The one rule of stand-up comedy is that there are no rules. Comedians who have succeeded in the business have done so from a multitude of directions, including stealing material, creating personas, faking illnesses, smashing fruit, screaming, performing magic, stripping naked, miming, acting out scenes, using ventriloquism, adopting fake accents, and pretty much anything you can possibly consider. Comedy at its purest is an art form, and art cannot have rules and still be considered art.
This makes it difficult for newer comedians to get a handle on what’s okay or acceptable in comedy. When there is no norm, how do you even get started? Each generation, there are comedians who spawn mimics, fans, and emulators, and the comics who succeed will eventually find their own voices and move away from their original inspirations. It remains a truth, however, that most new comedians who start out doing stand-up get a large portion of their guidance, inspiration, and education from watching veteran comedians.
I have only been doing stand-up for about two and a half years, and have been fortunate, as the house emcee at Gregory’s Comedy Club, to perform well over 100 times in this club, as well as watch new feature and headlining acts perform. I have paid close attention and watched these other comedians’ performances and attitudes very carefully. I have learned a lot from performances of comics who have been on stage for 20-30 years, and it has helped me grow into a better stand-up comedian.
Not everything I’ve seen has been good, though. Luckily, having the exposure to hundreds of comedians coming through the club, I have been able to see certain actions, behaviors, and attitudes that should NOT be emulated by a rising class of comedians. There are things that I wish headlining (and featuring) comedians would not do. Some of these actions are unprofessional, some affect the show negatively, and some merely set bad examples and patterns for new comedians. And while I am fully aware that no comedian owes it to him- or herself to set an example for anyone else, I think that it’s just a matter of paying it forward. You learned from someone who learned from someone else, so why not try to be a shining example to younger comedians everywhere?
One final caveat: While these examples do come from specific situations that I’ve witnessed, I’m not singling anyone out. I have huge amounts of respect for anyone who is able to perform stand-up professionally and stick with it for years, and these observations merely comprise a list for me to remember as I continue to perform stand-up.
Ten things I wish headlining comedians would not do:
1. Talk about the size of the crowd in a negative way.
Our audience can vary in size from eight people to a hundred, but no matter how many people there are, those people came to see comedy and be entertained. Every time I hear or see a comic make fun of the small number of audience members, either as commentary on the club or audience or when self-deprecatingly discussing their rising success (or lack thereof), it has several potential negative effects. It can make the audience members who did come feel self conscious, it can insult the owners, and in my opinion, it can show a lack of confidence in your ability and material. There is no need to preemptively excuse your material by insulting the size of the audience because chances are, at the end of the show, I’ll hear something like “Oh, I was really worried about tonight, but for a small audience, you guys were great!”
2. Be scared to get rid of bits and do a new set.
I’m terrified to get rid of my material that works. I listen to amazing comics like Louis CK talk about his goal to perform a new hour of material every year and then discard it completely, like George Carlin did, and it motivates me to be okay with throwing away bits. But then I see headliners who have been performing for years who do the same bits every single time, and it makes me wonder if that’s just the better, safer way to go. If something works for an audience, unless it’s topical or related to a celebrity or musical artist who isn’t relevant, why not keep doing it?
I try to tell myself that old material may be good, but new material might be tighter, fresher, and even better, and I won’t know until I give myself a clean slate. If I saw headliner after headliner trying new material, even after performing for twenty-plus years, I wouldn’t even doubt myself. And who knows? These headliners might tap into material that propels them even further in their careers.
3. Rely on music or equipment so heavily that they’re handicapped if something doesn’t work.
Equipment can fail. I’ve done a twenty-minute set with no microphone, just projecting my voice, because of technical issues. What happens if you need a guitar and microphone and iPod and mixing board and a variety of other equipment and the power goes out or a fuse blows? I have seen headliners frozen by the idea that a certain song may not be available to play or that we may not be able to accommodate their equipment to the exact specifications that they need. In my extremely humble opinion, your material should stand on its own, and while you may have closing bits and material that can be supplemented with equipment, the failure of any piece of equipment should never prevent you from performing.
4. Tell a feature not to be the strongest he/she can be.
If a feature act (for those of you who don’t know how it works, the feature act, or middle act, goes after the host and before the headliner, usually performing about 25-30 minutes of material, and the headliner closes out the show with 45-60 minutes of material) has stronger material than you and outshines you as a comedian and performer, the onus is on you as a headliner to step up to the plate and bring your A game. It is never acceptable to tell the feature not to do the best that he or she can do just so that you look better as a comedian.
5. Stifle someone who’s better than they are or who has the potential to be better.
This is almost a corollary to #4, but as a headliner, if you see someone with potential, or if you watch a newer comedian who does well, the worst thing you can do is to try to prevent them from getting work, stifle them by cutting off resources, or actively stopping them from succeeding. Comedy is not a competition – there is an audience for everyone, and that type of petty and sad behavior reflects on you as a person. If you are jealous and allow that to color your behavior towards someone, that’s an opportunity for you to focus inward and improve yourself so that you are confident enough in your ability that you won’t be such a bad person.
6. Use any material they didn’t write themselves.
This seems obvious, but when you have comics like Carlos Mencia out there who have used material written by others for their own sets, it needs to be said. But just as bad as the blatant joke theft is the use of jokes from the Internet. Attention, all comedians: if you got a joke in an email forward, saw it on Facebook, Twitter or another website, or heard it from a friend, it’s not your material. Street jokes – the jokes that have been told and passed around and changed and tweaked for decades – are not your original material. They’re hacky, obvious, and don’t deserve to be part of your original, funny set. They bring the entire quality of your set down, and you should throw them out and write something original instead.
7. Forget that they used to be emcees and features at one time in their lives.
It’s a rare situation where a headliner didn’t start out hosting, doing guest spots, and featuring before becoming a headlining act. Unfortunately, there are some performers who forget their roots and bring a sense of entitlement with them to the club. Understandably, they deserve respect because these are performers who have paid their dues; however, respect is a two-way street. Each person in the world deserves our respect unless he or she has done something specifically to lose it. If you treat me like I’m not worth saying two words to because you’re the headliner, you won’t get my respect, and I’ll also use my voice to try to prevent you from performing there ever again.
8. Disparage the venue or location.
This is similar to #1. You’re the one who accepted the gig. You’re getting paid because of the people sitting there watching you, and you’re getting paid by the people in the back of the room watching you. Why do you need to trash the town, the club, or the people who live there? In a club like ours, we have many regulars who love the restaurant, the club, and the town where they live, and they rarely appreciate the insults and faux snobbery from some headliners. If you’re not working where you think you deserve to work, that’s up to you.
9. Laugh at their own material.
In my opinion, it always breaks the fourth wall when a comedian laughs at his or her own material. Of course we think our material is funny – would we be performing it if we thought it was terrible? But laughing at it can show a lack of faith in the collective strength of the entire bit, and it can weaken a performance significantly.
10. Make one of the other comics look bad as a part of their acts.
It’s simple. If you need to make me look bad to get a cheap laugh when you get on stage, write a new opening bit. My job is to introduce you and get the audience excited for you, to get them ready to see you and listen to your material. Telling me to do my job poorly so that you can denigrate my ability, or asking me to pretend to ignore you when you try to shake my hand as I walk off stage gives you a second of laughter at my expense, and it’s amateurish. Why not offer up applause at the feature and host instead, and have the audience in your hand just as easily? This frustrates me more than almost anything else, because I work hard to be the best and more professional comedian I can be and do not appreciate being told to do otherwise.
If you’re a comedian, is there anything that other comics do that you think sets a bad example or is unprofessional? If you’re an audience member, what don’t you like to see on stage?