Comedy: it’s more than just making people laugh – there are real life lessons that can be learned, and I just learned an important one this past weekend that I felt compelled to share: it doesn’t matter how funny you are, if you don’t make a connection with your audience (your customers), they can’t be invested in you.
I learned this the hard (fun) way this past weekend.
Last Friday and Saturday, I was hosting a comedy show featuring a musical comedian at a comedy club in Akron. As the host, it’s my job to set the tone for the show, so I had spent the week at open mics both working on my material and riffing with audiences. Then Friday night came around… I was instructed by the club owner to promote upcoming shows, so that’s how I kicked off the show.
“Give it up for yourselves for coming out!”
“Now, coming up next week is Jim Florentine from VH1’s That Metal Show! The following week is Dave Landau who has been a special guest on The Bob and Tom Show! Anyone here listed to Bob and Tom?”
“Well you should. They’re hilarious.”
Side note: I don’t even listen to Bob and Tom.
That was me trying to force a connection, but still not listening to the crowd. That’s not how you connect with people.
Now what? Do I stand up here and keep trying crowd work? I’m 0 for 1, that can only mean it’s going to get worse. I know! I’ll perform my set for them.
Before the show I went through all of my jokes and decided on the ones that would tie into the narrative of humans being too comfortable with the status quo to make meaningful change. For example, we call a peanut a nut when it’s actually a legume, Gettysburg will never be a progressive town because they can’t stop reminiscing over the glory days – you know, The Civil War – and the Cleveland Indians calling themselves Indians when their logo is clearly Native American – two distinct races.
It turns out the audience wasn’t there to laugh at thought-provoking humor. The headlining comedian used crude acoustic parodies of well-known songs, including Christmas carols, and the audience ate it up. I couldn’t believe it! What was I doing wrong??
“But I do smart comedy!” I reasoned to myself, “I challenge the status quo!”
If you went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert, but a world yo-yo champion was his opening act, you’d be like, “I’m not here to see this guy walk the dog, I want to hear about the glory days.”
So sure, I got some laughs, including one big laugh at my Indians joke (appropriate since the team was in the playoffs at the time), but I never fully connected with the people in the room, and it was a little disheartening to begin the show on a dud.
I approached one of the other, more experienced comedians for pointers on how to more effectively open a show and get the audience riled up.
“Ask if anyone has a Birthday or anniversary and comment on that… and listen for the blender at the bar. Someone always orders a frozen margarita during the opening act. Commenting on that always gets a laugh.”
Back on stage again: “Anyone celebrating anything?”
No one. Oh, great. Time to go into my routine – surely the first audience just didn’t get it and the second audience would be much better.
Again, I got some laughs, but I was missing that ever-important connection… then the blender went off.
“If anyone needs a root canal, they’re doing them for cheap at the bar.”
“This place has it all: comedy, cocktails, and clean teeth!”
This was it! Time to ride the momentum train into the rest of my set!
“Did you realize human beings are the only animal to drink the milk of another animal?”
Just as quickly as I got them back, I lost them again, and it deflated me. What was happening?
Lightbulb: I wasn’t listening to them! They came to hear jokes about balls, and here I am telling them about the potential of Gettysburg before the Civil War.
Connection begins when you listen, and I forgot this vital rule of human interaction because I was so focused on getting laughs, rather than working together with the room to create an experience.
The first show the next night got off to a promising start – there was a Birthday and it was at a front table full of women – perfect – they’re probably wasted and I can have some fun at their expense.
“Do any pre-gaming at the Red Fox next door?”
They didn’t, so I asked what they were drinking.
“Ah, the vodka cranberry: the vodka cranberry of cocktails.”
I’m not proud to admit that that got a much bigger laugh than I expected, but hey, a laugh’s a laugh, right?
“Pam’s drinking beer!” Another woman at the table chimed in.
“I like beer,” Pam added. The second she said that, the next few words slipped out of my mouth and into an abyss of silence:
“So does Brett Cavanaugh.”
I didn’t read the room… this was a conservative audience, and that could be construed as a liberal joke.
That wasn’t my intention at all, but it’s how the audience read the joke, and just like that, I lost them. The rest of the set went okay, but I never felt a true connection with the people in the room.
One more show, one more chance.
“Anyone celebrating anything?”
“17! Give em a round of applause, everyone!” Applause break.
“I can’t make it past two years, but I just got into a relationship. If I’m lucky, in 17 years we’ll be catching a show at this comedy club together too.”
That got a laugh – off to a good start. After some riffing that included the rest of the crowd, it was time to go into my set, which I updated to be a little more off-color.
“When I was a kid, I used to get picked on for my last name. I resisted it because no one wants to be known as the horny kid when they’re ten. It’s a hard reputation to shake off.”
Starting the set with this was the first step to audience connection – it’s what they wanted – but when I felt myself beginning to lose that connection, like when I began a new joke on the absurdities of Tinder, I listened and recreated that connection. “Anyone in here on Tinder?” No one made a sound.
“Next joke.” Everyone laughed, including me. That’s what a real connection feels like.
Although it wasn’t my best set, the key is that I maintained that connection and got some good laughs, keeping the audience invested all the way through my ten minutes of time onstage.
The headliner approached me after I got off stage, “Great set, man. This is going to be a good show.”
If you want to get what you want, you have to look at it from the other person’s perspective and ask yourself, “What is it they want?” first. It took me three shows to remember this, but once I did, it led to me performing the best 10 minutes of comedy in my life, opening up for a national headliner in front of 100 people the next night.
By investing our energy into seeing the world through the eyes of others, we create connection, and once that connection is created, others will be more invested in us.