What is it about an important audition + a camera in the room that make a crowd lame? It is generally regarded as proof of Murphy’s Law, but any time you need a crowd to be good you can almost count on them to be bad. Sunday night I auditioned for the Aspen Comedy festival. It’s not what it once was but it is still a place to be seen by some of the powers that be in this biz. Sunday night at the Punch Line in San Francisco can be an awesome show. Two hours of comics all doing their best stuff in five to ten minuet increments in front of a crowd thrilled to be there makes for some great nights. Last night Rooftop Comedy set up their cameras and taped the show. They are traveling around to different venues looking for comics to put on their stage at the festival this year. Sure enough the crowd couldn’t give a fuck. I watched comic after comic go up with stuff that usually ends with applause breaks get a whimper. I did no better. Jokes I have always been able to count on got a chuckle. When it happens to comic after comic then it is reasonable to conclude that it’s the crowd, not the comics. I know I know. There is no such thing as a bad crowd. Bullshit.
When you audition for something you want to present well-honed material. It’s not really the time or place to Riff. Did I riff? Of course I did! It’s like a sickness with me I guess. First of all the crowd needed a jolt. Second of all there was a huge completely bald white guy in the front row. How can you not mention that? He looked like Mr. Clean or a very aggressive trailer hitch. Take your pick. But when I fucked with the crowd I got a big response. I managed to get most of the stuff in there that I wanted, but it definitely wasn’t the set I wanted to have. I left after my set but I can’t imagine it getting any better for anyone else. By the time I came off the stage it was 9:30 and there were still 6 more comics to go.
Rooftop Comedy is relatively new to the business. They have positioned themselves as the place to go on the Internet for stand-up. Here is the problem though. They don’t pay the comics. They simply mine us for content. Holding the promise of getting a set at Aspen in front of us is the carrot at the end of the stick they use to generate more content for their site. I didn’t sign the waiver either. They will put it up there anyway. They always do. Yet one more set will be badly edited and thrown into the ether of the Internet for a few people to watch. The argument is the same as it has always been. Do it for exposure. Well, as Will Durst said to me the best thing you can say when they ask you to do something for exposure is to remind them that people can also die from exposure.
Last night they got a lot of really good comics doing great stuff in front of a lame crowd for their site. I don’t think many people went home happy.
Last weekend I got to perform in theaters. I was part of the Obama-Ha-Ha Tour. Not only did I get to perform in beautiful venues, I got to hang out with three of the most accomplished Bay Area comics I know. Will Durst, Johnny Steel and the man who put the whole thing together, Dan St. Paul. I really did feel honored to be a part of this show. Politically themed, social commentary comedy thrives when the audience is intelligent and well informed. Needless to say it has been a dying form of stand-up for a while now. This challenged me a little. I had to look at old bits and figure out how to rework them into something other than a dirty joke. I also realized that I didn’t need to rely on some of the more shocking elements in the bits for them to work. Last but not least, it became very clear to me that theatres and not comedy clubs are the way to go. I never thought I would say that. I always thought I would be a die heart club comic till the day I died. What you learn at theater shows is just how distracting a traditional comedy club can be to what most of us would like to be seen as an art. With no two-drink minimum or waitress to serve people, the crowd has to pay attention. It makes for a much better show for everyone. Subtle lines get big laugh and big laughs get turned into a roar. The last night of the Obama-Ha-Ha Tour we were at the Punch Line. Almost sold out, we thought it was going to be an amazing night. It turned out to be the least fun show for all of us. Why? The crowd was ordering pizza, talking over the bill, trying to listen while a table of kids next to them chatted about their text messages.
I love the Punch Line. It is still home. But I can see that if you have something to say and want to really explore the topic you have to find a stage where people are looking for what you want to present. Otherwise, you are little more than musack playing in the background while someone makes a profit on drink orders.
I don’t know if I will get to Aspen this year. I don’t know if I will even try out for last comic standing again. Hell, I don’t know if I will even be invited to try out again. It has to be enough that I was asked to perform. Really, that has to be what its always about anyway.
The set is done and the crowd was what it was. The trick now is to forget it and move on to the next shot at the next thing that could be the thing. The life of a comic is a strange existence. You constantly have to let go of your expectations and do the next show in the hope that it will be better than the last. When you are up there under the lights with that Mic in your hand, you have to be completely there. It’s a game we all play inside our heads. Forget the past but not until you learn something from it. Plan for the future but above all be in the moment. I think success happens when you can perform fully in the moment. Sometimes it seems to happen almost like magic. Other times it is a struggle just to stay focused. Most of the time it is some combination of anxiety and excitement that rule comics. I doubt anyone went home last night and thought, nailed it! Such is the life of stand-up. On to the next carrot dangled at the end of another stick.