About a year ago one of my closest friends Nate said to me, "if I was a comedian, my strategy would be to look around the room before I got on stage, and build my set around what I think would go over well." Nate's not a comic, but he is a teacher so he definitely understands performing and reading an audience. I instantly dismissed his advice though, it went against my core beliefs. My mentality was that I was gonna work on the jokes that I wanted to work on to build out my new set. I also felt like his suggestion was a luxury I couldn't afford, requiring me to have a large pool of jokes to pull from. Even thinking about his advice annoyed me at the time...
Fast forward a year or so and my beliefs are beginning to change. Running and hosting these shows has me seeing & performing more comedy than ever. I've gotten to see a lot of comics tell funny jokes, but their ability to connect with an audience and be funny regardless of who's in the room varies drastically. The degree to which they are able to connect usually comes down to three things:
Ten days ago I was in a comedy competition. I didn't win (spoiler), but I had an awesome time performing. I got to the venue early to eat dinner, and started noticing who was walking into the room for the show. Mainly middle aged white people (30's-40's+). To pick my setlist I reviewed my batch of jokes that I was considering telling, and looked around the room to get a sense if they would or wouldn't work based on my gut feeling... And before I knew it I was on stage:
Upon walking back into the "green room" one of the comics said, "Wow Allan you kill with these old Virginian white folk!" And I was like "nah I kill with all crowds" (I didn't actually say that but it would have been cool if I did) As the show continued I spoke with a couple other comic friends about my preparation method that night and they shot back with, "I don't consider the audience when telling jokes." That sounded familiar... Now playing in this artistic space, I think you should ultimately do what you want, but if you don't take into account who's in the room, then you are choosing to ignore a big factor that will impact your set.
As with all things it doesn't have to be one or the other, so don't worry about changing things drastically. However, if you never consider picking your setlist in the way I mentioned, I would recommend giving it a try. I'm glad I did.
When I'm on stage I always try to be myself. Although that definition is constantly evolving, I speak in a manner I normally do, follow thought trails I've had, and tell jokes that I think are funny. It feels natural, but being yourself can be a bit of a double edged sword. On nights you crush it's very validating and good for the soul. The nights that don't go so well, well they feel bad mkay? You're essentially being rejected by a group of strangers (in front of yours peers). Remember that embarrassing thing you did way back when? Now imagine you just told that story to a group of 40 and they didn't react the way you wanted them to. The average person would need to binge some Brené Brown tedtalks, but as a comedian you have to shake it off because there's the next show to think about.
Some comics choose to circumnavigate this feeling by performing as a character. Instead of relying on jokes for laughs, their act is the joke. Their sets are filled with weird outfits, catch phrases, anti-jokes, uncomfortable moments, and not usually funny. (Oh and by the way - STOP SAYING THE ERIC AND ANDRE SHOW IS COMEDIC GENUIS, if you think that then we're not friends..but I digress.) I do see the appeal though, it gives you permission to try something that's a bit weird, and the rejection no longer feels personal because it isn't. There's less risk involved. You aren't being you.
A couple weeks ago I did the closest thing to character comedy. As part of a tribute show I impersonated Anthony Jeselnik (most comedian's wet dream, so be jealous..) Anthony has made a career out of telling offensive jokes with a twist. What separates him from the pack is his uncharacteristically high ego, confidence, and the ability to write AND deliver damn good jokes... As I imagined performing as someone else lowered the stakes, I cared a lot less, and at times I even felt like I was Anthony. It wasn't perfect by any means (I should've practiced more) but overall it was a really fun night.
I did a quick comparison of some qualities during a typical night performing as myself vs. one night as Anthony. And a clip! (Sorry not sorry for the bad audio, it was LOUD in the room so you should have been there!)
I'm glad I tried this. Stepping into Anthony's shoes gave me some insight into my own style and how I'd like to grow. Here's to higher confidence levels, caring a bit less, and writing better jokes!