With comedy, you’re either up or you’re down. Not a lot of room for shades of gray. It’s all about ego. My ego, your ego and most importantly, the ego of who you have to work with. So what happens when you put two comics on the same show and one of them doesn’t think you should be there?
This is what happens.
I drove up with another comic to do a college gig.
Can there be anything better than a young cute girl telling you how funny you were with that new confidence they have of being away at college for the first time? I don’t think so.
Comedy, like so many other things in life, has its own Darwinian rules that everyone in it understands.
1. To move up the food chain in a show you have to make it hard on the guy following you.
2. If you can’t close the show because of what the guy in front of you did. You shouldn’t be the headliner.
3. If the headliner asks you to not do something it is always because they are afraid to follow it.
Even a comic who has been doing this for 6 months gets this. We didn’t make the rules, but we all live and die by them.
On the way up the guy headlining the gig ask me if I could not do so much crowd work. You know, that thing that I am known for. Its like asking Barry Bonds to not hit home runs, or George Bush to not stutter or Aqua man to not be lame.
I sort of smiled thinking he wasn’t serious. He goes on to explain that he doesn’t think its all that special of a skill and in the long run, it is material that will get you noticed.
That’s when it occurs to me that he is serious. We go back and forth on the subject. He thinks crowd work is a crutch only to be used when the crowd isn’t with you.
That is an argument for a whole other blog. I will say this however.
If crowd work were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Crowd work is the most important skill to have for the success of a live show. Period.
He is right though about material. You cannot audition for something without quality jokes. Not riffing.
But this is a live show in a college. Not riffing would be dumb. Besides, its what I do best and what I enjoy most. He tells me that all that means is, I have to write more.
No argument there. We all do. But whats going on here is pretty clear.
The guy doesn’t want to have to follow me.
He is low key. I am higher energy.
I am great with crowd work. He is Ok with it.
I am a headliner in my own right and it is only due to a series of Booking mistakes and coincidences that we are on the same bill tonight.
He has the major credits. I do not.
That means I am opening because his fame is what will be putting butts in seats.
That’s just another rule in comedy we all have to make peace with.
4. The guy with the biggest draw is the headliner.
I get it. I really do. I could be a complete dick and do what I want, or I could be cool and do what he is not so humbling asking me. But as a comic I have to tell you, this is a pretty chicken shit move from a world traveling headliner to ask me to be less than the best I can do so he can look better.
In a last effort to convince me he tells me that not only do I have great material, but also that he is scouting for talent for a big tour coming up.
I wasn’t laughing anymore. Especially at this little nugget of bullshit.
You see there are some talented and well-known comics out there who have no problem lending a helping hand to comics who have not had the luck they have had. These comics are gold. Greg Proops asked to work with me at the Punchline in San Francisco later this year. Why? He knows that I am very funny and he likes the challenge of following a strong performer.
That’s a class act all the way folks. He not only dropped a well paying gig into my lap, but he did it so he can stay sharp by challenging himself.
That’s pretty fucking cool anyway you look at it.
The comic I am working with tonight, the comic that is asking me to tie one hand behind my back so he can look better, the comic who wanted to car pool so he could get me alone to ask me this has a reputation of NEVER helping other comics. No information, no recommendations no help from his position of privilege to those of us struggling in the trenches.
I bit my tongue.
The last thing anyone wants is a pissing contest before a show. I certainly don’t want to hit the stage with resentment. The crowd will smell that a mile away and I will bomb all because one person’s insecure ego is bruising mine.
The place is packed. In fact, they have to open up more room and bring more chairs in. Before the show even starts people are coming up to him and asking for photos with him. Cute girls look over and smile.
Yeah. Its bugging the shit out of me. I admit that. I am standing off to the side thinking how many times I have come up here to do shows in front of 40 or 50 kids who wonder into the show not knowing who the hell I am. The whole reason I am opening tonight is because they forgot to promote a show I was headlining last year. They called a few days before the gig and canceled. Since we had a signed contract for a set price they had to find a way to make it good. A few days later they e-mailed asking if I would open for this guy at the price I was to get for headlining my own show. Sure. Money is money and I know the gig will pack out because he has major credits.
It is eating me alive inside. I admit that. There is not a comic alive who has been doing it as long as I have who wouldn’t bristle at being called "the opener."
I promised myself I was going to be more positive this year. I also feel the energy in the room. I get to revel in that first. I get to set the bar high. I get first crack at a crowd that is pumped up. It is in these moments when you can hand the crowd more than what they expected.
A young lady goes on stage and introduces me.
With in two minuets I have my first applause break. Not once do I look down at anyone in the crowd and ask them their name or what they are studying. Not once do I engage in crowd work. Instead, I stick to material and destroy the room. Not with cheap stuff either. That’s another rule in comedy.
5. The cheap way to make it hard on the next act is to go all dirty.
I did my stuff on Politics, America’s love of drugs and religion. In short, I kill with quality. I end on an applause break and say thank you very much.
You want to know what getting high feels like? Its standing in front of someone else’s adoring crowd and they won’t stop applauding for you. That’s getting high. And I did it with the standards the other act asked for.
In comedy, you are either up or down. No gray. Remember?
When I come off the stage shaking hands and saying thank you to people, I reach the back of the room where I plan on standing and watching what happens next. Truthfully, I want to see him bomb. My ego is screaming inside my head, “Follow that Motherfucker!” There is not a comic alive who wouldn’t be thinking the same thing.
One of the kids who works in the promotions department sheepishly comes up to me with the headliners car keys and says, “He wants you to go out to his car and bring more CD’s”
He knows it’s a kick to my ego to be asked this. In 30 seconds I go from exceeding the crowds expectations of what the opener is suppose to be like to becoming a roadie for a guy who has treated me like an open micer since we got in the car together.
I smile, take the car keys and walk out into the clean clear air of the evening.
Am I muttering out loud to myself about how this is bullshit and when will my break come?
Fuck yes I am!
I’m pissed! Who wouldn’t be? I’m not some fucking brand new guy in comedy who will only be to happy to be treated like a monkey. I am a headliner with a comedy central credit and the ability to crush a room when others have already tried and concluded that the crowd is dead.
But none of that matters right now.
I am standing there with the fresh smell of rain and the cool air upon my face staring into his trunk at a box of CD’s. Did some malicious shit go threw my mind?
What do you think?
As I am standing there contemplating what to do the thought occurs to me to call a friend. No reason to fight all your battles alone.
He tells me, “Be the better man. Act with integrity. Have gratitude for what you have not attitude for what you don’t. Pain is pain and you have a choice to either let it consume you and ruin the high of a beautiful set, or let it go and be content that you were paid well to have to tell jokes.”
That’s exactly what I needed to hear.
I grab a stack of CD’s and slowly walk back to the show.
Did he have a hard time following me?
Does it really matter at this point? I want everything this guy has. I want the career, the cute girls giving him looks, the money, the fame and the fans. But I also want to be happy.
After the show, a guy came up to me and said, “I thought you were better. You were genuine.”
Some nights, all you need to hear is one person telling you that to know you succeeded.