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In stand-up comedy (or public speaking), you have to learn how to read your audience. Which follows from knowing your audience, something I didn't bother to do which I'll get to.
Billy Farley once addressed Cantu's class and said, "I don't like blue material. I normally don't do blue material. But there are times when I realize, they don't want my thoughtful material. They want smut. So I give them smut. I'm not proud of it. But I'm being paid to entertain, and if that's what the audience wants, I give it to them."
Free Inquiry Magazine/Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism asked me to put on a comedy show in Boston for their national convention. I called the top comedy club - my Holy City Zoo background gave me both chutzpah and credentials - and arranged to rent the club from 7 to 8:30, before their main show. I insisted on being the emcee because I wanted control of how the show ran (and I'm talking about dealing with both the performers and the audience). I asked them to find me two local performers, a headliner and a middle act.
Here's the difference in experience. I briefed the two comics. I told them, "This is an older [average age around 55?] crowd, very well educated, very intelligent, who are attending what is essentially a philosophy convention which is essentially focusing on atheism, they are free-thinkers and incredibly liberal. Keep that in mind."
I had a very good opening set, because I knew the audience. I talked about people in the audience everyone knew, who had positions of power, and made fun of them, which meant I was falling back on the time-honored easy material of working a roast.
The middle act got up and began with a five-minute bit (which is relatively long for a middle-act to do) which was again, a one-joke premise. It's whole concept was the singing, stringing together of current, popular rock songs.
This to a group of 55-year olds. After I had laid out a roadmap of his best options. And the more he bombed, the more he thought, "They haven't got the joke yet... if I do another, they'll get the connection."
He bombed. He had interesting material, but never could recover from a five-minute bit of sludge. He got off and said, "I thought you said they were intelligent... these people are idiots."
Again, this was Boston, where there just might be a high degree of Irish Catholics. I had used my best material, and didn't have a lot to try to work the crowd back after this guy's debacle, plus there wasn't time, so I maybe tried a few jokes and then brought up the headliner.
He said nothing. He took a long drag on a cigarette, blew out the smoke, looked at the cigarette, pursed his lips, thought, and then drawled, "So... how ya doin', you godless bastards!"
I believe he meant it - he, being Irish Catholic, thought they were godless bastards. But he saw my mockery of them, figured I was right about them being free-thinking and irreverent and liberal, and saw the show was floundering, so he spiced it up.
The crowd burst out laughing, and he had them in his hand. He killed. It was probably one of the most successful sets in his life, to a crowd he felt antipathy towards. But he pulled out intellectual references you don't normally get to use in a normal comedy club, and knew that anything with thought and humor he threw out would get laughter. So he did thank me at the end of the night and told me to keep him in mind for future gigs. Which, if you've ever produced a show and all the madness that goes with it, is a nice return on your... pain.
The story of how I screwed up twice in not finding out about my audience - something I should have known not to do - and then ineffectually reading them, will come some other time.