How To BattleCOM

May June 2013

May June 2013

Now that BattleCOM is a monthly English occurrence at The Comedy Nest, GladiaCOM is soon to launch for French and the Ottawa ComicCon will feature some BattleCOM, I guess it’s time to let people know what to expect when / if they participate in one.

Battle/Gladia-COM is a new form of comedy show.  Basically you have two performers onstage trying to out do each other for the audiences approval (and the ability to move up).  This article will serve as a primer for those who are participating their first time, or acts looking to critically examine the material they’re creating for a BattleCOM.  We’ll cover common misconceptions, writing strategy, tactics and presentation.

The Geek Battle of Comedy Shows

The Geek Battle of Comedy Shows

MISCONCEPTIONS

FACTS ARE JOKES
First misconception is that BattleCOM is a debate show – it’s not.  The primary purpose is not to defeat your opponents’ choices but to be more entertaining while arguing yours.  To that end, facts are irrelevant.

Where facts are important is knowing your audience.  The majority of people who come out to a BattleCOM (be it a Nerd Show, a Sports Show or a Dirty Show version) are there because they’re familiar with the subject matter.  Being blatantly wrong or misinformed on some major fact could potentially alienate you to the audience, or cause a significant enough disconnect for them to not catch the funny.  Given the brevity of your time to impress the audience, a misstep could be your final step.

ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD
“Sure the show is fast paced, but I can pop out a couple of SSP (setup setup punchline) jokes when I have the mic.”  Wrong.  The goal is to get the audience laugh as quickly and as often as you can – in under 90 seconds (approximately).

“I have to explain my point of view.”  No.  Have faith in your audience.  Your choice is presented when you’re introduced, assume knowledge from the crowd.  In other words, don’t bore them / waste time explaining what is obvious.

Enter the arena with confidence, and speed.  Don’t wait for your full name, and your full choice to be declared before heading to the stage.  Grab the stage, and the audience’s attention by being dynamic in your entrance.

BattleCOM

BattleCOM

“I need to establish myself / my character each time I have the mic.”  Don’t underestimate your audience – establish yourself during the reverse curtain call and thumbnail everything if you feel the need to establish yourself.

So the primary misconceptions deal with the Battlers approach and how much time can be wasted onstage.  (That answer is “none”.)

WRITING STRATEGY

CHOICE OF VIEW 
Before you can even start writing, you need to choose your point of view for the various Battle Fields.  Once the topic is revealed, there is a race to get your choices to the Battle Marshal (moderator) – you don’t want to write too much then find out someone else has taken the point of view (pov) you planned on.  These should factor into your choice:

  1. Unexpected.  It’s good to keep the other Battlers on their toes with your choice, but you don’t want to go too obscure so the audience wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.
  2. Passion.  Find something that you can be passionate about, because if they don’t identify with your pov, they can at least identify with your emotive context.
  3. Be specific.  If you’re muddled in your choice, then the audience will be confused by it too.
La Guerre De Geeks

La Guerre De Geeks

BREVITY

Layering jokes with tags and double meanings help get you more and faster hits with the audience.  To that end, here are some other tactics to keep in mind:

  1. Thumbnail.  Analogies, similes and metaphors help paint mental pictures (and can be a punchline) if used correctly.
  2. Edit.  If you need to explain, edit your writing to make it as brief as possible.  The faster to the funny, the faster to a win.

TACTICS

The old military adage “No battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy” holds true even in the battles of BattleCOM.

CHOICE
Again choice is important.  Do you:

  1. Choose quickly, to lock in a populist idea upon which you can build jokes to make people laugh?
  2. Choose something obscure that you are confident that you can quickly explain and exploit or make jokes about it’s obscurity?
  3. Wait to choose, the attempt to guess the most popular choices, hoping to be denied and possibly get insight on what the other Battlers have selected?

All of those methods of locking in your POV are valid, though waiting is most dangerous, as you may be left with a obvious choice and that no one had selected but that you have difficulty writing for.

RESEARCH
Know your Battle Field.  Research the subject matter (cult films, graphic novels, horror, sports video games), so you have some idea about what choices your fellow combatants may have made – and how to argue against them.

Know who you face, and research them, know their style.  Sometimes you may be at a loss to have a negative comment about someone’s choice – but you could just say something funny about them…

CURVEBALL
How can you keep your opponent of balance, but still keep the audience entertained?

Assume a character.  Take the Battlefield as the choice you represent.  This has the added benefit of thumbnailing some (or all) of your joke set-ups.  Plus your opponent isn’t facing “you”, they’re facing a character.
In the negative rounds, agree with them.  Use sarcasm and backhanded compliments to undermine the positive round of your enemy combatant.

PRESENTATION

With any form of comedy, I always say dress for the performance.  In stand-up, I say dress like yourself – but just yourself on a first date.  With BattleCOM dress in the way you wish to express yourself to the audience.

END ON A HIGH NOTE
Sometimes you get a big laugh, but still have more written material that logically follows.  Doesn’t matter – end your turn.  Brevity is the key.  Maybe, just maybe that next line could get an even bigger laugh, but just as possibly, it could fall flat.  Count on the audience to surprise you.

COSTUMES AND PROPS
A picture is worth a thousand words and dressing in costume, or hauling out an appropriate prop can seriously shortcut your set up time for a joke.  Plus the immediate impact of a costume (or prop) can be a source of entertainment on it’s own.

DIRECTION
Are you performing to the audience, or to your opponent?  It’s best to have that decided before you speak.  This will help you seem direct and cohesive in thought.

Can you use the limited stage available?  Know the limitations, and know that the Battle Marshal and your opponent will be giving you focus.  Wander if it will help, but remember strength comes from stillness.

Lead.  All the performers should be out there to entertain, that is rule one.  So feel free to (subtly) direct the action of your opponent and the Battle Marshal – this can possibly give you a big boost (or potentially give the big laugh to your opponent).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czuJLCauft4&w=420&h=315]

SUMMARY
So we learned preparation, not just for the your topic, but for the stage is key.  Writing helps, but editing makes it better.  Using thumbnail explanations, with or without the use of props and costumes, give you an edge in explaining your points to the audience.  Researching the Battlefield can give you knowledge that will allow you to topple your opponent’s arguments.  Most importantly we learned that this show format is meant to be fun, for the audience and the performers.

Yours,
Ash

#KickAshSaves #SaveKickAsh

This post is different from any I’ve done, and very different from anything I expected to do.  This is the obituary of a comedy show.  I’m posting this, because there’s been a number of stories circulating, accusations being made, fingers pointed and I want people aware of how things have happened from my perspective.

text smallOn Friday March 8th I received a text from Pierre, the owner of Andrews Pub.  Pierre bought the pub a year ago last November, long after the Kick Ash show started at Andrews Pub (the third venue for the Kick Ash show).  The Kick Ash show has existed for approximately four years here in Montreal.

Pierre speaks European French, English isn’t his first language and since my French is fairly bad I’ve generally only dealt with him through intermediaries.  He’s never come to see a show, so it comes as no surprise he doesn’t know me.  That did not stop me from being shocked – felt like I was kicked in my gut to read:

Hi.   its pierre.  i canculed your show  in my pub. Cause  i hear a lot of bad thing about you.  i cant keep you in my place.

I don’t claim to be a saint, but I try to live by a simple philosophy, treat others like you want to be treated.  I try to figure out the motivations of people, especially those I don’t see eye to eye with.  Hearing that there’s a “lot of bad things” being said about me, that I’m the type of person that the owner “can’t keep” in his establishment flabbergasted me.  I can’t imagine what horrible things he’s heard about me that should see me banned from a bar, any bar.

During the time of Kick Ash, Andrews has been written of several times including in web reviews and the Montreal Gazette, all favorably.  The Kick Ash Show (somewhat infamously) bore witness to a young man’s decision to not commit suicide – spawning the hashtag #KickAshSaves .  Now I’m being told that with all the positivism that we brought to Andrews Pub, I’m unwelcome – that I’m some sort of moral leper that can taint the atmosphere of Andrews Pub.  How would you react?

It’s not fair to say it was unexpected.  There had been signs.  Taking it back to last spring, a girlfriend of a one of the comics was coming around.  She was enthusiastic about the show.  She complained to me that she didn’t have a job, and one of our favourite bartenders had left Andrews, so introductions to the senior bartender (someone she knew from her time spent at the venue watching the Kick Ash Show) were made and she was quickly hired.

Things progressed normally, for awhile.  Then there was a change.  I later learned that the new bartender had broken up with her comedian boyfriend.  A campaign of hate started.  First it was just heckling (escalating to a vicious rant directed at Asaf Gerchak during one of his last Montreal performances before moving to Australia).  I also received feedback from many sources:

  • Callers inquiring about the show being told it was cancelled
  • Out of province performers (and travelling companions) refused service for out of province ID
  • She’d stand outside the bar, and tell people not to come in on her smoke breaks, because the comedy show was crap
  • An entire table was refused service, because one person (the driver) ordered water (the full order was two pictures of beer and a water – denied)
  • Free beer for the comedians was cancelled
  • The pay schedule, based on drink sales, was unilaterally changed, and then changed again, each time being reduced
  • I heard stories of her ranting about how horrible comedy was, to anyone who’d listen.  Part of one of these stories ended up being recorded and I got to listen to it.
  • One comedian, a professional live painter who tours with music festivals (who’s been kind enough to immortalize the Kick Ash Show) got word back that people were questioning the authenticity of her work (her livelihood) and these rumours were traced back to… you guess who – the bartender who serves hate.
  • Flyers I paid for and had printed were seen in garbage cans
  • During one show she disappeared for over a half hour.  We lost patrons looking to drink
  • She (not the owner) continually threatened to cancel the show
Painted by Sharon Ep1c

Painted by Sharon Ep1c

Her rudeness and threats grew, she affected turn out at the show and she intentionally tried to kill bar sales while the show was going on.  Finally I contacted the owner for a sit down.  I explained to him our difficulties, and he said he understood.  Shortly thereafter we had some new bartenders in on our show night.  The show grew again, the vibe was happy, forgiving and welcoming.  I’d brag and say it’s one of the best open mic’s in the city.

Then I got the text that said the show was cancelled.  I was stunned, particularly since the last show had gone so well.  We had near 50 patrons, all enthralled in the show.  The line up was great, including a new host and headliner – winners of the King Of The Mountain.  I was told drink sales were very good.  Why would such a benefit to the establishment be so unceremoniously axed?

I asked if we’d get a farewell show, and was told it was finished.  The Kick Ash show has run for 4 years, 3 locations.  It’s been a lot of work with no real financial gain.  The primary joy I’ve gotten out of the room is seeing and helping new acts, giving encouragement and stage time to those I like and making sure everyone got a fair chance.  I was accused of stealing my light, my mic and cable.  I had been in the habit of leaving them locked in the bar – and at times had found my gear used and abused.  I made it clear, it was my equipment.  I had also had one of their speakers fixed so I didn’t need to cart in my own speaker and amp each week – something I didn’t even get a “thanks” for.  Maybe I should take a rest.  BattleCOM deserves more of my time.  Still suggestions and offers of rooms came in.  There were some places that didn’t see me as a social leper.  I started a look around.

Then I found out.  The day after I picked up the last of the Kick Ash things at Andrews Pub, there was a comedy show at Andrews.  This was planned.  There was still some advertising for the Kick Ash Show up around the city and online, and someone was going to capitalize on it.  That person?  The bartender who hates comedy.  The room I built up is now being run by the person who’s tried to kill it for the last 6 months.  The show’s host was the only person I ever banned from the Kick Ash stage.

Another person who seemed involved is a friend who’s not in comedy but in Media Development.  He’s working on a concept and had asked my advice.  I had previously directed him to people with talents he needed, and he’s been thankful, because I’ve done right by him.  He had taken his new idea around to various locations after we chatted but had come back to Andrews.  His idea is neat.  He wants to live stream comedy shows, as well as archive the material for future use.  I told him he’d have to get permission from the performers involved or maybe he could do it on another night at Andrews.  Just keep me in the loop.

I wasn’t in the loop.  The plan was to do the show on a Wednesday, but I had loaned out my mic and light to a friend – and they showed up to no equipment.  My friend claims that the following week he was given a day’s notice, by the bartender and owner, that he could do the show on Tuesday – and that my show wasn’t there anymore.  I’m hurt he didn’t reach out.  We’ve texted each other a few times now, but haven’t had a chance to sit down face to face.

Now there is a new show in the space I developed.  A show that doesn’t pay comics like Kick Ash did.  A show that records and streams performances, which, according to the comedians I spoke with – no one was asked for their permission.  They may be under the impression, as there is no cover the bar is a public space and if you do anything in public, it’s fair game.

I have many fond memories of Andrews, of most of the staff, many of whom are my friends BUT I want to ask the comedians, and people who enjoy watching comedians – is that how you’d like to be treated?  Some of you have been asked to perform at Andrews, some already have since the turn over.  I don’t want to forbid anyone anything.

“Stage time is stage time.”  “Hell, in NYC there are pay to play rooms.”  The reason pay to play rooms exist in NYC, is because people are willing to pay to get on stage.  Here in Montreal, do you want paid shows to go away?  Do you want to start a room where the community doesn’t care if someone else comes in and undercuts you for it?  If you said no to that, then please say no to performing at this new Tuesday night show at Andrews Pub.  Say no to supporting it, to buying beers at that venue while their Tuesday night show exists.

If it’s moved to another night, like my friend said it was supposed to be on, I’m fine with that.  Use that stage time to get better, but protect your image.

I’m still on the fence about restarting Kick Ash again.  I’d like to know I have the community’s support.  I’d actually like to know there is a community that has pride in itself.

Yours, Paul Ash

Yours, Paul Ash

Ask Ash: Understanding the Joke Thief

brick wall thiefThis is not in response to a direct question, but there’s been another spat of internet chat on the subject of joke thieves, particularly involving people I respect.  This was brought to the fore again by a recent streamed discussion on Extralegal Norms at Harvard University.

“It’s a “cancer in the industry”: comedians stealing each other’s jokes.@JimMendrinos#copyrightX” – @MiTLibScholarly on Twitter

“there’s a lot of people in the industry who should drown in their own saliva” – Jim Mendrinos

Joke thieves are a (rightfully) vilified fact of life in the comedy community.  They cause stress and sow fear in the lives of creators as well as rob opportunities from those who are deserving.  Who could be so vile, so destructive to the world around them and would want the hate and loathing of their peers?  “No one” is the correct answer.  This is something that we must keep in mind if we want to lessen the effect this behaviour has on our industry.  Brow beating, finger pointing and McCarthy-esque outings are only going to polarize our community and not get to the roots of the problem.

“No one is a villain in their own mind.” – Harry Crews

Let us try to identify the types of joke thieves, work out their motivations and figure out what we can do together to curb their behaviour.

Casual Performer

Who:  The casual performer is someone out for a good time.  They don’t see a career in comedy, they’re the office cut-up, funniest one of their friends.  They probably forward videos, post pictures from various sites on their Facebook, and as a lark they decide to get onstage to tell a few jokes.  Some seek out comedy clubs, some just go to a local open mic or even a karaoke club – some place that’ll give them a stage and a mic.  They just want to have fun, and they’ll bring their supportive friends with them.  They’ll do versions of jokes they’ve read online, even bits from their favourite comics (sometimes even giving credit to the original performer).

Problem:  The obvious problem most people see is that the Casual Performer (CP) is taking stage time away from people who need it to develop, who want it more.  That’s the wrong way to think of it.  The problem with the CP is that they are a comedy fan.  They love it, they just don’t know how to create it so they mimic what they like.  The most damaging problem is that CP’s bring out people.  They are the funny one of their friends, they’re constantly told they should get onstage – and bars that are more concerned with drinks sold and butts in seats overlook the poor quality of their act.  Correcting their behavior has to be done delicately.

 “Obviously this person has to be publicly humiliated as an unimaginative hack.”  No.  As a performer, this type of person IS your audience.  Polarizing them, publicly humiliating them, does nothing but turn them against you (or your room / club).  Their friends will take their side, because that’s what friends do.  Then you have a group of people who are upset with your room / club AND they may even insist to the CP that you were wrong and that they must continue.  An axiom of the hospitality industry is if one person leaves unhappy, you lose 16 potential customers.

Solution:  Take the CP aside privately, and encourage their… something.  Mic control, presence, timing – maybe there was something original in their act.  As someone they’ve seen onstage, who praises them, your encouragement will mean alot and they’ll be more willing to listen to what else you have to say.  Kindly suggest if they intend to continue that they should make sure their act is original and not a ‘tribute’ to someone else or include jokes they’ve read on the internet (depending on their crimes).  Take time to work with them if that’s what it takes.  An exposure to the craft should help show them what is truly involved, hopefully garnering them a greater respect for the stage time and the work of comedians.  This method keeps the CP in your community, as well as their friend network, growing your audience.  It’s best to remember they are a comedy fan, they just don’t know how it works.

Danger:  The CP may not change his ways, you’ll need to keep an eye on them if they perform at other rooms.  It is only after they’ve obviously disregarded any advice and continue stealing material / doing street jokes, that you may wish to approach people who run other rooms and warn them about the CP.  A community working together can help stop this behaviour.  A booker that  that’s more concerned with butts in seats then quality could find a CP an attractive act.  In that case, it’s up to the community to say no.  Refuse to perform on a show that includes the joke thief.  Some people will cave for the stage time, even if you explain to them why BUT with enough good acts staying away, the booker’s show quality will fall, with that the attendance and the money.  That will get the booker (or his boss)’s attention.

mouse thief

Subconcious Stealer

Who:  Usually the Subconscious Stealer (SS) is a member of the community who may unintentionally lift themes, voices or unusual word choices from the other acts they see in the community.  Their social life may revolve around shows, they go to them often, even when not on.  They pay attention to all the acts and laugh even at jokes they’ve seen many times before.  They love the scene.  They tend to be strong performers (similar to, but not as strong as the Performing Sponge, below), if not gifted at writing, the know how to sell a joke.

Many mid-sized cities develop a comedy ‘flavour’.  The acts that do well, get booked more often, and become the acts to emulate.  Audiences become educated that the style of the often booked act is how comedy should be, and reward other acts of that style with laughter and applause.  Comedians checking their setlist for jokes that hit will then trim the jokes of the style that didn’t… reinforcing that city’s flavour.

Problem:  Some writers like to use unusual words, a different phrasing, cadence or persona to set themselves apart.  If other acts start using that phrasing, cadence, persona or vocabulary – it’s no longer special, no longer unique – and it muddies the water about who the audience may think did it first.  Truthfully, most audience members don’t care who did a joke first as long as they laugh.

Solution:  Again, quietly approach the performer and have a polite conversation.  Ask them if they think they’ve any similarities between your phrasing / character / cadence and the one they use in a certain joke.  It’s best to have back up (either recorded proof or a single normally neutral person as you don’t want to appear to be ganging up on the SS) as a witness to say “yeah, that is a lot like…”  Try to let them see that stylistically they’ve drifted towards you and encourage them to be more themselves.  Most, if it presented to them as a non-attack, may realize your point.  Worst case, they may accuse you of drifting stylistically towards them.

Danger:  It’s possible the SS does perform your material better.  The fact they camp on the scene means more people may have seen your style from them first.  Some SS may be better networked than you, with more industry friends – making them feel like they’ve stolen from you could blacken your name.  Many of the higher echelon comedians who are accused of stealing their acts (more than just a couple of jokes) have found greater success then those that they’ve allegedly stolen from.  Many have successful careers as actors.  Sometimes the solution may only be to ask to write for the SS, you are still working in the industry and you’ll be able to use their connections to further your next career move.

“Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes. Keep this in mind; it may offer a way to make him your friend. If not, you can kill him without hate — and quickly.” Lazurus Long (Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYwaWvN5kMo&w=560&h=315]

 Victim of Success

Who:  A rising star, someone who may be a ten year overnight success.  An act who has achieved a growth in success and now is feeling pressure to follow it up.  I touched on the concept of ‘Second Album Syndrome‘ in a previous article.  Their goal is to further grow their career, or at least maintain the new lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed too.  If they realize they’re stealing another comic’s material they can justify it to themselves by saying they’ve worked hard, gave others a hand, were stolen from and deserve their success.  Now they have bills to pay, and they must be paid rather than slide down the socioeconomic ladder.

Problem:  This act is now a goldenboy, they’ve been accepted and praised by the masses.  They spent 10 years developing an act that has now exploded and garnered them a lot of success.  Their problem is, now, they have to develop another act (as good as or better than the act they took 10 years to build) in less than 12 months, or lose any momentum they may have gained.

The VoS may not even realize they’re doing it, in that way, they share some traits with the SS.  Now that they really have to push themselves to create material they may find themselves drawing concepts from deep memories, unknowingly, of acts they saw years ago.  Or they could be douchebags with a cocaine habit that they need to feed and judge the risk of stealing some unknown’s material with the fear of not having a solid second album (or DVD).

Solution:  The solution is fairly similar to the solution for the SS.  Talk with them quietly.  It’s very important you have proof of ownership of your material.  Many comedy celebrities have a posse – a team of friends they count on, either to help develop material or write it for them.  It’s possible the material you think was ripped off was actually ripped off by a writer and passed on to the unknowing VoS.  Usually some arrangement can be reached, and if necessary (and you have solid proof of when you created your material and where they VoS saw it), you may want to think about pursuing legal action if your material was tantamount to their success.  Usually it doesn’t have to go that far (as long as no public humiliation has happened).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xP-m4tE4ys&w=560&h=315]

If there is someone who’s gained a reputation for stealing material, make sure they don’t see yours.  Stories abound about how comedians would drop off shows if they heard Robin Williams was in the room – just because they feared he’d steal their material.

Danger:  The danger to your career, is evident.  If you’re a lower echelon comedian entering a flame war with a rising or established star it may damage your career chances  even if you have documentation to point to.  If you’re an upper echelon comic with a new star using some of your old material, it may be seen as sour grapes to attack their use of your material / concepts – like you can’t handle seeing someone else succeed or do what you did but better.  Comedians must remember that average audience members don’t care who wrote something, just who made them laugh.  Without documented proof, you’re a crackpot.  You’ll upset those that are currently working on projects with the VoS – burning bridges.  You risk coming across as whiney and you’re inviting others to come in and examine every joke / performance you’ve done.

line 2 Cutting Edge Hack

Who:  The Cutting Edge Hack (CEH) may be the most oblivious of joke thieves.  Habits include having a notebook, paying attention at shows and being excited by good ideas.  They tend to sidle up to performers they respect often exclaiming how well written a piece is.  They rarely give ‘tags’ to their friends.

Problem:  Most all of us can agree on what hack is.  But how does something become hack?  I’m sure someone somewhere wrote a very funny joke about airline food – and then a lot of other people made similar observations.  Now the idea of airline food is a joke.  Well the Cutting Edge Hack is similar to the person who wrote the 2nd joke about airline food.  They like to spot ‘trends’ in comedy, so they can appear hip and have jokes about the same subjects that their idol / friends do.  They don’t see this as stealing, they’re just using a tired premise – yours.  They’ll see an idea that another comic does, and then put their spin on it.  They may be good writers, but just not good creators.  Maybe they’re lazy, or maybe they don’t have much world experience – so they live vicariously though the jokes of others.

Solution:  If this happens, speak to them quietly.  Most likely they don’t see borrowing a concept as stealing.  The best solution I can think of is building a community.  Where comedians will write together often, where comics give tags to each other when they think of them.  In that kind of atmosphere it’s easier to educate newer comics to the sense of propriety and that working together you get stronger.  By thinking of tags for other comics you will learn to write for other’s voices, a good skill to have if your career goals include becoming a writer.

Danger:  Handle it wrong and you will gain the resentment of someone who thinks you’re jealous.  They may even think you’re version of the joke is hack – something they’ve improved on.  That you can’t handle better they can write your joke (which is now theirs).  You’re just trying to keep them down and can’t handle their success.

line 1 Performing Sponge

Who:  The Performing Sponge (PS) is a fantastic performer, with great presence, an affinity for mimicry and is able to sell sea water to a drowning man.  Everything they experience and see they can bring to the stage.

Problem:  Everything they experience and see, they can bring to the stage – including acts they’ve gleaned.  Sometimes it’s subconscious, most I’ve encountered have theatre training, which compliments their gifts and help refined them.  In theatre you’re handed a script to interpret.  You develop improv skills so you may act or speak as your character without the need to formulate what comes out.  If they hear an idea – they see it as fair game.  It’s not the idea (script) that is important but the interpretation, on which they put their stamp on.

Solution:  Again it comes down to a quiet, private chat.  This form of thief shares much with the SS, VoS and CEH.  They may have respect for the acting craft but may not realize that stand-up comedy is a separate discipline with it’s own set of rules.  Most people serious about theatre will respect that when pointed out.  With this sort of joke thief, respect goes a long way.  They have skills you can recognize, and indirectly by sampling your material, the show they respect skills you have.  It is in both of yours best interest to educate each other and come to an amicable solution.

Danger:  The danger comes is the PS refuses to recognize the rules of material ownership in comedy and decides to continue doing material about whatever they come across, including other people’s jokes (premises, set-ups or even word for word).  These types of acts can be very popular, asking bars not to book them, or other acts to refuse to be on shows with them may be hard – but if they borrow from all they work with, it will get easier.

Hopefully we can better understand the motivations of the joke thief, to recognize them sooner and deal with them effectively.  Summarizing what is above:

  • Approach them privately and quietly (not publicly or via rumour)
  • Assume it was done innocently.  Remember, parallel thought can and does happen
  • Have proof that is easy to point to, be open to the thought they may have been first
  • Do it as soon as you can, the longer they do another’s joke the more they’ll feel it’s their own.
  • Try to build a rapport, mentor them on stand-up writing etiquette

These things will help build and strengthen a community, and that will make all comedy communities stronger.  What you must remember is, that someone may steal a joke from you, but they don’t steal your ability to write better jokes.

Yours,
Ash

 

How To Stand-up Comedy Contest (part III)

Kick Ash November 2009 CJ WaterhouseIn this, part three about stand-up comedy contests, I’ll explain how I run my monthly comedy competition, Kick Ashiest, as part of the weekly open mic The Kick Ash Comedy Show.  Again I’ll be explaining the reasons for the choices I make. The Kick Ash Comedy Show is a weekly open mic starting 9pm every Tuesday in Andrews Pub, located at 1239 Guy, Montreal, Canada.  Acts either get asked to perform by me, or book with me by sending a message to the Kick Ash facebook fanpage. The monthly competition is Kick Ashiest, a play on the show’s name, which is a play on my name.

KAshiestFKick Ashiest

Kick Ashiest (Kick Ash’s monthly competition) runs every 5th week.  From the previous 4 King of the Mountain shows I pick my favorite two performers each week.  I occasionally ask for feedback from friends who attend the show but generally I try to take note of those that make a special connection with the audience.  It’s my choice, but hey, it’s my name on the show.  I never tell anyone that they are auditioning for me, and I’ve not corrected anyone who thinks the audience vote for King of the Mountain selects the Kick Ashiest participants (well, until now).

The goals of this competition are:
1) to show my confidence in new acts
2) to put together the best show of the month, and let people know it is the best of the month.

How it works

The show is set up with a host (most often me), an opening act, followed by those in the competition (in a predetermined, random order) and ending with a closing act while scores are tabulated.  The show ends with me naming and awarding the cash prize to the winner.

Expert Judges

Expert Judges

Scoring works on two points.  An audience vote and judges.  Yep, judges.  Most comedians who dislike ‘contests’ top three peeves are: judges, judges and vomit on their shoes.

“I’m a comic’s comic.”
“Judges don’t understand the craft.”
“Comedy is subjective, if they don’t like what I do – how can I win?”

What many comedians forget, is that every time we go onstage we’re judged.  Every joke we tell, audience members judge, if they like the joke, they laugh.  If they don’t, we get silence.  Selecting two specific people to be judges doesn’t change that, it just makes it two specific people.  That said, I ask certain people to be judges.  People I know, or who are recommended to me, as involved in the arts or even specifically comedy.  I’ve had pro comics, comedy bloggers, news host, burlesque performers and musicians all work as judges.

Judges judge on two attributes:
1) Material: how well written are the jokes?  How original and unique a take does the performer have?  Does the material flow from one subject to the other in a seamless fashion?
2) Stagecraft: how comfortable is the performer onstage?  Do they interact well with the audience, are they natural onstage or awkward?  Do they know how to use a microphone?  How professional do they seem, have they taken notes onstage?

Each attribute is scored out of 5, each judge adds the totals for each performer together for a potential of 10.  The two judges’ scores are added together for a total out of 20.

Audience vote:
The audience, via ballot, vote for their two favorite acts.  The reason behind voting for two was covered in Part II of this article.  As the closing act performs, I quickly tabulate the audience votes. Bonus points are added to the judges’ scores:
most votes: +5
second most: +4
third most: +3

So, if someone so wows the judges to get a perfect score, as well as wows the audience to get the most votes – the highest score attainable is 25.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen.

Tuesday 9pm at Andrews Pub

Tuesday 9pm at Andrews Pub

Why?

I chose the acts, because I like the acts.  I get to see the show I want to see.  I show confidence in the acts I like.  I want them to know I believe in them.

There are two judges, to account for differing tastes in comedy.  Just like every audience member, each judge will view each competitor based on their own merits.

Audience bonus points enter an element of wild card.  If someone can bring the entire audience behind them, they have a better chance of winning.

Added to the show are an opening act and a closing act.  The opening act prevents anyone from feeling like they are first up.  The closing act gives us time to tabulate the scores so we can award the winner the prize.

Did we say prize?  Maybe this is people’s why; $50!  Yep, living the dream.

The Kick Ash Comedy Show is every Tuesday, at Andrews Pub, 1239 Guy in Montreal.  Show time is 9pm sharp, doors open at 11am.

How To Stand-up Comedy Contest (part II)

Tuesday 9pm at Andrews Pub

Tuesday 9pm at Andrews Pub

In this, part two about stand-up comedy contests, I’ll explain how I run one of the two different competitions which are part of  The Kick Ash Comedy Show.  I’ll also explain the reasons for the choices I make.

The Kick Ash Comedy Show is a weekly open mic starting 9pm every Tuesday in Andrews Pub, located at 1239 Guy, Montreal, Canada.  Acts either get asked to perform by me, or book by sending a message to the Kick Ash facebook fanpage.

The two competitions are Kick Ashiest and the subject of this article, The King of the Mountain.

King of the MountainKing of the Mountain

King of the Mountain runs each week that isn’t the Kick Ashiest (the show’s monthly competition).  In a nutshell, the audience votes for the favorite two acts to come back the following week to act as host and closer (and earn a little cash).  This competition started because I was beginning to feel host burnout.  Each week, with the same regulars I found it hard to keep it fresh 52 times a year.  Rather the continually asking others to host a show with my name on it I turned it into a competition. Occasionally winners selected cannot perform the following week so I step in to fill their role and I act as the defacto replacement guy.  Also, I sometimes schedule myself a spot and get voted in as a King of the Mountain too.

The two primary goals of this competition are:
1) to have acts advertise to their networks (friends, family and fans), raising awareness of the show brand, getting a few more butts in seats.
2) have the winners feel recognized, and given a chance for advancement.
3) encourage audience members to remember the names of performers they like

A game of king of the hill in progress

a group of 3rd graders enjoying a game of king of the hill

The competition’s name comes from two sources., the city of Montreal’s name and a sadistic kids game.  Montreal is a contraction from French “Mont Royale” or “Royal Mountain”, the city’s most prominent landmark (next to Chez Paris Gentlemen’s Club).  King of the hill, for people who grew up with protective parents, is a “game” where children would pick a high spot (such as a hill or the top of the monkey bars) and whoever  held that spot at the end or the longest, by pushing down and tripping their competition, was the king.  (Losers could be identified by needing to wear hockey equipment and eating via straws).  By combining those two things we have King of the Mountain.  Every performer who goes onstage is eligible, including those who won the week before – so it is possible to build a streak.  King of the Mountain thus refers to comedy king of Montreal.

How It Works

Every nonperforming member of the audience receives a ballot through the show. (Other comics are encouraged to come support their friends).  The host is tasked with reminding the audience about the competition throughout the show and the names of those competing.  On each ballot, the audience members are asked to write down their favorite two acts, the order doesn’t matter, the spelling doesn’t matter – but it has to be two.  After the show, I collect the ballots, and within the next few days contact the two acts that received the top most amount of votes.  They have the option of returning the following week for a paid spot, either as host or to close the show.

Strengths

Why do I run it this way?  Having an open ballot encourages the performers to bring out people to the show, more friends = more votes (unless your friends don’t vote for you because the all secretly hate you).  Choosing a second performer means they’ll have to honestly pick someone alongside their friend.  A written ballot is hidden, so there is no public “clap off” or humiliation to the acts.

 Weaknesses

vote-ballot-boxThe main weaknesses to this format are related to the ballots.
1) Ballot stuffing has occurred, but generally has been easy to recognize when one person has dropped in a number of extra ballots.
2) Booking two comedians who share a social circle, is a little dangerous.  If their friends decide to preselect who’ll they’ll vote for and not judge it on the performances they see that night – it’s a bit dishonest and unfair.
3) A comic could potentially suggest to his friends to use their second vote on the worst act of the night.  To my knowledge, this has never happened, and would be hard to co-ordinate to have a large enough impact.
4) Trust.  I’m the sole person counting votes.  If people don’t trust me to be fair and honest, then why participate?

Impact On The Show

Currently, I would say this format has been a positive impact on the show.  Generally new performers are more excited to perform, audiences have seen an elevated level of quality from the comedians, so word of mouth advertising has increased.  Newer performers who win are given the opportunity to stretch themselves by closing the show or hosting for the first time.

Most of all, people are paying attention to who’s had the longest streak.  The current streak record is 4 shows…  Who’s going to beat that?

Yours,
Ash

How to Stand-up Comedy Contest

Ask Ash: What’s the best way to run a comedy contest that everyone will agree is fair and balanced?

Judges small

Quick Answer: It’s impossible.

Now for the long answer… (Part I of II)

2011 Montreal Contest

2011 Montreal Contest

A lot of performers hate comedy contests; “they’re unfair”, “they’re rigged”, “it’s a popularity contest”, “they’re judged by people who know nothing about the craft of comedy”, “it’s an artistic medium, so personal taste is being judged – not skill”, “the zombies are attacking”, “I never win”…  many many complaints.

It’s good to recognize comedy contests for what most of them are; publicity opportunities.  Most contests can be divided into two types: regular advancement ritual, or one-off awareness event.  Both of these types of contests are attempting to raise awareness of not only their brand (club, festival or charity) but also for the performers involved.

Many working pros today list amoung their credits appearances at Seattle International Comedy Competition, The Great Canadian Laugh Off, San Francisco Comedy Competition, Just For Laughs Homegrown Competition and Last Comic Standing – it’s a way to elevate and legitimize your work.  These major contests draw press as well as industry scouts and usually have someone to manage press interactions, arrange interviews and make sure that information is going out – not only to advertise their event but to help promote those performing (and doing well).

Regular advancement rituals usually (but not always) are limited to local comedy clubs, and open mics.  Generally, new comics (or long time open miccers) are given the chance to strut their stuff in an effort to move up to guest spots, pro gigs, weekend work and a small bit of cash.  Yuk Yuks’ Great Canadian Laugh Off final week is open to international acts but the contest runs months prior in their clubs around the country with finalists from various cities coming together to compete in the semi-finals and a chance to make it onto the finale ‘winner take all’ show.  Winners are presented with a contract, cash and a chance to tour the country.  That’s way cooler than going into your boss’s office for a performance review.

One-off awareness events tend to be either fundraisers, part of an awareness campaign or on the business side, a bit of a cash grab.  When an organization wants to raise funds for a project or charity BUT can’t afford a single large name comic (or can afford only a single comic of status) they sometimes decide to fill the night with up and comers / open miccers who’ll work for free (or the chance winning a prize).  This benefits the organization in keeping their costs / outlay down, and it benefits the comedians in a chance to be seen by an audience that may not typically go out to open mic shows, and for the winner – a small press bump or at least a credit to assist them getting bit of paid work.  Even when a smart business savvy person (or organization) decides to run such an event in an effort to earn personal cash, they have to arrange press, sponsors and raise the profile of the event to make it worthwhile for the comedians to come out.

Annual competitions like Just For Laughs Homegrown or the Seattle Comedy Competition draw performers from around the world who compete mainly for the bragging rights – pitting themselves against the best who are selected to perform. The three things to remember with both of these types of contests is judging is subjective, no one forces you to participate and like any opportunity, it’s only as good for you as you make it. When you are part of a contest it’s important to take advantage of any resources they give you.

  • Volunteer for press access.
  • Make sure you have a package ready for interested parties (the more upscale the competition, the more you should put into your package).  For small competitions, usually a business card is okay.  For international competitions with representatives from prouduction companies, networks and agencies present, have a DVD show reel, resume, headshot and a spec script(s) (both printed and pdf) prepared to hand out.
  • Work your offstage skills, showing that you’re good at handling self promotion and are an asset to the competition (and any future bookers)

Part II will focus on how I run two small competitions at my little open mic in Montreal

Yours, Ash

 

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.