if applicable)
Put the room back how you found it
Here’s some common problems and possible solutions, add your own experiences in the comments
The line up needs to be changed
You should have a line up in advance that states the order of the comics and how long each comic is doing. However, unless you’re producing a MC – Feature – Headliner format, the line up almost always changes at the last minute. Look at your original line up as a starting hypothesis and not like the ten commandments. When making line up changes the most important thing to keep in mind is if there’s a hard stopping time that the show must be over by. If so, always work backwards from there. And don’t forget to add 30 to 60 seconds between comics for the MC to have time to bring up the next comedian.
The show has to end earlier than scheduled
All your comics are on time and don’t run the light, but suddenly management decides you only have 70 minutes instead of 100. The most important thing to do, is not get pissy at management. Asking them if they can do anything about giving the show more time is okay, just don’t get into a yelling match with them or anything. When this happens, be ready to cut everyone’s time. Most comics will be understanding about this. If this happens, a better move than cutting into everyone else’s time is to take yourself off of the show (assuming you’re not the MC). When producing and running a show, your first responsibility is making it a good show, giving yourself stage time is just a bonus.
Comics go longer than you want
Comics run the light way too often. If you’re a comic reading this, you’ve probably run the light a few times yourself. If the show is running tight, make sure to remind comics not to run the light. If you stress how tight the show is, they’re less likely to do it (although it’s not guaranteed). Be ready to keep waving a light until they come off stage.
You run out of change
If you’re charging a cover, you’ll need to break change. It’s best to have at least one person helping you run the show so that you can send them on errands like this one, while you stay and run the rest of the show. If you can’t get help, either ask them to hang out until someone else can give you change or if they’re waiting for more than a few minutes, comp their cover.
A comic doesn’t show up or cancels at the last minute
This is a bigger deal if you have 3 or 4 comics on a show and two of them have already gone up. There’s a minimum amount of time most places will want a show to run, and you don’t want to give someone more time than they can handle doing, especially if they’re already on stage. One way to solve this is to have comics check in by a certain time, and if they’re not there, take them off the show so you can split the remaining time fairly from the beginning. Another solution is to always book one comic that you know can do a lot of time if needed, and don’t put that comic on until the other comics have shown up.
This happens to me more often than I’d like. There’s a few different techniques that I’ve tried, all with limited success:
1) If you bumble your setup, you can just say “oops I got my tongue twisted, we’re gonna rewind time” (make a tape rewind sound, then start your joke again)
2) If your first punch line doesn’t hit, change topics
3) Keep going with the joke, and if three punch lines in a row miss, just acknowledge it, “You’re right, I need to make that funnier” (just don’t get in the habit of always doing this, especially at open mics because it will almost always get a laugh but for the wrong reasons)
4) I have this issue too, but try to commit to the joke more. You might not be connecting because it’s not evident you fully believe what you’re saying. This is particularly true when you’re doing an act out. I have a funny video I need to upload of an open mic I did a couple weeks back where I decided to do the same joke 6 times in a row (it was a 10 minute open mic set) because I decided the joke wasn’t funny and I needed to really commit to it.
5) This is more for a real show than an open mic, but it can work if there’s audience members that aren’t comics: If you notice jokes aren’t working, stop doing jokes and have a conversation with the audience. This is annoying if you’re trying to work out a joke and have limited time, but it will save the set.
You’re in the middle of a joke, or even worse, a set, and you see that the audience isn’t connecting or following what you’re saying. This is bound to happen occasionally (hopefully not too often) and how you deal with it can make or break the set.
Here’s a few different techniques that I’ve tried, all with varying levels of success:
If the problem was you stumbled over your setup, you can just say “oops I got my tongue twisted, we’re gonna rewind time” (make a tape rewind sound) and then start your joke again
If your first punch line doesn’t hit, change topics
If your first punch line doesn’t hit, keep going with the joke. If three punch lines in a row miss, just acknowledge it, “You’re right, I need to make that funnier” (just don’t get in the habit of always doing this, especially at open mics because saying this will almost always get a laugh but for the wrong reasons)
Try to commit to the joke more. You might not be connecting because it’s not evident you fully believe what you’re saying. This is particularly true when you’re doing an act out. There’s an open mic I did a couple weeks back where I decided to do the same joke 6 times in a row (it was a 10 minute open mic set) because I decided the joke wasn’t funny and I needed to really commit to it (video of this is coming soon).
If you notice jokes aren’t working, stop doing jokes and have a conversation with the audience. You don’t even need to try to be funny. Some audiences just want a talk show style therapy session. (I’ve found this tends to happen with smaller crowds of 8 to 15 moreso than with large crowds.) This is annoying if you’re trying to work out new material and have limited time, but it will save the set.
A year ago, a reader asked me how I address heckling. At that point, I hadn’t been heckled nearly enough times to have an opinion or technique on the subject. “Luckily” I’ve been heckled plenty of times over this past year, so now I have some thoughts on the subject.
Different Kinds of Heckling
To start, I like to differentiate between five different kinds of heckling, the first four of which could be considered more of an “interruption” than a “heckle”:
Someone responds to your jokes by saying something out loud that they think is helpful to the joke (but almost always isn’t)
Someone doesn’t realize your statement or question was rhetorical and that they weren’t supposed to actually answer it
Someone says “Jesus Christ” or something like that when you do a meaner or edgier joke
Someone is drunk and just yelling out sounds or words that don’t make any sense
Someone yells out “you suck”, “I’m funnier than you”, etc. This is what most people think of when you mention hecklers.
I’ve had the first 4 kinds happen quite often but have never gotten into #5 with an audience member. (When I’m doing poorly, the audience just stays quiet.) Realizing what kind of heckle you’re dealing with will help you respond to it better.
Here’s what I’ve found to be the best response to each of the five kinds of heckles.
Acknowledge their suggestion and either riff off of it, say something witty or say something standard (see below)
After you acknowledge the comment, take shorter pauses than usual between lines and jokes for the rest of the set. Some audiences are more A.D.D. than others and can’t handle any silence, especially if it’s right after a question.
If this happens once, you can smile and move on without really addressing it. A stronger move is to admit “You’re right, that’s bad” and then say something even more offensive. Showing the audience you understand you’re crossing the line, and then crossing it even more causes a laugh because going further after apologizing isn’t expected. If you get the “Jesus Christ” a second time, then make sure to admit the audience is right, and then take the joke even further. I have whole jokes (suicidal girls and the morning after pill, in particular) that are written with this dynamic in mind.
Admit to being genuinely confused about the sound, maybe even mimic the sound, but don’t give them time to respond. If they do respond, it’s usually so nonsensical you can just laugh or stare at them and then move on without another response. You can always make a comment about them needing another drink too. The key here is to get back to your material ASAP. The audience tends to tolerate these kinds of heckles less than any other, so you can ignore it after the first time.
Try to be agreeable while one upping them. Don’t resort to insulting them unless they’ve yelled out negative stuff more than once.
General Heckling Techniques
I’ve found the first key to a heckler not derailing your set is to address the situation as soon as someone says something. If you acknowledge the situation and respond with something that isn’t too mean the first time, they’ll usually stop. The reason not to get mean the first time is because a lot of times the person (and rest of the audience) thinks they’re just being helpful (heckle #1) and doesn’t understand why you went from zero to asshole. If you don’t have a witty in-the-moment response something like “Thank you for your opinion sir, I can take it from here” or “Ok, no more alcohol for that one” usually works for the first interruption.
If you ignore the first comment, then they’ll almost certainly say something else. Plus the audience starts wondering why you haven’t responded to the comment and while they’re thinking about that, they stop listening to you and your next joke. If you respond to the interruption and the audience member says something again, try to not respond directly. Stare at them for a second or two and then say “annnnnd back to me” or just a “that’s nice.” I don’t suggest getting mean, calling the audience member names or telling them to shut up until they interrupt for a third time.
Also, keep in mind that some audiences are just talkative and want you to talk and interact with them instead of just listening to you do material. This isn’t really “heckling,” this is crowd work, even if you’re not the one who decided to start it. When you’re trying to work on new material having to spend time talking to the audience can get annoying but you just gotta go with it. It’s also important to make it seem like the interruptions are “fun” and don’t bother you.
Another tip is to use the improv rule of “yes and” to agree with whatever the audience member says and then add some additional information. This usually works because you don’t want to seem defensive. Even something like, “You suck” can be turned into “Yes, I do suck. And you can’t afford me. Why are you propositioning me anyway?”
To add to the all variables, it makes a big difference if the heckling / interrupting has been going on the whole show before you get on stage or if it’s just the audience’s reaction to your material.
Of course, heckling is just like with the rest of stand up, you can only really learn how to respond by doing it. It still helps to read, ask questions and be prepared, but you need the actual game reps before you really know how to respond. I’m sure my tips will be different and hopefully better a year from now after I get even more reps.
I have a feeling a lot of people reading this are less interested in techniques and more interested in “war stories” so here we go.
I had one show where there were four drunk girls who interrupted EVERY comedian. The first two or three comics, the audience was enjoying the girls getting ripped apart. (They were constantly interrupting, so the “third interruption” rule kicked in within a minute of the first comic being on stage. After the third comic, the rest of the audience started getting pissed at the comics for not ignoring the girls because they wanted to hear actual jokes. By the time I got up there as the 10th comic, I knew to address the girls once and then ignore them. Doing this got other people in the audience to yell “shut up” at the girls while I was talking.
I was doing a bar show, and in the middle of one of my jokes, someone yells out to me, “show us your tits!” Without stopping my joke, I pull up my shirt and flash them, then hit my punch line. Sometimes it’s easier to just go with the flow. (Although thinking back on it, after my punch line, I should’ve said, “The first sample was free, next time, I better see some bills flying.”)
Three girls dressed in super tight, really short skirts came in and sat down in the front row when the comic before me was on stage. He proceeded to get them to make out with each other and fondled them (this was a bar show, this doesn’t usually happen in comedy clubs). I get up there and go, “I could be Jerry Seinfeld right now and everyone would rather watch them make out than to hear my jokes.” Which actually got the audience to start listening to my jokes. Until the girls didn’t realize my questions were rhetorical and started interrupting…
The comic before me was doing so badly someone in the audience yelled out “Next!” over and over again. The comic then ran his light in order to argue with and insult the audience member. This got ugly and made the room weird. I get up there and say “Well looks like you got your wish.”
Aadip recently told me he struggled with a heckler his whole set until he finally told the crowd, “Congratulations, you’ve finally met someone who’s actually inbred.” This funny but mean comment worked because the guy kept talking so the audience was on the comic’s side. If the Aadip had said that same comment when the heckler said his first comment, the audience may not have been with him (unless the same audience member had been heckling other comics before him too).