The Bomb

The Bomb

 

Every now and again a comedian will drop the bomb.  While not as lethal as the military version, it is devastating to the comic with the audience suffering collateral damage. Most often, it happens in the early years when the comic isn’t experienced enough to avoid it.  This can happen also when the performer thinks he’s got it all together so all he has to do is show up and everything is gravy.  Even the most experienced comic will go through it when the stars simply are not aligned properly.

I have been lucky enough to avoid this scenario for the most part, but there was one show I’ll never forget.  It happened in the early 90’s when I auditioned for HBO’s Def Comedy Jam.  The audition process is something I’ve never been able to quite get a handle on, my nerves take over.  On top of that the audition was held at the Peppermint Lounge in NJ, which is a regular nightclub and not set up ideally for comedy. I had seen the show and knew that I wasn’t the typical Def Jam comic which added to my jittery jangles.  The crowd was 99% black and traditionally, black audiences have little tolerance for anything but a superb performance.  On this night the crowd was out for blood.  Think audition night at the Apollo.  I have no recollection of who else was on the show or how they were received.  I had little confidence I would win them over since my material isn’t based on getting caught while screwing or the difference between white and black folks.  The applause when the emcee introduced me was lackluster, which didn’t bolster me in the least.  It wasn’t long before the jokes I was doing didn’t get their usual response and replaced with a sort of murmur.  I felt the audience was about to collectively turn on me within seconds.  Then I heard it.

“Boooo”. This awful sound came from a table in the middle of the room.

Really?  This is how this is going to go down? I asked myself what the hell was I doing. I felt like when somebody gets covered in hot ice and then they fall apart like a jigsaw puzzle, smashing into littler bits when they hit the ground. One thing a comic cannot afford to do is show fear and I had a dump truck full.  The crowd seemed to delight in the fact that I was bothered by their response and it snowballed from there.

“Booooooo!”

Now it was coming from the basement of their stomach, and I would have felt better if they just shot me with a machine gun, putting me out of my misery. It was a primal, guttural sound that shook me where I live. There was no doubt that their disapproval was real and I couldn’t blame them.  I didn’t have the right attitude when I went out there, I pretty much planned to fail.

I have no idea how long I endured their punishment, but managed to salvage the set with my poem “Your Hairweave Is Causing Me Problems”.  Years later, I still get people who will come up to me with that “don’t I know you” look and they’ll stop me and ask if I was a comedian.  I say yes and they go through a list of shows and when they get to Def Comedy Jam, they’ll tell me they have me on tape at home.  The booker hired me for the second season in spite of the worst audition of my life.

In nearly 29 years of stand up, including 10 years of street performing, I’ve had my share of shows where I bombed.  On those nights you have to go all up in yourself and gather the strength in the reservoir of your soul.  Remind yourself what you are about and get over it. Brother James used to say, “you gotta go through it to get to it”.   Right on.

William Stephenson

 

Warm It Up

Warm It Up

 

As the show intro music is playing, I’m standing in the back of the room scanning the crowd.  I’m looking for trouble spots, usually groups of 5 or more.  Crowds at the Comedy Cellar are like snowflakes, no two audiences are exactly alike and heavy on the white side.  The racial makeup of the crowd doesn’t concern me in the least.  I’ll be talking to humans so if they can grasp the English language, we should be good.

When I arrive on stage to start the show, I’m usually disappointed in the lackluster applause and address it right away.

“Is that the sound every hand clapping? Brother don’t say shit funny until every hand has banged up against the other hand repeatedly.”

In a typical comedy club setting you will see on the average of 4 acts.  Emcee, opening, middle and closer. In my nearly 30+ years in standup, I have performed at all positions.  I specialize in the emcee spot.  I love going first and getting the crowd energized.  I spend about 10 to 15 minutes preparing the audience for the show. I talk to them about the need for focus, and how texting during this performance is a double no.   With the popularity of the hand held devices, it’s imperative I get them to shut them down for the duration of the show.

“If you have a hand held device, shoot yourself in the face.  But before you do that, turn them off.”

My goal is to inject my enthusiasm for stand up into the crowd so they will be enthused when all of the various acts hit the stage.

I want to relax everybody, especially those sitting directly in the front.

“I know some of you in the front may be worried the comedians will single you out.  As I look up and down the front row I don’t think we’re going to have a problem,….ok maybe you might be in trouble, but everybody else is cool.”

The seating host ask patrons as they check in if they want a front row seat.  Half the folks are cool with it and the other hand decline, saying they don’t want to get picked on.  “Getting picked on” is a loosely defined term.  I’ve talked to people after the show and they say “ I knew you were going to pick on me!” In reality all I did was ask their name and where they were from.

Over the years I’ve developed several techniques for warming up a crowd.  The favorite of late has been the bacon routine.  After the first few minutes of my opening statement, welcome to visitors and birthday check, I ask the crowd if they are ready for the show.  Usually there is one person who doesn’t respond. The rest of the audience can be clapping and hooting and one person just isn’t into it.  I instruct the crowd to stop responding and turn my attention to that one person.

“Are you not ready for the show?  Did you understand the question?”

They usually say they were ordering or drinking or some other excuse.

“Well, so and so screwed it up for everybody else and now we have to start over”.

I tell the crowd I want them to start clapping again in a minute and when they start it should be a soft, quiet golf clap. Soon I’ll be rotating and want them to get louder gradually.

“Yeah, not too loud, you don’t wanna fuck up the man trying to hit the ball in the hole”.

I then ask them to clap a little bit louder.

“Right there! Don’t you move it from right there!  That’s my spot. Sounds like bacon frying don’t it?  I love bacon…..Now, slowly…I turn.”

As I do a little turning around dance the volume increases and by the time I turn all the way around, they are going nuts.  Now they’re ready for the show.

William Stephenson

 

Good Grief

GOOD GRIEF

 

After shows I enjoy watching people file out of the club.

“Call me when you get home, you know how I worry!”

“Come back anytime we’re open, otherwise it’s burglary.”

When they suggest I have a good rest of the night, I always respond “don’t tell me what to do!”

One night at the Comic Strip, I was standing in the bar/lobby as a show was letting out. Many comics like to hang out after their set, unless they have to get to another spot or they didn‘t have a great performance.  This allows patrons to tell them how funny they were. It’s usually a quick nod or hand shake or picture request.  A young man in his late 20’s or early thirties asked if he could have a word with me.  I wouldn’t have picked him out for a conversation, but OK. He quickly went from friendly to very emotional as he told me his story. His brother had recently passed away- within days and it was sudden. He said he came to the show because what he really needed was a good laugh.  He wanted to thank me for helping him get through the most difficult time of his life. He’s choking back tears now and I’m in one of those situations you can’t prepare for.  I told him I was glad I didn’t do any dead brother jokes.  I could tell he had a deep love for his brother and was having trouble believing he was gone.

I told him my father passed away suddenly when I was 17. At the time, I felt like I was the target of a massive prank. Are you kidding me? Compounding my grief was the fact that my father and I had butt heads a week before. Being on the cusp of manhood and losing your dad stings more than a little. I got through the most difficult part of my life with the help of family and good friends.

You don’t really know what strangers are going through or how they cope with the realities of life and death. People come to comedy clubs to celebrate and get lifted from the dumps. Or forget for a moment, the troubles working hard on their nerves. While it’s true you can’t make everybody laugh all the time, if you can make one person laugh really hard, it’s worth anything. You can pass on to them a tool to bolster their spirit, making them better able to deal with anything that comes their way.  As a comedian, these are the moments that mean the most to me. Living proof that what I do makes people feel better.  My theory is laughter does many good things for the human body, and causes you to think clearer and make better decisions.  I’m sure this reads like some corny cliché, but it’s something I fervently believe. My religion, if you will. I can’t be sure which God runs this show called life, but it’s not without a sense of humor.

William Stephenson

Mic Stand

Mic Stand

 

One of the first decisions a comedian makes upon reaching the stage is whether to take the microphone out of the stand or not.   For television spots you’ll generally see the comic take the mic out and place the stand several feet away from where he’ll be performing.  If your act requires your arms for gestures, you’ll leave it in.  If you enjoy moving around the stage freely, out it comes.  When I first get up there I usually leave it in and absorb the security that comes from having that buffer between you and the audience. Like a crutch, it’s a form of support. The stand provides some comfort, letting you know you’re not completely alone.

When I host a show I snatch it out of the stand with confidence, letting them know who is running the show. Sometimes the mic stand becomes a part of the show itself. In my very early days my opening line would be, “Ladies and gentlemen before I get started I’d like to acknowledge a very important person in my life who I could not do this without.  Please say hello to Mr. Mic Stand.” Gregory K, a diminutive comic from Russia, asks me to raise the stand after I introduce him. He arrives on stage and gets his first laugh when he looks befuddled that the microphone is too high.

A lot of comics manipulate the stand with their foot, causing it to lean whichever way they want. When I used to host Funk Night at the Café Wha?, I’d do a little James Brown thing with the stand.  I would smack it causing it to wobble back and forth without falling.   The general rule is do what is most comfortable for you.  If you’re taking it out, you want a clean smooth move.  Fumbling with it looks like a visual stutter.

For many comedians the mic stand is a literal prop.  You can lean on it many different ways. I’ve worked with comics who will put their chin on it.

As a club owner, you always want solid, sturdy equipment.  Faulty microphone stands cause many on- stage meltdowns. The mic won’t stay clipped in or the clip breaks or it won’t stay up.

“This club has been open for 30 years and they still use the original 3 damn dollar mic stand!”

If you’re standing up there behind the mic in the stand, you’d better know what to do with your hands.  (See Will Ferrell in Taladega Nights)

I’m not a fan of the underhand, old timey boxing announcer method of holding the mic.  It is off putting and reminds me of the singers who hold the mic too close to their mouth and keep time by tapping on the end with their baby finger.  Lately I’ve noticed a lot of comics using the crossed arms technique.  You hold the mic in one hand and grab your elbow with the other.  It looks like you’re making a speech.

The microphone and it’s stand is the comedians friend helping to amplify his jokes to the waiting crowd. It might be the second most important tool for the comic, right after his jokes.

William Stephenson

The First Time Ever I Took The Stage

The First Time Ever I Took The Stage

 

The first time I went on stage as a stand up comic was in November of 1982 at Washington D.C.’s  Garvins Laugh Inn.

I had been working as a bartender at another nightclub when I met Brenda, who convinced me to give stand up a try.  Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was the song of the day and at 25 years old, I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  That all changed when Brenda found Garvin’s, who had an open mike with a simple sign up for 5 minutes on stage. We chose the Sunday before Thanksgiving and prepared by hanging out at IHOP, writing jokes on the placemat.  Five minutes didn’t seem like a lot of time and I was pretty sure I could fill it.  Brenda laughed at everything that came out of my mouth, calling me the second coming of Richard Pryor.  I knew I had funny bones, but I also knew I was a long way from King Richard.  As the official class clown of Detroit’s Northwestern High in 1975, I had some experience with the funny.  I also performed in several school dramatic productions including Langston Hughes’ Simply Heavenly.

Brenda, now my girlfriend, drove me to Garvin’s on that first Sunday night.  I signed up at number 13, not the luckiest number in the world.   A shot of Hennessey calmed my nerves as I waited for my turn.  The sparse crowd was laughing at the acts before me and as it came closer to my time, I began to feel the butterflies.  What the hell was I about to do?  Damn, those lights seem to be overly bright! What if they don’t laugh?  Did I leave the iron on?

When my name was called, I knew it was too late to turn back so I might as well get up there and see whats what.  I remember it being nothing like I expected, I was that deer in the headlights. My mouth was not responding correctly to signals from my brain, like I was getting only 2 bars of power.  I could barely see Brenda’s silhouette in the middle of the room and that was about it.  I don’t remember what my opening line was but all it did was confirm to the audience I had never done this before.  When it was over, I got one good laugh in my 5 minutes. The rest of my set was received kindly enough, and I was very happy they didn’t boo. I felt they could see where I was going but didn’t have the skill to take them all the way there.  I sort of dropped them off at the bus stop.  Luckily I saved the bit they laughed at for last, it’s always a good thing to close strong.

“I used to work at a record store in Detroit.  One night Leon Spinks came in and said “ I wanna buy some reefa”.  I said we don’t sell marijuana and he said “no, Reefa Franklin”.

William Stephenson

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