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

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

 

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