It's not burning bridges if the other person won't be going anywhere

Burning The Bridge To Obscurity: A Little Discourse On Stand-Up Comedy

A stand-up comedy show has three main elements. There is (1) the emcee or host, who goes up first to warm up the crowd and turn it into a willing, eager audience. The host will then introduce (2) the feature or middle act, who will typically perform for 20-30 minutes, and then, finally, the host introduces (3) the headliner, who usually provides about 45-60 minutes of entertainment before the host does any final announcements and thanks everyone for attending.

With a few exceptions, every headliner starts off as a feature, and every feature starts off as a host. Some comedians never make it past host and some are perpetual features, but the eventual goal is to keep working and performing until you reach the sought after title of headlining comedian. Currently, I am the house emcee at Gregory’s Upstairs Comedy Club in Cocoa Beach, where I have done over 120 shows and worked with over 150 different comedians. I also perform as a feature act, have run my own room, hosted open mics and other rooms, including the Orlando Improv, and have gotten the benefit of seeing a very wide variety of comedians of different levels of experience honing their craft.

Last spring, I hosted for a new headliner, who I will refer to by the pseudonym Biz Hatfield. It’s not my goal to disparage someone or allow his career to be affected in any way by someone finding this post through Google, so the true identity of the headliner is unimportant.

Biz has been a comedian for several years, but last spring was his first chance to headline, and Gregory’s Comedy Club was his first gig as a headlining comedian. It wasn’t the best headlining set I’d seen and it wasn’t the worst. It was clear that Biz didn’t have a solid hour of material yet, but with a mixture of crowd work and storytelling, the audience left entertained and comedically fulfilled. Overall, the night was a success, except for one point: Biz’s introduction.

(See, before each show, the feature and headliner provide the emcee with their introductions. Most comedians are aware that intros are essentially worthless. If an audience member is familiar with your work, he or she will already be excited. If your work is unfamiliar to the audience, it’s not going to excite them further. The smartest comedians have intros that are simple and to the point – enough to allow the host to get the audience ready to enjoy an hour of laughter, but not so much that the audience gets bored listening to it.)

Biz wanted his intro to be very low-key. “Just go up and say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Biz Hatfield,” very quietly and subdued,” he directed.

So I did. And this headliner, in turn, walked up to the audience and said something along the lines of, “That’s no way to introduce me. That’s a terrible introduction. I deserve better than that,” and proceeded to ramp up the audience’s enthusiasm by re-introducing himself to applause and cheers.

Let’s look at the reasons that this is a terrible introduction:

  1. It’s hacky and cheesy. If I introduced Biz with enthusiasm and had the audience excited to see him, the waters wouldn’t need to be chummed and Biz could just start with his actual material.
  2. It makes me look like a bad host. Most of our audience members are regulars, and to make the house emcee look like he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be is bad for the club and extremely unprofessional.
  3. It’s stupid. As a headliner, you don’t need to create your own hype. That’s the emcee’s job, and you should just focus on entertaining the crowd.

This bothered me for a while, and, in fact, when I wrote my post discussing ten things that I wish headlining comedians wouldn’t do, Biz’s cheesy, hacky, unprofessional introduction was one of the motivating factors.

I was putting together the upcoming schedule of comedians for Gregory’s (because even though I am the house emcee in title, I fill many more functions for the club than simply hosting) and noticed that Biz Hatfield was going to be coming back in the spring. With that upcoming show in mind, I spoke with a few seasoned headliners about how uncomfortable the introduction made me, and, after significant consideration, sent Biz the following message on Facebook:

“Hey Biz! I see you’re coming back to Gregory’s this spring. Looking forward to it!

I wanted to run one thing by you, and please know that I say this with the utmost respect, but I would like you to change your intro. I feel like it makes me look bad as a host and emcee, like I didn’t do my job properly, and I’m not comfortable doing that. My job is to introduce you to an enthusiastic audience, and that’s what I’d like to do, so if there is a new intro you can come up with by March, I would sincerely appreciate it. Thank you.”

An hour later, I received this terse response:

“Have you ever asked anyone else to change their intro?”

To which I replied promptly:

“There is another headliner who has an intro where he wants me to ignore him as I walk off stage and he tries to shake my hand, but then just gives up that I won’t shake his hand. I did it once, but if he comes back to headline, I will ask him not to do that.

It wasn’t something I took lightly to ask, either. I love working with you and it’s always a blast, but I’d rather be able to bring you up to an enthusiastic audience then purposely do a bad job so that it looks like I’m a bad emcee. It’s something that’s bothered me for a while, so I thought long and hard before messaging you about it. If you don’t want to change it, I understand, and I have a roster of guest hosts that I can get to fill in for me that weekend, no harm, no foul.”

Maybe it’s my naivete, but I felt good about this conversation. I knew it was a touchy subject, but I had worked with Biz a few times, and knew that I could count on him to be mature and professional. Silly me! This was what he said back:

“Please understand this:

You are the EMCEE. You are not the star of the show. The headliner is. Your job as the emcee is to accommodate the feature and the headliner. The show is not about the emcee.
The only people who should contact the headliner about their act is the club owner and or the booker. I took the liberty to contact Gregory’s myself.

You, as the emcee, do not get to tell the headliner how to do their job.”

And sure enough, Biz decided to call Gregory’s to complain about my gall for privately asking him if he was willing to change his introduction. I replied and explained that I didn’t tell him how to do his job at all, and only asked if he would change it so that I could actually do my job properly, but got no additional answer, and shortly thereafter, he blocked me on Facebook.

All of this narrative brings me to one point:

We are always told not to burn our bridges. Leave a job with dignity and maturity because you never know if you might need something from that employer. Don’t act rashly or without consideration because anyone who is watching could be someone who could negatively or positively affect your career. And if you are the lowest person on the totem pole, be prepared to eat tons of shit and kiss copious amounts of ass because you never, ever want to accidentally offend the wrong person who might irreparably damage your potential for success.

Sometimes, though, that bridge isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes it’s important to look at your own career trajectory and the other person’s and realize that you’re continuing upward while the other person has already peaked, and, in fact, maybe he should have worried about burning a bridge with you. What if you’re the one who books a room where he wants to work someday? What if people ask you about the other person’s ability to headline because they respect your opinion? You never know.

At first, I was worried that by offending Biz, I had potentially hurt my chances of success as a comedian in some avenue. But then, after some thought, I looked at that bridge to obscurity and thought to myself: “Burn, motherfucker. Burn.”

It's not burning bridges if the other person won't be going anywhere

11 thoughts on “Burning The Bridge To Obscurity: A Little Discourse On Stand-Up Comedy”

  1. See, with that kind of response, he’d be the one I’d ignore and fail to see an extended hand. So yeah, that’s a bigger bridge to nowhere than that Alaskan one… let that puppy burn.

    I have a couple cans of gasoline if you need it.

  2. I agree that he was trolling for applause at your expense and it was unprofessional.
    I think you handled the email exchange very professionally.
    I hope he doesn’t have enough clout to bad-mouth you to other people in the business.
    I have no doubt that when you are a regular headliner you will treat the emcees and features the way you wanted to be treated on your way up.

  3. this line kills me: “You, as the emcee, do not get to tell the headliner how to do their job.”

    no shit, headliner captain obvious. that is why you ASKED him, one comic to another, to consider changing something. so unprofessional of him to treat you like shit, unworthy of contacting him. he could have simply said, “sorry, but no. i will do my show the way i like to do my comedy and you might want to not emcee that night if it makes you uncomfortable.”

    but to be so angry that you contacted him? burn that bridge. he sounds like a conceited ass.

    i thought your email was incredibly professional and yet friendly. curious to see how the gregory’s will choose to handle this.

    also, if you could text or email me his name, i’d like to know when to avoid the improv here in pittsburgh. thanks.

  4. I’ve heard a bunch of stories from my brother, who books talent for a club, that sound similar. I give you credit for speaking up when plenty of people probably sit on their feelings for the sake of keeping the headliner happy.

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