You Know WHAT you want... But do you have the right TOOLS to achieve it? HumorMall is dedicated to helping YOU achieve your dream.
I ran the open-mikes at the Holy City Zoo for roughly 10 months, which might seem like a short time - until you are subjected to dealing with beginning, that is, egotistical, clumsy and often-pathetic comedians and their examples of attempted humor or even worse, purported thinking-humor. Then it becomes a lifetime, encapsulated.
I can relate, because I was a beginning, egotistical, clumsy and often pathetic comedian who lucked out. I'd like to credit it to my intelligence and caution, but I think it really came down to not wanting to make a mistake until I could decisively prove Cantu wrong.
My problem was that I thought like a beginning comedian, that is, I thought spontaneity equaled art. I thought people drinking in the audience should take the time to understand me, that they should appreciate what I was offering them however sloppily and slowly I was presenting it to them - it was their job to edit my genius, not mine.
My first open-mike gig was at The Other Cafe. I had gone down two weeks prior to that to check things out, which wasn't a bad idea, since I hadn't been to a comedy club in my life. I had noticed: not one comedian went into the audience. Did I wonder why this was? No, because I was a beginning comic. I thought, "I will be brilliant and do what no other comic is doing."
I went up second-to-last at The Other. I don't remember how I justified it - I believe I made a reference to a place kitty-corner to the club and wandered out into the audience and then I picked up a mug of beer on a table and chug-a-lugged it, because I thought it would be funny - original - because nobody else did anything like that.
I had only performed for about three minutes, and they yanked me off the stage, and god bless them, in retrospect, for doing that. I called for weeks after that and The Other "could not fit" me into their schedule.
So I went to the Holy City Zoo open mike and met Cantu for the first time. He was standing with Paul Giles (Giglia) and asked, with the question he later taught me to ask all comics the first time they want to perform, "What is your experience?" I said, "I bombed at The Other Cafe three weeks ago."
Giles said, "Well, I bombed at The Other the first time I performed there, so welcome." I bombed at the Zoo. Cantu came up to me after my what might charitably be called a set and said, "I teach a class in comedy writing and one in stand-up comedy that you might be interested in" (read: you poor, pathetic bastard). It's $5 a session.
He later told me, although he denies ever saying it but I had more vested interest in remembering it, that I "was the worst comedian" he had ever seen, and there was no hope for me, and he would have kicked me out of his class to spare both of us, but he needed the $5.
In his stand-up class, he became frustrated with me (and other beginning stand-ups) because he was trying to coach us, and every week we'd come in with another five minutes (the time allotted to us in class). He'd say, "I can't judge you on your improvement if you're struggling with new material; you need to hone the material you have, find out what works and what doesn't in a bit, not just throw it away because it didn't kill."
He was trying to teach us that most performances, most stage personae, most new material, almost by necessity, are diamonds in the rough, and if you do not work on the nuts and bolts, your act won't go anywhere.
But beginning comics, as I was, do not perceive comedy as "nuts and bolts." Comedy, we felt, was "genius," "inspiration" and "if-I'm-in-your-face-it-must-be-funny." The complement to the last is, "If-it-is-absurd-(incoherent)-it-must-be-funny."
Cantu forced me to remember Mark Twain. I am always fearful of trying to quote Twain when I can't find the exact quote, because his economy of language was so perfected that a mere mortal's memory will only mess it up, but he said (something like), "When I was fourteen years old, I knew my old man was the most ignorant cuss in the world. By the time I got to be twenty-one, I was amazed how much he had learned in seven years."
"a lifetime encapsulated" Cantu notes:
There is no way to put into words, what is it like to deal with hordes of neophytes on a regular basis, all of whom want a 'good' spot, many of whom literally think their first time on stage, they will blow Jay Leno, David Letterman, or Rosie O'Donnell out of the water.
A number of comics, over the years left the 'Zoo' in a tiff, found their own venue, and starting producing an open mike. Then two, three, six months later when we'd run into each other again, they'd say, "Cantu, at the 'Zoo' I thought you were the biggest a-----e I ever met, until I tried to run an open mike. I can't believe how egotistical so damn many comics are - - - with absolutely no stage time behind them!"
And it was extra stressful at the 'Zoo' because some nights, we'd have as many as 50 comics signed up for the open-mike. Show me another club in the country, that could handle 30 open mikers in an evening, let alone 50 (with a 2 am closing time, not a 4 am caberet closing time).
"their job to edit my genius, not mine" Cantu note: Probably the number one fallacy of most beginning comics. Their over-riding thought is, "I'm funny. All my friends tell me so. If the audience doesn't get my jokes, then the audience is stupid."
"wandered out into the audience" Cantu note: The stage is a raised platform so it gives you an immediate position of focus for the audience members. When you are on stage they understand by your location that you are a comedian (something they might not be able to discern from your stage skills and material alone). The spot light is on the stage (you) adding to your stature. And the sound system is set up to enhance your voice with the assumption that you are speaking from the stage. All those elements are designed to work together to enhance your performance.
Even Robin Williams didn't go into the audience his first several months of performing. You have to learn the rules so you know how and when to break them. If you are a beloved performer, going into the audience is a sort of mingling with your fans, as it were. You give them a special treat by letting them experience being close to you, not just because no one else is dong it.
But if you are unknown, you could actually make them quite uncomfortable, because as an unknown entity, they do not know what you are going to do. They may be apprehensive about whether you are going to embarrass or humiliate them in some way.
"could not fit" Cantu note: This is the one thing I despised about other club owners. Their arbitrary judgement of what was and was not funny. As Stevens has written before, we had a simple rule for performing in our open mikes. Sign up before the cut-off time and you were guaranteed a spot - no "ands," "ifs," or "buts" about it. If you really didn't have a clue, you might not get on before 11:00 or 12:00, but you would be given your 5 minutes of stage time.
We let the only critics that mattered determine what was funny and not funny - the audience members.
"he denies ever saying it" Cantu note: I can't imagine ever saying that to a student - thinking it maybe, but saying it? No. I'll write about my philosophy on that some day in my web column, "Backstage Pass"
"Comedy, we felt was 'genius' " Cantu note: Ironically, there is a correlation to this is the world of professional speaking. The politically correct term for it is, "Speaking from the heart."
Some members of the National Speakers Association (an association I much respect and promote fervently - I am on the membership committee of my San Francisco Bay Area chapter) believe, everything will, of course, just naturally fall wondrously into place when one earnestly 'Speaks from the heart."
The unstated assumptions are that "If one speaks from the heart," then audiences will be indifferent to, or just ignore, one's lack of mike technique, inadequate voice projection, distracting mannerisms and tics, unfamiliarity with one's material . . .."