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

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About Ash

Paul Ash is that special kind of person who sees the best in everyone, except himself. His self loathing comedy is peppered with rural charm and big city cynicism. This “muppet king of comedy” has been described as the “encyclopaedia of funny” and has an over ten year relationship with the Festival Just For Laughs, the world’s largest stand-up comedy fest.