Back in the 1990s I had been slowly struggling to get better on the stage. I had finally had enough. I was ready to step up my game. I was ready to let loose and give the audience what they wanted. I was a giver and loved to serve, but honestly, I was tired of being the nice guy. After all we are in a comedy club and people in the audience want comedians on stage being raw and real. That’s why they come.
Comedy club owners let the best headliners bring friends for a free guest spot. It allows the club owners to get a taste of the up and coming talent. The headliners choose whom they offer the spot to. My mentor Vinnie had given me a guest spot on his show one night.
I was determined to let loose and make my mentor proud. I was excited because this was not an average open-mic night. Real people. A real audience at the Kowloon in Saugus, MA. It was a big room and a full crowd. And I had my five minutes to shine.
When I went up on stage, I had nervous enthusiasm. I mustered all the courage I could and tried to mask my nervousness. I tried to evoke the “I don’t give a crap” attitude. The truth, however, was that I did give a crap. Every time I went up on stage I wanted people to love me. That’s often why performers do what they do, for approval.
I took my normal clean routine and dirtied it up. Yep. If you are reading this and know me, it’s probably a surprise. I was determined to give them what they wanted. I started cursing and got a laugh when I dropped an F-Bomb. Nice! That felt good. They liked it, so I did it again. That got a smaller laugh. I thought, “That’s ok. It was still a laugh.” As my routine went on, though, I added another F-Bomb, and it barely got a giggle. What just happened?
As I walked off stage, I was thinking that my routine was not great, but I had gotten some laughs. Vinnie would be proud. The host took the mic and asked the audience for another round of applause for me as I walked to the back of the comedy club.
Vinnie grabbed my arm, dragged me into another room, and got in my face, “What the *bleep* do you think you are doing?” Not the reaction I expected. I had never seen him mad at me. He continued, “Who are you? They ain’t buying it. You probably never said f*## in your life, and now you start!” He was furious and continued, “Dude, that’s not who you are! Maybe one tiny little f-bomb because they won’t expect it, but . . .”
Each person who takes the stage in a comedy show affects the whole show and salts the audience with their presence. Headliners love for clean comedians to go on before them to warm up the audience. This then leaves it open for them to go dirty if they want to. Once you go dirty, it’s more challenging to follow with clean material.
You may notice at a comedy club that sometimes newer comedians use the f-bomb as a crutch. The shock of hearing the f-bomb from a stage can instigate a shock laugh at first. It will lose its oomph quickly, however, if there are too many too often and the person saying it is not funny in between. In a comedy club setting, it can be an effective spice if used sparingly, but it is rarely the main course unless used by a skilled pro like Vinnie. It’s part of who he is.
I thought that the audience would want me to talk like that. Here’s the valuable lesson I learned: The audience wants authenticity. You have to be you on stage. You can’t use vocabulary that you don’t normally use. It won’t sound authentic coming out of your month. This is why we can’t regurgitate other people’s ideas and concepts.
Here is the reassuring thing. You have your own stories and insights. Use those. Develop those. The audience doesn’t like copies. I remember in my early days intensely studying my favorite comedians, Robin Williams and Steven Wright. One open-mic night at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston, a guy went up on stage and delivered word-for-word part of Robin William’s act. All the comics knew it. I did, too. And he bombed. It was embarrassing and reaffirming.
This also reminded me of remembering my big decision years prior. My mom and dad wanted me to have a college degree, get a good job, work there for the rest of my life, and get the gold watch. That wasn’t who I was. I knew I was an entrepreneur. That is who I am.
Be you. Always.
What did I learn from this?
Many people try to be something they are not. It is OK to test and explore many things. If you are paying attention, you will learn important lessons along the way. I thought I knew what the audience wanted. I misunderstood. Because I tested out my theory, I learned a valuable lesson that I teach to others today. It sounds weird, but it is true that we often have to teach people how to be themselves on stage. I definitely needed that lesson.
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