Growing up I was always fascinated by stand up comedy.
I would watch early Saturday Night Live tapes of Belushi at his best and his worst. Bill Hicks destroying audiences and them laughing and thanking him for it. Richard Pryor being a free basing genius. I think it was the mixture of sheer terror of actually getting up there and the power you could have when the room was in the palm of your hand that amazed me.
I used to go to a lot of open mike nights. One of the places I used to go was Cool Runnings in Johannesburg. It was a dank little basement in Melville. It was underneath a Jamaican eatery that sold everything on the menu and quite a few things off it.
You would see guys like Jon Vlismas, David Kau or Bevan Cullinan hosting the night. They were amazing because they could bring the crowd back after somebody sucked. Just think how hard it is to do that. Just for a second, picture yourself going on after somebody has bombed.
And boy did some of the guys bomb. I remember one 50 year old freaky German guy in a full lederhosen outfit getting lynched after telling inappropriate jokes about kids.
Night after night, you would get guys who were dry heaving backstage because they were so nervous. They would force themselves to get on that stage and be terrible. The audience would throw ice at them. They would stumble off the stage, broken. And they would be back the following week like a junkie hunting for a needle. And when they were done, Vlismas would walk on stage and fix the mess of their addiction.
I really tried to learn from all these guys. What made some so good? What made some so bad?
I had to present every day of my life in boardrooms to people who tried very hard not to show any emotion. You would often be presenting in a very tense atmosphere because of timings or just general pressure. And, if you think it’s not that hard to do this, try presenting some creative after a client has argued about the strategy. Or worse still the brief. And my favourite, when a client argues with his or her own people.
And now, here’s the creative to inspire you.
To be able to cope with situations like this you need to develop skills.
So, what makes a good comic? Obviously, the material. Without that, you are dead. However, I have seen the same joke delivered on consecutive nights and seen it bomb the second night. I have also seen people incredibly prepared for presentations fail badly.
So, although material and preparation are vital, these guys had something else. Firstly, fear was not a factor.
They either had mastered the feeling of fear or they were very good at faking it. Showing fear was the first step to a routine going South. If you are afraid people will not laugh or listen. Fake it, create a different persona or learn to enjoy the fear but don’t show it.
Two, they could read a room. They had the ability to be consistent but still respond to what was happening in the room. They could adapt. This was the biggest mistake rookies made. If they got heckled or the audience didn’t laugh, they couldn’t recover. It is the same with presentations. If you have learnt the presentation off by heart and something changes, you have to be able to adapt. You find out if you have any skills when things go wrong.
Being able to deal with what’s in your head and what’s happening in reality is probably the hardest skill to master.
Lastly, the great comics give the impression they don’t care if you laugh. Some even give the impression they are not really interested if there is an audience. This gives the material power and in a way gives the comic power too. To do this and still respond to what’s happening in the room takes years of practice. You watch Robin Williams in full manic flow. You think he is in his own crazy world. Yet, he is still listening and adjusting his timing to the audience. Genius.
So, I am no comic, I don’t have that strange obsession or perhaps the inexhaustible courage you need to do it.
What I do know is they have taught me hundreds of lessons through the cigarette smoke and drunk heckling. They taught me a whole lot about speaking to a room of people you have to win over. And I am pretty sure what they taught me has saved my ass hundreds of times.
And for that I will be forever grateful. Thanks, you killed out there tonight.