Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On Sucking.

I drove back to New England on Wednesday after only three nights in Brooklyn, to open for a hypnotist at the Comedy Connection in Providence. The night was an almost unqualified disaster, my first truly epic bomb. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve failed to make people laugh many times before. I once worked a lonely tavern where the only couple in attendance spent my entire set reading the back of their KENO slip. Usually these events are very easy to let slide.

But my slot at the Providence Connection, a 15-minute paid gig at a considerable club, was the first time I ever really ate it at an important show. The place wasn’t packed, but at around fifty people, wasn’t desolate either. I’ve worked bigger rooms with smaller crowds before. I was so bad, half way through my set, a waitress came and handed me a note, informing me to bring up another comic when I finished rather then going right to the hypnotist. Apparently they wanted to salvage the show before the headliner came on.

Nothing, and I really mean this, nothing makes me angrier then a comic who blames the audience for their shitty performance on stage. It’s one thing to finish your set, shrug your shoulders and say: “tough crowd.” It’s a completely different thing to act as if your failure to make them laugh was the crowd’s fault, as if they did it out of spite. Any crowd can be won over. Some may be harder then others, they may indeed be a “tough crowd,” but it’s up to the performer to find a way to engage them. No one comes to a comedy show not wanting to laugh.

I am prone to this thinking too, and I made all sorts of observations to make myself feel better. I told myself the crowd was only their for the dance party that was taking place after the hypnotist, that they were waiting for their tardy friends and were distracted when they showed, that they weren’t looking at the stage. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I could have got to them if I had approached them differently. Usually when I encounter a crowd that’s hostile, or distracted, I use crowd work to reel them in, figuring if they’re not going to leave me alone, I might as well take it to them. I did a bar in Revere, MA once with a crowd of middle-age drunks who wouldn’t let any comic get a word in. One sad, drunken lady at the bar actually walked on stage and tried to grab my crotch before I got her to sit down. I spent the rest of my set making fun of every last wannabe cougar and balding, fat guy at the bar, and they loved it. I came away unscathed and had them all buying me drinks after.

But I didn’t take it to them at the Connection. I had fallen way too in love with my material. When the crowd talked to each other instead of listening to me, I carried right on with my routine instead of calling them out and riffing with it. I thought my jokes were good enough, and I must have seemed sad: carrying on with jokes about vegetarians and sex toys, oblivious to a crowd that had long stopped caring.

The comic who came on after me, Brian, who is excellent and a pro, riffed with the crowd and actually got a good reaction. They hypnotist had a rough night as well. We consoled each other afterward.

On the long, tedious ride back to New York through Connecticut, I had a sickly feeling of panic. It’s much easier to abandon reality and follow your dreams when you think you’re good at it. But if you think you suck, then all of the sudden all your goals seem as impossible as they actually are, and the anxiety lays down on you like a wet Snuggie. Luckily, I wouldn’t feel this way long…

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