In the past month, I’ve been asked to perform at a birthday party, a wedding reception, and a college graduation party.
Here’s the catch: I’m not a DJ, and I’m not in a band. I’m a comedian.
Given that tidbit of information, if you’re not thinking “Those are odd requests,” you should be.
I didn’t turn down any of the gigs, but neither did I perform at any of them. I quoted a price, and had some very nice conversations with the interested hosts. After that, the people realized what they were getting into, and decided against moving forward. Basically, because I am not smart, I talked myself out of a gig. Three times in a row.
Why? Because I’m not a fan of Ambush Comedy.
On paper, it might seem neat to have a comedian at your party/reception/whatever. Your guests gets some yucks, and people love laughing, right? Well, no. Comedy isn’t for everyone; some people just don’t like it. It’s like anything in life: some people like books, others movies. If you have genuine non-comedy fans sitting around waiting for a routine to end, their negative energy spreads. The comedian on stage notices the guests sitting with crossed-arms and the people checking watches. Even worse, audience members around the uninterested people become uncomfortable themselves.
An audience is an incredibly self-aware organism, and tension can become palpable. If one person isn’t having fun in a comedy club audience of 200 people, it’s not a big deal. If 20 people at a 75-person birthday party are tuned out, however, their negativity infects the whole event.
The problem is in the setting.
When people go to a comedy club, they’re actively there to see comedy. They have made the decision to drive to a comedy club, buy a ticket, have a seat, sit quietly, and focus on the fella yapping into a microphone.
When people go to a wedding or party, they’re there to socialize. They’ve put in the time and effort to become presentable enough to leave the house and visit with friends; they want to stand around and talk. The scenario is the exact opposite of that of a comedy club. At a comedy club, it’s par the course to hear “Phones off, no heckling.” At a wedding, hearing “OK everyone, quiet up, joke boy is starting his routine!” causes confusion and eye rolls, not anticipation.
So in those situations, comedy actually doesn’t work more often than it does.
(Plus, events like weddings are generally all-ages, and nothing kills a comedy show like having kids running around. Even if you’re clean, people are on edge. Inferences and innuendo can set off a tense parent faster than crap through a goose.)
Also, comedy isn’t universal, it’s subjective. There’s no such thing as funny. Consider musical tastes. Some people like Classical, others like Country. Similarly, some people prefer clean comedy, while others want it down and dirty. Some want setup and punchline, others enjoy storytelling. Like anything, funny is in the eye of the beholder.
(Or, the ear, if we’re being accurate.)
A comedian has an interesting enough challenge winning over a comedy-friendly audience. When placed in an ambush show—where the audience doesn’t realize they’re about to sit and listen for an extended period of time—things can go south, fast.
For the record, this situation isn’t limited to comedians performing for non-comedy audiences; putting any artist in a situation not germane to their skill is unkind. I have a friend who’s a jazz musician in New York City. He plays plenty of decent gigs, but because money is money and bills are bills, he also plays at restaurants, and weddings. In those situations, he’s basically a living jukebox; people don’t really care what he’s playing, as long as it doesn’t interrupt their conversation. His job is to stay in the background just enough not to offend, while at the same time be noticeable enough the patrons are aware there’s music. In short, he’s walking a tightrope.
I don’t know how to rescue musicians from their hell gigs, but I do tell everyone interested in a non-traditional stand-up comedy show: “Let your guests know what they’re getting into. Have everyone prepared to have a period of time where they’re not talking, but instead listening. They’ll enjoy themselves more going in knowledge-full.”
I will rarely, if ever, turn down a gig. But I also won’t take anyone’s money just because I have a mortgage.
Unfortunately for my bank account, when the host understands how a comedy show works best, they usually decide it’s not right for their social gathering.