Same show, but different audience response

Hey Dave – You talked last week about audiences giving objective feedback. I did a five minute open-mic at The Improv that killed! People were coming up to me telling me I was the funniest of the 20 comics by far and that I was hilarious. Fast forward to last night at a different open-mic… Exact same set from The Improv – no change at all and NOTHING!! Not even a snicker or two. I was shocked. I thanked them for being so quiet while I practiced my comedy. Those nights are painful, but I know they are part of the process. I’m just amazed at the change from one crowd to another. – M

Not the best show.

Hey M. – Every group of people has its own personality, just like individuals. Sometimes that personality will like what you do on stage and other times it won’t.

It’s like the old saying: “You can’t please everyone.”

That’s one thing comedians and speakers need to realize. They’re not going to have one hundred percent of the audience love everything they say or do on stage. It just won’t happen – and I don’t care who the performer is.

An example I use about this in my comedy workshops involves Jerry Seinfeld

I consider Seinfeld to be one of the top comedians not only of our time, but in the long history of comedy. Right up there with Richard Pryor, George Carlin and the other legends mentioned the most as influences by the working comics I’ve interviewed for my books. Seinfeld’s name starting creeping in during the success of his TV show and it’s stayed there.

I’ve been fortunate to see Seinfeld perform dozens of times. Mostly it was at the LA Improv when the TV show Seinfeld was still in production and he would stop by the club to work on new material. I was in the audience at The Cleveland Improv during the filming of his movie Comedian and have also seen him do a few theater shows.

The last time I saw him (theater show) he was GREAT!! He KILLED and it was positively the BEST show I had seen him do, at least in my humble opinion (do I really possess such a trait?). I laughed from beginning to end.

BUT on the way out of the theater, there were two couples walking behind us. One of the guys turned to the others and said:

“Say what?!”

“You should’ve seen him last time. He was a lot funnier than this.”

My jaw dropped in disbelief, but then I slammed it shut. Every individual has his own personality and opinions and obviously, this guy had one that was different than mine. It’s the same when a group of people get together.

An audience develops a personality.

You mentioned The Improv. It’s a known comedy club (for over half a century folks!) and people go there to see comedy. They are more supportive audiences than what you would usually find at an open-mic in a stereotypical neighborhood bar. You know the type I mean – the kind of place where the bartender shuts off the televisions and announces to his customers:

“It’s time for a little comedy.”

To put this into classic television perspective, imagine Sam Malone pulling that on the gang at Cheers in the middle of a Red Sox or Celtics game. Let’s just say that a bar-crowd audience will not be as supportive of a comedy night as an audience of comedy fans at The Improv.

Different audiences have different personalities.


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Can you play both? An experienced comedian has a pretty good chance. A beginning comic needs to look at it as real life on-stage experience.

Sometimes you can’t do anything about it. Certain audiences (like people with certain personalities) will not like you no matter what you do. They’re not your crowd and it happens to everyone during the course of their careers. Imagine if you produced a show and your co-headliners were complete opposites when it comes to performing styles. Off the top of my head, I’ll go with Bill Maher and Carrot Top. Depending on who has the most fans in the audience, that comic will get more laughs than the other based on the comedy tastes of the majority of the crowd.

In other words, a big chunk of a performer’s success depends on the crowd’s personality.

Another off the top of my head example (for music fans) would have Justin Bieber opening a concert for The Rolling Stones. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be pretty…

From watching more comedy shows than rock concerts, but also learning from both, some good advice when you’re having a difficult time is to try and engage the audience in your set more than you normally do. I’ve talked about this technique in earlier FAQ’s And Answers, but here’s a quick rerun…

Years ago, I saw one of the best comedy writers in the business perform his regular set at the Los Angeles Improv. From past experiences watching him many times before, his material was guaranteed to get laughs. I had never seen him bomb or ever had any expectations of seeing him bomb. But for some reason on this particular Friday night the crowd wasn’t laughing – at all.

So instead of chalking it up to a bad experience or blaming the audience and hoping his next crowd would be more receptive, this “material” comedian took the microphone out of the stand and started talking with the audience. He used all the old comedian tricks:

Still one of Dave’s favorites (H.Y.)

“Where’ya from?” and “What’da’ya do for a living?”

Next thing you know, he had engaged the audience. They were suddenly interested in what he was saying.

He had related to them.

Then (and this was the cool part) he stepped back, put the microphone back in the stand, and went into his usual material that I had seen work many times before. And this time – it worked again.The audience laughed all the way through the remainder of his set.

After he got off stage, I talked to him about it (I was the talent booker and allowed to do that). He said – like every comedian – he had started out as an opening act. It’s what you have to do to be a good MC.

You must learn how to relate to and engage the audience. I hadn’t seen him do it before since he was already a headliner when we met. He hadn’t needed to rely on his MC / opening act skills at The Improv (the only venue where I had seen him) in a long time because his material was practiced and usually worked. But when it didn’t, he went back to what he learned at the beginning of his career, which was relating to the audience, and continuing until they’re with him.

Make sense?

You may not kill at every open-mic because of this great advice and the audience may not like you no matter what you do. But this will at least give you a fighting chance. Talk with the crowd, relate to them, find out what they’re interested in – and play off it. It’s like you’re the host of a party and it’s your job to greet everyone and make sure they feel involved. Make them feel like they’re a welcomed guest.

Once that happens you can kill them with your comedy.

If not, then you might have to admit they’re not your audience and move on. It’s sort of like being Justin Bieber at a Rolling Stones concert, or the guy walking behind me after the Seinfeld show. We definitely had clashing personalities that night, but you know me. I kept my (humble) opinions to myself… ha!

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