Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Oh, you're a comedian?" by Pat House

Pat House is a local stand-up comedian. You can see when he is performing near you at his Myspace page and you can read more about him in this recent Temple article.

As I write this composition, I'm a 23-year-old, full-time college student with two part time jobs. On top of the already hectic schedule of balancing an education and work, there is another element to my life that occupies more time than school and work combined.

Throughout my college career I have been studying stand-up comedy more than anything I ever had to study for school. I watch comedians just about every night of the week, and in the last three years, I've seen more comedians than I can even count.

Obviously, I'm no headliner. There are thousands of comedians that have a lot of more experience than I do, but I've been around for a while and I have invested more time and energy into the art of stand-up comedy then I have with anything in my life. I have a pretty good feel for the game, and taking my own personal experiences and observations (as well as talking with other comedians), I decided to put in writing a few situations that we (as comedians) encounter on a regular basis.

The following are some gripes and other things I wonder when it comes to how people react to comedy. It's a little rant-like at some points, I understand. I don't intend for it to be, I just wanted to get my thoughts out in the hopes that maybe someone will take note to what I have to say, and hopefully save a comedian from aggravation.

1.) Say Something Funny

"Oh, you're a comedian? Tell me a joke!"

"Say something funny." That's a request I get just about every time someone discovers that I do comedy. To my knowledge, comedy is the only profession where people demand you to prove yourself on the spot. My question is simple; why?

How many people have you met, where upon finding out what they do for a living, you immediately say "So, you're a (job title)? Tell me about (something that pertains to their job)."

Comedians are not clowns. Clowns apply make-up and engage people with props or pantomime situations. They're hired for events because of their interactive ability to amuse people on the spot.

Comedians, on the other hand, are artists who share their view of the world in a humorous manner, usually through stories or observations. They spend years writing and constructing a universal act - an act that is intended to entertain large groups of people (usually adults) in a setting such as a comedy club or theater.

For some strange reason that I can't even begin to comprehend, most people are under the impression that comedians are funny all the time or that they're always 'on.' I've met hundreds of comedians, and I can probably count on one hand how many are 'on' all the time. If a comedian is constantly in comedy-mode, it usually means one thing – they're not funny.

Stand-up comedy requires an atmosphere. It is extremely rare that a joke is as funny off stage as it is on stage. A joke that you address to a live audience does not translate when you tell it to people at a party, a bar or on the street. The material we write is designed for an environment where people come in the anticipation of laughter, they're ready for it. Material isn't written for personal conversation, so for a comedian to share one of their bits in a social setting is not only out of place, it's embarrassing.

2.) Disbelief

This is the basic skeleton of a conversation I've had with countless people once they found out that I do comedy. It's not verbatim, it varies, but it's always to the effect of:

Do you really do comedy???


Like, for real???


No way!! I don't believe you!!


If you don't believe that I do comedy, I do not care. I'm not going to stand there and list my credits and accomplishments until you accept it. You mean the guy with the popped collar and Jew-fro doesn't believe I do comedy? Oh no! How will I sleep tonight? If you believe me, awesome. If you don't, awesome. I don't care.

I find that a decent amount of people who are surprised with me doing comedy, seem to be surprised with disbelief that I do comedy. It's almost insulting. Really? You're a comedian? YOU? Why is it so surprising that I want to make something of myself? Or that I want to do something big?

I once had a woman tell me "You don't look like a comedian." On other occasions, people have said to me "You don't look funny." What does that mean? What does a comedian look like? I know comedians who are white, black, male, female, still in high school, retired, single, married, drug users, alcoholics, gay, straight, handicapped, mentally unstable, and Jewish.

What if I had a retort for that woman? How insulted would she have been if I said "Oh, you look like you'd be a security guard. You have the I-didn't-exactly-finish-High-School kind of look."?

Comedians are people. As you learn in pre-school, people come in all shapes and sizes and from different backgrounds and lifestyles. To this day, I still think about what that woman said and it bothers me. As a comedian, someone please tell me, what am I supposed to look like?

3.) Put That in Your Act

No. The answer is no. No matter how funny you think something is, odds are, I will not talk about it on stage. I am dumbfounded by the amount people I will share a laugh with; either they'll have a comment or I'll have a comment for something, and immediately afterwards they say "You gonna put that in your act?"

Just because something made us laugh does not mean it's going to make everyone else laugh. Yes, we overheard someone say something ridiculous on their cell phone, but no, I will not bring it up on stage that night – or any night.

In addition to the in-the-moment situation that some may think will be funny on stage, it's just as important to emphasize that telling a comedian a joke to say on stage is just as irritating. Comedy is a way for someone to express themselves and give people their insight of the world in a comical way. Thus, telling a comedian a 'jokey-joke' is nothing short of offensive. It seems that every week, I will encounter someone who will tell me the oldest and lamest joke with the longest, most uninteresting set-up imaginable.

If that isn't enough, after they finish telling me this 'hilarious' joke, they'll proceed to say "You can put that in your act!" Oh, can I now? Well, thank you for giving me permission to use not only an unoriginal joke that everybody and their mother has heard, but also a joke that is ridiculously unfunny. Here's a question - how many comedians have you seen take the stage and for their 'big opener', they use a joke that begins along the line of "So a Rabbi, a priest and a Muslim walk into a bar…?" Pencils down. The answer is zero.

4.) Being Offended and Heckling

If you are easily offended by anything, please do not attend a comedy show. Just a warning; it's probably not the best outing for you. However, if you are easily offended and still choose to attend a show, please do everyone in the showroom a favor and keep your mouth shut. It is impossible for a comedian to satisfy everyone's individual sense of humor and someone is bound to get offended. At a comedy show, your opinion does NOT matter. That's not my rule, it's the rule.

Comedy is subjective. Comedians have material on an infinite number of topics and every comedian is different. While most comedians tend to use a mainstream subject matter that almost everyone can relate to, or find enjoyable, jokes centered around sensitive subjects such as abortion, rape, AIDS and pedophilia are bound to be heard in comedy clubs, and mostly likely, one person in the crowd (if not more) is a victim of one of those instances or knows someone who is.

Let's say a comedian performs in front of a large audience and has a killer set. Despite 95% of the crowd enjoying them, not everyone will, and that is fine (trust me, a comedian would be more than thrilled if 95% of the crowd enjoyed their set). Yet, sometimes, if an audience member does not like a certain word or joke, they feel the need to voice their opinion. Why? I don't know.

Heckling does not improve the situation; it usually digs the hole deeper and has the potential to ruin a show - quickly. The patrons in that room who paid to see comedy and want to be entertained by professionals, not some drunken woman who heard something she didn't like and thought she should take action.

When dealing with a heckler, I think the odds are astronomically low that a comedian would commiserate with the disrupter and say "You know what? You're right. What I said was wrong. I'm sorry." Usually the situation ends with the heckler being berated by the comedian or escorted out by security (or both).

If you don't like something the comedian said, let it go. There will be a different bit coming soon - or another comedian. Most of the time, comedians are not trying to be obscene or crude when talking about a possible touchy topic. A lot of comedians have dealt with situations in their life that they used humor to get though. For example, a comedian who has a disability or illness may use humor to get through the experience. Now, as comedian, they may have jokes pertaining to their ailment to ease the pain that a select group of people may find offensive. Someone in the crowd may be offended, but to the comedian, it can part of a healing process.

5.) Being Quiet and Common Courtesy

In addition to heckling, being talkative is just as unwanted and just as annoying. People sometimes treat comedy shows like music at a bar. Music is in the background, musicians even know this. Songs do not require the attention that comedy does. With comedy, you need to focus on every word. Missing one word can lead to the absence of the punch-line. (One thing in particular that blows my mind is how some people will excessively talk at their table, completely ignoring the comedian, and then blame the comedian for not being funny).

Talking not only disturbs the people seated around your table, it's also distracting to the performer. Like a song, a comedians' set has rhythm and timing. People having conversations and even whispering can distort one's listening as well as sidetrack the comedian.

Another nuisance that is just as bothersome as talking, are cell phones. It is infuriating for the comedian to get through their set-up, and then as they're about to hit the crowd with the punch-line - riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. Every comedian knows what it's like to lose the central part of their joke to an obnoxious sound, and it is frustrating beyond words.

Picture yourself sitting at your desk at work. You're typing on the computer and every time you finish a paragraph, someone holds down the backspace key, causing you to lose everything you just worked on. It's the exact same thing.

This even goes further then just the ring. Texting is just as discourteous and equally maddening. Just like losing a joke to a ring, it's just as rude for someone to text right in front of the comedian's face as they perform. Texting is basically saying "F you" without holding up your finger.

It's also important to also point out the people who think that either they are a part of the act or that the comedian is speaking to them directly. Some people at the show will actually talk to the comedian during their act. It's a gray area between heckling and talking at the table because they're not necessarily heckling, or talking to people at your table, they're talking to the comedian for no reason whatsoever. As if the comedian doesn't have enough on their mind making sure their set is running smoothly, sometimes, people will feel the need to (loudly) add their own tag to a joke, or, just as annoyingly, have a comment for everything the comedian says.

"I know what you mean!" "That happened to me, too!" or even an agreeing "Yeeeeeeah!" are all things some people feel that they should share. Comedians bring their own jokes to the show, complete with their own punch-lines. Unwanted audience participation is as necessary as a third shoe.


I've obviously just spent a lot of time ranting and pointing out several negative aspects of comedy, but over-all, comedy is a fantastic thing. If you think it's great to watch, you should try performing it. It's a different world. Personally, I'd rather be entertainment than see it (except at a party or at a bar).
Comedy is an amazing art. I watch comedy almost every night of the week. It's great to watch someone point out the things you think but would never say, or point out things about everyday life that you didn't notice until then and it's great to just see how different people view the same world.

Performing comedy is therapeutic. I really don't know what I'd do with out it. It's an addiction. But like everything else you love, it can never truly be perfect - I woudn't want it to be perfect. The ups and downs are what makes comedy fun. But one thing I could live without are the people who I mentioned in my five points. The next time you meet someone and you find out they're a comedian, do them a favor; just say "Awesome."


Doogie said...

I like the scene in Finding Nemo, where the other fish find out Nemo's dad is a clown fish. "Oh, you're a clown fish? Do something funny! Tell us a joke!"

When people ask me to tell them a joke, I say bitterly "You want a joke? Just look around. Life is the biggest fucking joke there is. And you know what? I DON'T GET IT!" Then I take a long swig from my hip flask.

Badgrig said...

when people ask you if you're a comedian, just tell them that they must've heard wrong and that you work for Nike. And then they'll say "wow, really?. can you hook me up with some shoes." and then you tell them "no problem. i'll hook you up if you let me fuck your girlfriend." and they'll say h"oly shit! you are a comedian", and you say, "no actually i'm a rapist." and then they usually just walk away and call you a dickhead. that's how i like to work it. by the way, you can put this in your act if you want. y'know, if you get writer's block or something.

Greg said...

You should put that in your act.

As a comedian, this was nice to read.

Gareth said...

Loved the post...

as a comedian in South Africa (and no that's not why I'm only posting on a 2008 article NOW), I gotta say things are the same here.

I love the expectation to perform your "job" on the spot for FREE!

"Like oh cool you're in construction? F**king build something! Hey everyone, come watch Steve's in construction, he's gonna build something"


Gareth Woods

Anonymous said...

Pat House is frightened little bitch who "heckles" other performers online hiding behind assumed names.

Nothing he says should be taken seriously.