After the Great Canadian Laugh Off 2007

Please forgive any semblence of immodesty, this was written just after I placed third in a 2007 Great Canadian Laugh Off Semi-Final.

perplexed as to why a stranger has my camera

perplexed as to why a stranger has my camera

I arrived on Thursday, one day before my time in the “ring”. I flew in early, and really hadn’t slept but ended staying up all day catching up with friends and then going to McVeighs to do a guest spot. Having been up for 40 hours (with about an hour’s nap) I wondered if I’d pull it off. It went well and added to my confidence. I guess it also helped being in a city where people hadn’t seen me for a long while, so my material was all new. That and sleep deprivation. Andrew Evans closed the show, and we closed the bar.

I knew going in that there was only one other Canadian on my night. Kinda my fault as I requested a weekend spot (so I’d not go to Toronto too early) and the other out of towners (country-ers?) would also need to limit their travel time. Getting there I got to feel the caliber of the comics I was going to have to compete with. Though it was daunting, the green room had a feeling of brotherhood. It was a great feeling. We got to talk, joke, ask each other about where we’re from, what comedy is like there. It was a meeting of peers.

But competition is competition, Shannon and Beth came in to do the draw for the order. Before they began they asked us if anyone would like to volunteer to go first. We all looked around, skirting eye contact and looking down. Nobody wanted to just “give up” and accept, perhaps, the hardest spot of the night. As they started to make the draw I joked that I’d probably be first anyhow, but the named pulled out was Geoff Brousseau of Seattle Washington. Other positions of note, Al Prodgers of South Africa drew fifth (out of eight). Still my name didn’t come out of the can. Al was followed by Andrea Henry from Boston and then only the two Canadians were left. Mark Casey’s (the winner from Barrie Ontario’s Yuks) name was drawn. I was to go on last.

The crowd had been pouring in, the room almost full. Dana Alexander got the crowd going and we were off. Geoff Brousseau did very well, what you’d expect from someone who was here because he’d previously competed with Dylan Mandhlsohn and Paul Myrehaug at the Seattle Comedy Contest. He claims he flubbed his first joke, but I couldn’t tell. The crowd loved it. I had to keep dipping downstairs as the TV in the green room kept going out. Katie Riffey, a pro from Washington, DC, kept it going. Tony Gaud from Florida did another killer set. I began to feel the butterflies rise. I don’t like the pressure of competitions, I find that I choke or try desperately too hard.

Not all the comics hit, but the show was going well.

I walked down and watched Al Prodgers. He was calm, not over exagerated. He had a cool sounding accent, and spoke slow enough so we could understand it. He was older than most in the contest, maybe in his 50’s, and had charm. His brand new “fish out of water” material helped exploit his exotic appeal. Watching him I felt the butterflies go away. Why was I worried about competing, he would obviously win. I congratulated him as he came off stage.

I now felt all I really had to worry about was making the crowd laugh. Just my 8 minutes, the contest was over. And I trusted my eight was good.

Andrea Henry is from Boston, a city of comedy legends. She works primarily out of “The Comedy Studio“, an artist run collective who’s philosophies I looked at when starting the Comedy Dawgs. She was an incredible writer, low key dry jokes that tore into the crowd.

Just before me went Mark Casey, the winner from Barrie. Mark’s green-ness showed somewhat, especially after following such a strong act.

from David Kemp's going away party

from David Kemp’s going away party

Then it was my turn. Just before my introduction, I made eye contact with Dave Kemp. He made me smile, a little taste of home. I approached the stage so my foot was on it as Dana said my name. My set went off just as I planned it, with the exception of one “helpful” heckle. I was able to take the crowd where I wanted to go and they laughed everywhere I wanted them to. I walked onstage without any “contest” nervousness and was thus able to do what I wanted – make people laugh. It was liberating.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sz2pJqBomps&w=420&h=315]

As I got offstage, Al met me at the base of the stairs “You F u cker! You undersold yourself to me.” It was teasing between comrades. It felt good.

Finally after a wonderful guest spot by Simon Cotter, Dana reclaimed the stage to announce the winners. When she called my name, I was a little shocked, and had to be directed to get up there. I placed third! Andrea Henry received second place and Al Prodgers took first place and moved on to the finals. Later, though they don’t reveal the actual numbers, I was told the top three were very close – as they were on Tuesday, the night Peter White won third as well.

If anyone hasn’t looked to Halifax as the new hotspot for comedy in Canada yet, I think that has changed.

-Ash

PS: again, please forgive me if this has come off as immodest.

How (Not) To Stand-up Comedy: Stage Greed

Bill Hicks(originally posted February 20th, 2006)

Tonight I may have been tested.  Tested and I failed.  Failed badly.  Tonight we had our 2nd Annual Bill Hicks‘ Memorial Rant Off, an event I look forward to.  Not just for the chance to spew bile and tell the world how broken it is, but also the chance to see comedians stretch out of their comfort zone, try something new and work on new performance skills.

By warning the crowd of what they’re in for, advertising it as a special night we hope to draw people who want to hear this particular style of comedy.  At the start of the show very few people in the audience admitted to knowing of Bill Hicks.  But the stragglers who came in late did, and the crowd was educated.  We had a good crowd.  No, we had a great audience.

Many of the young comics here in the scene stepped up to the challenge, everyone did their best sets that I’ve ever seen them do.

Gingers Comedy Dawgs

Yanick Simard

Nick Simard and Cheryl Hann really stood out.  But with such a great crowd, with so many comics on the show a little thing crept into the process.  Greed.  The laughs were so great, the crowd so willing to journey with us on flights of fancy and hate, it was hard to get off stage.

Onstage at Gingers

Cheryl Hann

 

We had a special guest show up, last minute.  Mike McQueen (now based in Toronto).  I asked him to do just five minutes tight and squeezed him in just before the last act.  Mike did just that, kept to time and did a great set.

Problem is, I’m an ogre for keeping the show from running long.  I do it to keep the audience from feeling worn out.  If a crowd leaves wanting more, they’ll return sooner.  Optimum time is an hour forty-five, two hours tops.  When we burn most all our “A” material on an audience, they’ll return and may be persnickity if we do mainly jokes they’ve heard before.  With such a small audience base (Halifax NS is a big town, not really a small city), we need to encourage repeated visits.

At Gingers Comedy Dawg

Mike MacQueen

We started at exactly 8pm.  Mike came off stage (after his tight 5 minutes) at 9:54pm.  The closer was supposed to do 10 to 15 minutes… more if time was available and the crowd willing.  I had the choice to say no to the closing act, save it for another time.  Problem was, I was the closing act.  I had looked forward to this show for weeks.  I had prepared special material, dredged up older material that had not seen the light of day for years because of it’s bile.  I wanted to do this show.

Like a spoiled brat I did it.  It was 9:57pm by the time I hit the stage.  I abridged some jokes, editing on the stage trying to cut, losing myself not to the jokes but the need to get off stage.  But too much of what I wanted to do got out.  I false ended several times.  The crowd was with me.  I attacked the comfort of the audience, I yelled at them as to how they have the power to make this a better world… and if they didn’t, the possible consequences.  Then I ended on a pussy joke.

It was cathartic, but I felt like an unprincipled ass.  I was greedy for the stage attention that I did what I feel is bad for the future of the show.  Generally I didn’t do much material or the style of material that people see regularly from me, but I taxed an audience.

Time will tell (by the number repeat customers) if what I did was so wrong.

-Ash
February 20th, 2006

Can You Name A Comedy Writer Who Has Won A Nobel Prize?

(originally written March 6, 2008)

I wrote this in response to a friend who asked me “Do you feel that comedy is underrated as an art form? (You’ll see why I’m asking this on my blog.) How is it similar to more “serious” arts? How is it different?”

I do feel comedy has been underrated, even ghetto-ized to a degree.  Partially because so much bad comedy has been produced that the great comedy is swamped by it.  Bad comedy seems much more acceptable to the populace in general than say bad drama.  Then again, there are soap operas. 

 

Gingers

Onstage in Halifax

Good stand-up comedy is similar to more “serious” arts in that it asks it’s audience to think.  It’s major difference is it’s immediacy to it’s audience.  The audience gets to respond immediately, and the performer knows if he’s gotten a reaction.  Brevity is a pinnacle of art.  Whether an artist can get their point across with a single brush stroke or a single frame out of a roll of film – it’s always that moment, that realization, that connects the artist’s thoughts with his audience.  Good stand-up comics provide many vignettes (jokes) to present mainly one point of view.  How briefly they can express them, boiling the words, actions, expressions down to the barest of minimums and yet be completely understood is it’s own reward. 

If a crowd get’s you, really gets you, laughs at your jokes while you perform them and maybe, just maybe looks at some things in a different way, who the hell needs a nobel prize.

The 10 Major Fails of Starting Stand-up Comedians

Ask Ash: What do I need to know to do an open mic?F1000007

1)      Don’t write what you think people will laugh at.  Write what makes you laugh.  Rehashing topics that your favourite comedians joke about is called hack.  You’ll be more real and more surprising to the audience if you share your original take on something new.

2)      It’s called a microphone, it can amplify your voice so everyone in the room can hear it BUT it’s not infallible – you need to know how to use it.  Make sure it’s close enough to your mouth to catch the sound, but not so close as to distort (or fuzz) it.  If you don’t know how to hold a mic or use a stand, ask for pointers.  It’s not a bad thing, actually it’s recommended.

3)      Arrive early to the show.  If you have questions for the host / producer, try to email them ahead of time.  If you need help with the equipment (mic stand / mic / gtfots light) it’s best to ask before the show starts AND best to do it before the audience begins arriving.  The last 10 minutes before a show starts are very busy for those putting on a show, and they’ll be less able to politely answer your questions then.

4)      Know your place in the order, whether you know ‘which number’ or ‘who you follow’, be ready to go to the stage.  You should have a foot on the stage by the time the host is saying the last syllable of your name.

5)      Sit in accessible spot, if there’s a change to the running order you should be easy to find (without disturbing the show).  Don’t sit up front.  Most hosts do crowd work, and the default is to talk to people in the front row – which almost always turns out crappy or appears fake when it’s an act on the show.

6)      Prepare.  Don’t wing it.  Know your jokes, or at least the punchlines.  Few things grind a set to a halt like a long set up without a punchline.  Admitting it, though, can save you.

7)      Don’t overwrite.  Know what the jokes sound like, say them aloud to yourself as you’re editing them.  Somethings look great on the page, but sound awkward when spoken.

8)      Edit.  Don’t try to fill the time, try to get as many laughs in as short a time as possible.  Most open mics appreciate comics who volunteer to do shorter time.

9)      Keep to time.  If you plan on going short, let the host know (usually while the act before you is on, but also prior to the show start).  That way they can curb their bathroom / smoke break to be sure they’re ready when you’re getting off stage.  Don’t go long.  You see the warning light, get off.  On a show with 12 acts, and each act does 2 extra minutes, the entire show is almost an extra half hour longer.F1000013

10)   Remember, the audience is there to laugh.  All you need to do is give them the excuse.

Ask Ash: Bulletproof

The question I was asked (several different ways) was “do I have to be bullet?” “what did I do to piss you off?”, “can’t you get someone else to go first?”, “I’m better later in the lineup”, “but I got people coming to see me…”  Okay, those last two are more statements not questions, but they amount to the same complaint: “why do I have to go first?”

Bullet [boo l-it]; noun

  • first (non-hosting) spot on a comedy show
  • from the idiom “bite the bullet”:  to force oneself to perform a painful, difficult task or endure an unpleasant situation
  • slang “bullet” as ace, or ‘one’ card

Comedy Nest December 14, 2012On a typical (non serial) professional show (2-4 comics), the person taking bullet is pretty much undisputed.  Usually the bullet goes to the person with the shortest time:  In the case of a two person host/headliner show, it’s the non headliner; three act show, again, the non headliner or the host; four acts – the person doing a showcase (7-10 minute) set.

On a showcase, contest, or festival set, where most all the comics are doing nearly the same amount of time the choice of who goes first should not be taken lightly.  For the purpose of this article I’m going to express the choices I try to make when picking a bullet for a common open mic and explain why.

To understand the reasoning of having a strong bullet slot on a comedy show, it helps to understand its impact on a show.

  • A strong bullet performance proves to the audience that the show is worth sticking around for
  • In the perception of some audience members, the host doesn’t count as part of the show, so it is important to start with an experienced / strong act
  • shows with consistently weak opening acts will find their regulars (and those drawn by word of mouth) coming later, further impacting the show and the venue negatively.

The bullet should remember they are not really the “first” act.  The host has gone on first, and their job has been to take a group of individuals and make them an audience – the bullet does not go up cold.  That said, the host has a limited amount of time to do all the tasks that help make the show go better and having a first act that knows how to comport themselves can make the difference.

Let’s look at some of the factors that go into choosing a bullet performer:

  • Consistently strong performer
  • Capable of engaging the crowd if necessary
  • Stylistically different from the host

A booker (or the person who paces a regular show) looks to bring in an audience for the full show.  If a show is front loaded with weaker, less popular acts, audience (and potential audience) members will regret coming early and plan to only come late in the future.  Potentially, people unimpressed with the first acts could get up and leave seeing nothing worth staying for.  This can lead to bad word of mouth and bad press for the venue and show.  To alleviate this, a smart booker would choose to have one of his top 3 acts open the show, which draws people to the show’s start.  A late audience member complaining that they missed their favorite act because they showed up late is word of mouth advertising attesting to the quality of show and recommending getting there on time – a double win.

As a performer, the detriment of going first is added pressure to deliver a good set.  The easiest way to deliver a good set is to use tried and true material, but for seasoned acts, the purpose of performing in an open mic like environment is to try new material.  As bullet you have less time to experiment or test newer material.  You still can work new material in by book ending (surrounding it) by some of your better tested jokes, plus smart bookers tend to give a little more time to quality bullet comics.  Professional comics have to perform no matter how they’re feeling when scheduled (well, they could call in sick if they can find a replacement, but comics who don’t perform ‘because they don’t feel like it’, end up losing potential work as well – because said practice isn’t really “professional”), so performing bullet spot as an unexpected pressure is good practice to learn how to adapt and work when you feel less than fully prepared. A good booker will not pace the same person over and over in bullet, bullet spots should be balanced with spots later in the show (including close).

Now when the show has been paced and you tell the booker (or host) things like:

“I’m better later in the line up”
They hear “I’m not good enough”

“can you switch me with…”
They hear “I don’t trust your judgement”

“I got people coming to see me…”
They hear “I couldn’t be bothered to tell them to get here on time”

What you should hear when you’re asked to take bullet:

“Hey, I think you’re pretty good.”

Yours,
Ash