Comedians don’t always perform in comedy clubs; we go wherever the paycheck takes us. Given that, I recently had one of the most diverse six-day-spans of my comedy career.
On Sunday, I finished a 4-night run in a major American city. The room was urban, and African-Americans made up 90% (or more) of the audience.
(Point of note: I am a Honkey. Or “Cracker-American,” if we’re being politically correct.)
On Wednesday, I performed for veteran wives in a small Iowa town. These weren’t veterans of our most recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, we’re talking Korea or earlier. The average age of the blue-hairs was 75, at best. I have no clue how comedy was chosen over “knitting-circle” as the evening’s entertainment, but it wasn’t my place to wonder. My job was to provide giggles.
(Second point of note: I am a member of Generation X, and performing for The Greatest Generation is not something I do often. Most comedy shows start later than 7pm, when the grandparents are asleep. I make that crack because at 6:25pm I heard the organizer tell a subordinate, “OK, let’s get this comedy thing going. I’ve gotta get home and go to bed.”)
On Saturday, I opened for comedy legend Louie Anderson in a casino. This means the median age would be 55, or slightly less “Get off my lawn!” than at the VFW Hall.
(Third point of note: Opening for a famous comedian is always a crap shoot. Will the audience pay attention to you, or will they talk amongst themselves while waiting for the main event?)
I faced three disparate audiences over six days, and had to make them all laugh.
Comedians might be the only artists who face such a unique challenge. Jazz musicians don’t get booked at rock clubs, and the entertainment director of a hospice wouldn’t hire a hip-hop artist. No one would hire a carnival caricaturist to paint a family portrait, and it is doubtful you’d contract a still-photographer to shoot your wedding. Comedians, however, are expected to be universally amusing. Even though individual members of an audience have varied tastes in food, music, clothing, and comedy, the comedian on stage is expected to appeal to all of them. It’s technically not fair, but to quote Omar: “It’s all in the game.”
There are three ways to reach an audience: one, go lowest-common-denominator and paint with such a wide stroke everything is “funny.” Pandering is easy, and people as a whole like easy. “Men and women are different…” “Traffic, it’s crazy!” Things that are tried (and tired) and true can get people laughing every time.
The second option is to pinpoint what you do; go to the core of who you are and make your act so personal everyone connects with you, even if they don’t always relate to the material. You might lose one or two people, but you should be able to win an overwhelming majority.
I prefer the second path. By discussing personal stories or events from my life, I am able to share my enthusiasm with the audience and take them on a ride. This means that in an urban room, a white guy like me can do material about being a father that any parent can enjoy.
The third option is the most difficult, but it marries well with the second path: you try and make your jokes so funny that connecting to them doesn’t matter. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received is when a Millennial told me, “Dude, when you were talking about your kids, I was laughing my ass off, and I don’t even have kids.” Even though the topic wasn’t personal to him, I was able to make my words universal.
Is that all there is to it? Almost.
With comedy, everything breaks down into content, appearance, and delivery. Someone with great content, yet horrible delivery, can fail. Conversely, someone with horrible content and fantastic delivery can succeed. Typically, African-American audiences are interested in delivery. Many African-American comics—Kat Williams and Bernie Mac, for example—have said “It’s about appearance and attitude.” You have to show confidence and take command of the room. If you’re on stage, you have to show you deserve to be up there and hit with jokes quickly. In all honesty, my first show in the urban room wasn’t the best. I didn’t strike out, but I didn’t hit it out of the park. I had to get a feel for things, and once I found my feet everything went great.
White audiences can be a little more patient, giving you more time to set things up. They still want the payoff, but you can tell stories with the funny sprinkled in as opposed to rapid fire. Interesting works almost as well as funny. At the VFW hall, I basically talked to the women. I still told jokes, but everything was more conversational than it otherwise might be.
(Older audiences also prefer cleaner material. You can drop some innuendo, as long as it’s playful and not blatant; hint at being naughty, without being dirty. You’d also do best to lose the four letter words.)
Regarding appearance, the simple fact of the matter is people judge other people. It happens unconsciously, and automatically. If you’re on stage in a T-Shirt and torn jeans, a VFW hall of elderly women or theater full of adults might not respond as quickly as someone dressed crisply. For that matter, a group of college kids might view a comedian wearing a suit as stiff and unapproachable. Which isn’t to say you cannot win an audience over despite your appearance, but snap judgments are made as you’re walking to the stage.
You can’t win everyone, however. No matter what you try, someone probably won’t enjoy your act. Sometimes they were just looking for something else, sometimes they just don’t like you.
At the VFW Hall, one elderly woman went out of her way to tell me of her displeasure with the entertainment. She approached with a huff, stating: “You comics were too political. That one,” she intoned while pointing at my opening act, “made fun of Drumpf!”
When I asked her what was wrong with that, she barked, “Comedians shouldn’t talk politics! You should make different jokes!”
I asked what kind of jokes she was interested in and the now near-apoplectic woman shouted, “I don’t know! Maybe ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ That’s what Bob Hope did!”
Comedians usually have a sure-fire response for whatever is tossed their way; they’re used to being heckled and badgered by the audience. It’s been over a week, and I still don’t have a clever retort for that one. To me, it was as bewildering as someone suggesting the Great Pyramids of Egypt were used for grain storage.
(And who would ever say something that stupid?)
Anyway, to any young comedian who may have stumbled across this: you will come across a multitude of audiences during your career. You will perform before myriad religions, sexual orientations, genders, races, and in many regions of the country, if not world. Don’t fear these people, embrace the challenge. Audiences at a comedy show are there to laugh; all you have to do is bring it, even if you’re not the same race/religion/gender/whatever.
To anyone who may find themselves a member of a comedy audience: if you hear everyone around you laughing, and don’t understand why? That’s OK. Maybe the comedian on stage isn’t your cup of tea. But if you hear everyone around you laughing and you feel the need to badger the comedian because you don’t like him?
To put it politely: you’re the jerk in this situation, not the comic.