Craig and I were recently in New York and one night we ended up at the Comedy Cellar. It was on our list, mostly I think because of Louie CK’s show and also because we had had a previous ummm unhappy (yes that would be the kind word) experience with New York stand up. In the fall we found ourselves in a basement in the East Village, some might say trapped, with a long line of crappy comic after crappy comic (MY GOD WILL IT NEVER END).
Stand up comedy is a fascinating animal to me. The rhythm and delivery of jokes really plays to my sensibilities of how dialogue should sound.The sound of words are a necessary competent to the success of words. Stand up is an aural medium, if the rhythm and delivery are off the jokes won’t work as well. Good jokes need good delivery. And the same applies for theatre, I have seen great, great plays butchered by bad delivery.
So thankfully our Comedy Cellar experience did not leave us screaming into the night. In fact it was brilliant. We went to a Wednesday early show and were really impressed by the quality of the comics. Every one made us laugh, the whole show was just the right length, we’re already planning to return.
The most interesting part of the night was the appearance of a well-known comic, who wasn’t on the bill and was clearly trying out new material. This is one of the draws of the Comedy Cellar – sometimes big names just show up and do a set. This is another parallel between Theatre and stand up – neither works in a vacuum. You need an audience. You need a response to know if the material works.
And this particular stand up during the course of his set told a joke that did not fly. It wasn’t bad but it didn’t soar. And the comedian looked as us and said, “Yeah, I told that joke on Monday and they didn’t like it either. I thought it was a good joke, but when two audiences in a row tell you it’s not funny…. it’s not funny.”
If two audiences in a row tell you it’s not funny, it’s not funny. This is such an important statement for artists who depend on an audience for the success of their work. Not only do we need an audience, we need to listen to the audience. We need to hear how they respond and act accordingly. And sure, every once in a while you can go “It’s not the material! The audience didn’t get it!” But that can be a slippery slope. If you get into the blame game – it’s not me, it’s them – you’re making an antagonist out of a group of people you need to succeed.
When I’m working on something, I usually use the rule of three. If three times or three people react in an unexpected manner, then I have to address it. Regardless of whether or not I love what they’re reacting to. Regardless of whether or not I think it’s good. I need to listen to the audience. Three people means there’s something there I am missing. It’s not funny and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
And it’s not all bad, sometimes an audience will react in an unexpected manner and it’s awesome. They’re getting something that I was too close to the material to figure out. And if you’re not paying attention to their response, you may miss it. That to me is the wonder of theatre, and I expect too for stand ups. The response can come like a wave, you can be wowed by it, and then it’s time for the next audience.