Heckleitis

Very early in my audience warmup when hosting a show I like to welcome visitors to NY, asking who needed a passport to be there. This gives me a sense of the makeup of the crowd. Tonight, there was a woman from Great Britain who responded to my question. Sitting to the left of the stage in the front row, she dramatically called out, “I am from Great Britain!” I culled a few laughs remarking on her theatrics, but I had the feeling she was going to be trouble. This was confirmed minutes later when she chimed in while I was talking to somebody else. Time to nip it in the bud.

“OK great, but now you have to shut the fuck up for the rest of the show.”

Done. Not a peep out of her after that. In fact, it took her a while to recover and enjoy the rest of the show. Walking past her on my way to the bathroom I saw her sitting slumped in her chair with her arms folded, and head cocked to the side.

People who don’t often go to comedy clubs have an idea that part of the show is audience participation. That might be true for an improv show, but what they don’t realize is the interaction is always on the comedians’ terms. I thought my message was clear and was quite surprised when I heard somebody in the left corner shout out. I couldn’t make out exactly what was said, but it was a co-signing situation. I simply ignored him the first two times, but on the third strike, I had to call him out.

“Whoever that is–this is the third time you’ve shouted out, and that’s not going to happen again, so either you shut the fuck up or get the fuck out, so what’s it going to be?”

Dead silence.

It was awkward for a minute after that, but he said nothing further. From experience, I know it’s better to have that moment than deal with this guy the rest of the show. He had to understand that the audience is not there to hear him. Sure, I could’ve engaged the guy and gotten laughs, but the rest of the acts on the show prefer to do their jokes. He would’ve thought that it was cool to continue shouting out. Timing is crucial in the standup comedy world and audience members that offer their comments during the show ruin it.

Ups and Downs

I’m not usually star struck by the rich and famous, but tonight was a little different. I worked with Matt Damon on the Come To Papa Live Show for Sirius Satellite Radio’s Raw Dog Channel. I have been a big fan of his since the Bourne movies, and I was actually thrilled to be around him. I saw him at the Olive Tree a few times but to be in a show with him was exciting!

Matt showed up at 6:30 for the run through. After my sketch, he got up and ran through the two bits he did. It was so weird watching him work. Any minute I expected him to karate chop everybody on stage, and leap over the drum set while blasting the room with two handguns!

He read his lines like the pro that he is, and his work was properly subdued. The entire cast didn’t get the script until a few hours before the show, so it was an extra special feeling performing with minimal rehearsal. I get a real tingle when I’m in a show with someone who’s work I’ve admired from afar. The great thing about Matt is that he wasn’t there with an entourage or acting like a common Hollywood asshole. He had no problem taking a cast picture after the show and was as nice to the people who approached him as his cast mates.

This show biz thing is definitely a roller coaster ride. Tonight was a perfect example. Riding high on the success of a live performance then getting hit with a shot of sober reality. By the time the show ended, we got the news of the death of James Gandolfini. He was another actor whose work I admired. His portrayal of Tony Soprano will go down as one of the finest in the history of television. RIP James, may the after world greet you with a resounding, “There he is!”

Getting A Job

I got a call from the casting director for the “untitled Chris Rock movie project” offering me the role of the Black Cop. When the call came in I didn’t pick up because I didn’t recognize the number and figured it was a bill collector. ( Even though they usually call from an area code outside of NY, I thought it might be one of their tricks). I listened to the phone ring thinking how much I hated my choice for ring tones. My voice mail played an old message first, which was the original call from the casting associate last week.

Now I’m thinking my phone is messing with me, and there is no new message. Ah, but there was! The message was from Matt, and all the news was good. I was in full nap mode, and it took a minute to sink in. I have had dreams where I’m winning everything from free vacations to jillion dollar lotteries.

The role is the lesser of the two I auditioned for but so what. I’ll get a check for several hundred dollars for a days toil, and I get to work with one of my favorite acts. In the audition, I was told Doug Stanhope is playing my partner. Doug is a very funny comic featured in season 2 of Louie on FX playing the depressed comedian who is about to kill himself.

Now I have to figure out whether to try to go back and finish my nap, or stay up and go with the little sleep I had. I have to be at work in 6 ½ hours. The battle between excited and tired is on. Excited led early but tired is way ahead now. I’ve told 3 people the news, my sister, cousin and friend whom yesterday predicted I’d get the part. I’ll tweet and Facebook when it’s much closer to the shoot date, August 7. For now, it’s…back..to…sleepytown.

Yelped

A comic friend recently posted a Yelp comment that had my name in it. The complaint is most likely due to a thing that happened in a comedy club. A woman came into the show about 20 minutes late and sat in the front row. She starts out wrong twice. As the host, I engage members of the audience at the beginning of the show and I naturally inquired why she was late and mentioned some things I had learned about others.

The initial exchange was fine. I joked about where she was from (Houston) and how New Yorkers had changed the pronunciation to Howston. Midway through the show I overhear a waitress outside the showroom at the bar talking about a customer who hadn’t ordered any drinks. She said she tried to explain that there was a two drink minimum and got waved off. This was the lady from Houston.

When she went back a second time, the Houston lady rudely told her that she was enjoying the show and wanted to see the manager. The waitress asked her to come out of the showroom to speak to the manager because of the front row location and gets waved off again. The show continues but out of the corner of my eye I see the manager creep up to the woman and quietly try to get the woman to come out to the bar and talk about the situation. He gets waved off. Now, I have to deal with her.

“I see you don’t have any drinks at your table.”

This was the opening salvo in the exchange that prompted the Yelp comment that I had been rude. I told her there was a two drink minimum.

“So I hear.”

Oh no, miss thing this isn’t something you heard, it’s a fucking fact! I broke it down and let her know that she would be charged for two drinks so she might as well order them. I told her it didn’t have to be alcohol, it could be coffee, juice or soda. This tightened her jaws nicely and I introduced the next act and went outside for a cig.

When I came back, the woman had her coat on by the bar talking about how rude everybody was. In the words of every 7-year-old in the world―she started it.

William Stephenson

Crowding It Up

Crowding It Up

 

Besides material, comedians write for their acts, crowd work is another method to elicit laughs from the audience. In NYC clubs, the host or emcee usually does this at the beginning of the show or warm up. Asking questions of people in the audience such as where they are from, and what they do for a living is standard. People love to yell out their hometown in front of strangers. One must be careful of the questions one chooses to ask. It’s similar to the rule prosecutors have that says never ask a question unless you know the answer.

The bold ones try their hand at humor with what they feel is a funny retort. This almost never works out for them. They act like rookies at the plate ready to hit their first grand slam, and usually end up hitting a dribbler back to the pitcher. When someone in the crowd bombs, it serves as a deterrence for others not to follow suit.

In a small club like the Comedy Cellar (115 seats), seating is tight and somewhat claustrophobic, so you want to offer them comfort and reassurance that they will have a good time. I like to give the audience a prepared opening statement so they don’t think we’re gonna be making all this shit up as we go along. The Cellar gets a lot of tourists from all over the world and I love the “We are family” element of audience composition.

“Let me take a minute to look at you, see what I’m working with….looks like we have a lot of different people from various backgrounds and foreskins…”

The worst crowd work experience I had happened years ago in Washington Square Park. It was one of those perfect summer afternoons near this legendary fountain in the center of the park. When the water isn’t turned on it becomes theater in the round holding nearly a thousand people when it’s filled up. From the outer brim, there are about 6 rows of concrete levels and folks sunbathe while waiting for the next show to start.

For outdoor shows, you have to do a lot of crowd work because of all the distractions going on, drunk hecklers, phones, sirens, planes flying overhead. Getting through bits require attention and it can be tough. I was walking around talking to various small groups and I came upon a woman splayed out as if she was on her living room couch. The plan was to call her out for her bad posture and have her sit up and look like an interested audience member.

“S’matter….you got spina bifida or something?”

The line got a decent laugh from most of the crowd with the exception of the people sitting with her. Their faces were frozen with a horrifying grimace I didn’t understand. Then, I noticed the braces on her limbs and the crutches nearby. Oh my.

Yes, she did have a condition that didn’t allow her the freedom of movement most of us enjoy. I couldn’t think of anything to save this situation so I simply apologized and moved on. Lucky for me the crowd wasn’t huge and most of the people on the other side of the fountain couldn’t hear what was going on.

That was not a good day at the office.

William Stephenson

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