My show Friday was at a record store in Columbus. The weather was bad -- nothing to complain about, and nowhere near as bad as the stuff I drove through last year. But it kept people away, so my friends and I performed for each other and a handful of diehards. It was one of those classic "you shoulda been here last week" moments that we all have. We commisserated, did the show and told our jokes, and got back on the (thankfully clear) road for home.
Saturday was a different animal in every way. I performed at a social club in a small town that offered a Valentine's Day dinner-and-show special. The room was sold out, the food was disappearing faster than the cooks could make it, and the 200+ people were loud, raucous and ready - not just for comedy, but to heckle, add unsolicited tags to jokes, and generally act like people who'd never been allowed out in public before.
There are a million ways to look at this. One is to say that they paid their money, it's their hall, so they can act however they want. In practical terms, that's the only interpretation that matters. You take the check, you do the best you can and you try not to get too high-minded about your "art" when the comic before you has a senior citizen standing up and threatening to expose her boobs, or when one guy up front latches on to random words and repeats them at inopportune times ("Foghat! FOGHAT!!!") throughout the rest of your set.
There's a line to walk with shows like this, too. I want to be able to wrestle a crowd like this into submission. I feel like I did that on this show. There are points in my closer when I'm building up to a punchline and there are a couple dramatic pauses, and when I hit those, I always want to hear silence from the room -- not bar chatter, not heckling, but an attentive pause to know they're on board. And I got that, even from this zoo.
But I also don't want to only be the guy that shouts rowdy crowds down. There is a distinction between bar comedy and club comedy, the type of stuff that plays in the sticks and the polished sets you see on TV. I have always thought it was possible to straddle that line. I'm not even sure the line is as distinct as it used to be, given the behavior of some club crowds. But I don't ever want to start using big ham-fisted gestures to subdue drunken mobs and have that overshadow the material I actually write and give a shit about presenting to the world.
I worry in the larger sense that we're getting so coarse as a society that there won't be a place for comedy the way it's ideally presented. I know that sounds ludicrous coming from someone who dresses like a slob and talks about crude subject matter on stage, and I don't think we're ever gonna get back to the point where we dressed up for the movies or to get on an airplane.
But my social media full of fellow comics is a litany of heckler stories every weekend -- drunken oafs ruining shows, threatening violence, being escorted out by police. It's not hard to imagine a future where the only comedy that survives in the live arena is the loudest, dumbest, brashest verbal whack-a-mole to pacify drunks long enough to soak them for a two-drink minimum.
All that aside, I had fun and I enjoyed rising to the challenge. A year or two ago that crowd would have bested me. I feel like I'm getting the chops to deal with more and more situations, mainly because I go out and do shows like this. I got paid well, got fed, and was home at a decent hour.
Sunday night I attended a roast of Zach Martina, a friend of mine in the Michigan comedy scene. It was great to see so many other comics, many of whom I don't know as well as I'd like to, and impressive to see so many friends of Zach and his wife come out to celebrate his birthday despite not knowing any of the other comics. There was a lot of "inside baseball" as the roasters made fun of each other, but everyone was on board and we generally had a great old time.
It was a hectic weekend, not even including the photo shoot I did Sunday afternoon for new headshots. And it made me think about the nature of what comedy means to each person who performs it, and what we want out of it.
Entertaining strangers is hard. Shit, just getting them to shut up for 90 minutes is hard. Making them pay attention and actually getting inside their heads is Herculean. Hanging out with friends and doing the open mic scene is fun. It's a sociable way to make each other laugh and beats sitting at home, for sure. If that's what you want out of comedy - a real-life social network and a hobby with some ego boosting and creativity - you're all set.
If you want to be a paid, working, touring comedian, though, you can't always talk to the back of the room. You have to have things to say to the people who don't look like you, who aren't your age, who don't like the comic book characters or sports teams or bands on your t-shirts, who worked all day and paid cash money to sit in front of you and more or less listen. They might be skeptical of you and they might not meet you halfway, and they don't have to. They're not being paid to be your ideal audience. You're being paid to entertain them and bring the room up as best you can.
I don't want to be all things to all people, but I don't want to be a hothouse comic, either. I don't want to have an "ideal environment" without which I can't work. The cost of this is that I can't be at the open mic with my friends as often. The reward, other than the obvious benefit of getting paid work, is more time spent outside my comfort zone, an education that can't be had anywhere else if you're pursuing this uniquely baffling skill set.
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.