“Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.” – Bruce Lee
Before you begin your comedy career – before you ever get on stage – you are probably a fan of stand-up comedy. You’ve probably watched stand-up specials or listened to stand-up albums, and to you, their jokes were just jokes. When you get up on stage for the first time during the beginning of your career, you learn that writing jokes is a process. You have to worry about not just what you tell, but how you tell it. Rhythm, timing, placement, body language, the faces you make – all of these variables can influence whether a joke gets a huge laugh or blank stares. Later on in your career, once you have learned how to think like a comic, how to write material in your own voice, and how to perform your act, jokes are just jokes. They are simply a tool you use to elicit an emotional response from the crowd.
For a man like the great Richard Pryor, jokes almost became unnecessary. No matter what stage you’re at in the comedy game, you’re not Richard Pryor. And for that matter, neither am I.
When it comes to performing early in your career, and you’re at the stage where a joke is so much more than just a joke, you will most likely look at seasoned stage veterans and think they make it look easy. You’ll wonder why you didn’t think of what they’re talking about first, and at this point, you’ll understand how much work has gone into performing at that level. It will become overwhelming. But if you stick with it, you, too, will get there. You just can’t do it all in one day. No one was born wielding the microphone.
During this delicate period in your career, you’ll feel vulnerable in your material. You may see a seasoned comic go in and absolutely work the crowd into a frenzy. He’ll have them falling in love with his act. He’ll set a tone in the room for other acts to follow. Don’t be intimidated if you’re performing after this comic.
Later in your career, you won’t be intimidated, but you might feel insecure. Your ego makes you want to be the best comic on the show (this is healthy). What if your jokes don’t measure up to that standard? This is where some healthy self esteem will serve you well.
In both cases and times in your career, you should take the opportunity to follow this act as a challenge. It will make you a better comic. The alternative is worse. Going after someone who bombs is not easy – in fact, it’s much more difficult to follow someone who has destroyed the crowd’s mood. If someone performs poorly, they lose the audience for the next comic, and you’ll have to work twice as hard for laughs. Following someone who has put the audience at ease makes your jokes more effective or funnier. Isn’t that something all comics want?
I have been guilty, early in my career, of being intimidated by great comics. However, having had the experience of going up after comics who have had terrible sets, I learned quickly that following a great comic can be advantageous to my career. And, honestly, I prefer following a great act. Every comic strives to be the best comic on the show.
If you go up after someone who’s really good, you are automatically granted the situational authority that you belong on that stage with good comics. The audience will think that you’re also a good comic. If you follow a shitty comic, the crowd will think you’re also a shitty comic. Performing with other great acts legitimizes your role on the stage. Good comics pave the way for great comics. You won’t have to win the audience over; they’ll already be engaged.
I haven’t always been the good comic. In fact, I’ve been the bad comic before. We all have. It’s not the end of the world, but I saw what the act who followed had to do. I’ve sucked the life out of a room and made other comic’s jobs more difficult. It’s embarrassing, but it’s part of the process. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re the one who’s bombing, shake it off. Every comic has a bad night. Some comics have bad years. The best way to remedy a bad show is to listen to your set later, seek advice from a trusted peer, and get back on the stage. The more practice you have, the more comfortable you’ll become. Part of practice is getting up and making mistakes. You’ll learn how to gauge the audience in the future and save some other comic the trouble of following a bad act.
Author Brian Roth has performed at Gotham Comedy Club, Broadway Comedy Club, Stand Up NY Comedy Club, New York Comedy Club, the People’s Improv Theater (PIT) and other clubs in NYC. He hosts the #Rothcast on BlogTalkRadio.