Dave – I’ve noticed that in some (comedy) rooms you can just get up on stage and begin your material. Other rooms are a little stiff, but sometimes these rooms respond well with a more interactive style of comedy – where the comedian talks with the audience. Do you have any tips, questions or strategies one should use for this type of interactive comedy? – B.T.
Hey B.T. – You’re talking about the dilemma comedy club MC’s / opening acts go through every time they step on a stage. Depending on the audience – and experienced comics and speakers already know each audience is different and has its own personality – the MC has to make a decision about how much material he can do and how much he’ll have to work the audience.
The decision is based on audience reaction.
I’ve heard a lot of comedians describe it as, “reading the room” or “finding the level of the room.” Whatever you might call it, the ultimate decision should be quite easy. If they’re not laughing at your material, then a good alternative is to start talking with them.
All comedians start out in the comedy club circuit as a MC, also known as the opening act. They may call themselves a headliner in their own self-booked show at a local venue, but no big-name (legit) comedy club will bring in an unknown as the headliner or feature (middle) act.
Working comics pay their dues.
The only comics I’ve ever known that will try to headline a show without valuable stage time experience are either kidding themselves into thinking they’re ready – and think legit clubs are wrong – or are already stars. For example, I’ve seen (and in some cases, unfortunately worked with) a few television sitcom stars that wanted to entertain their loyal fans by appearing in comedy clubs. Overnight they think they’re going to become good stand-up comedians, but really have no stage experience away from a television sound stage.
At best they are considered novelty acts by talent bookers and club owners, and are coasting on their television (acting) fame. Clubs will book them because (remember, it’s a business) audiences will pay to see them once (a novelty). But if they’re not funny and can’t deliver the laughs because of lack of performing experience, it’s a good bet the novelty will wear off.
The next time they’re scheduled to headline ticket sales will go down.
To get back to my original point, all good comedians start out as opening acts. It’s the next level up from open mics and how they earn much needed experience in front of live audiences. It’s hands-on learning. And as MC’s, they gain experience reading the room and learn how to work the audience. It comes with the territory. As the first performer on stage MC’s have to set the tone for the show. Once you have that experience, whether a room is stiff or loose won’t matter.
You’ll know – through experience – how to adjust.
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There are no magic formulas for doing this any more than there are magic formulas to write comedy material. Using comedy legends for example, imagine putting Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor in the same room and telling them “This is the formula you use to write a joke.”
That’s not how it works.
But it’s difficult to ignore the old standard lines or questions performers have used for decades to get an audience involved in their act:
- “Where’ya from?” And…
- “What do you do for a living?”
To be honest, if these questions didn’t work in getting an audience to interact with the performer, no one would use them. And I’ve seen both used quite often quite recently. But to make them work in your favor, you’d better be ready to think on your feet and be funny. The best way to do that is through:
- On stage experience (hands-on learning) or…
- Take a workshop in improvisation – and then get on stage experience
Every time you go on stage it should be a learning process. If the audience is not responding to your act, direct it more to them as individuals. Ask questions, talk with them, make conversation, interact and (importantly) be funny. If you can get their attention and make them laugh, chances are they loosen up and not be so stiff.
Here’s an example:
When I was working at the Hollywood Improv, one of the writers for a well-known late night television show was also one of our top comedians. He was – and still is – a great comedy writer. His material on stage never failed to get an audience laughing, until one night…
He was on stage doing his act.
It was a weekend night with a room full of paying customers, so he was giving his best show and not trying out any new material. In other words, I had heard all his material before – and it always worked. But things weren’t going as normal. The audience wasn’t laughing. I thought for sure he was in trouble because his material didn’t seem funny to them. I didn’t know if he had a backup plan because I had never seen him bomb or improvise off a crowd.
Mainly because he never had to. His material was always killer.
Anyway, his proven jokes weren’t working that night. But he didn’t seem too worried about it. He took the microphone out of the stand (I had never seen him do that before) and stopped doing his material. Instead he started talking with the audience and asking them the same two “old” questions listed above:
- “Where’ya from?” And…
- “What do you do for a living?”
His responses were very funny, and he connected with the audience. Before too long everyone was laughing. I watched as he continued the conversations, while putting the microphone back in the stand. Then he started – again – doing his material (his regular act).
The audience loved him. He was in total command and they laughed through the rest of his set.
After he was off stage, I told him I had never seen him perform like that – working off an audience. He laughed and taught me the lesson I shared with you today. He told me it’s how every comedian starts out. He had been an MC at small clubs for years while learning to write great material. He had the experience setting the tone for the shows by reading the audience and knowing how to get them – and keep them – involved. When the material wasn’t working, he would work the crowd by engaging them in conversation.
So, without a magic formula, how do you do that?
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