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Anytime you get a gig - especially a non-comedy club gig, that is, one that is not open to the general public - you are insane if you do not dredge up every scrap of information, to the degree of paranoia, that you can get about that gig.
I once failed miserably, despite my experience, and it was a result of my failure to do the job I was supposed to do because I forgot that if you're a public speaker/performer who strives to accomplish something, every gig has responsibility.
I had been performing at and bringing down other performers to an AIDS ward at a hospital. There might be seven, on average, each night, who could get out of bed; maybe 2 of them weren't suffering from dementia to the degree that they could pay attention for more than 5 seconds. No big deal; at least they didn't heckle.
I hate hecklers. Hecklers are people who can't plan, write or do anything except respond to the most basic stimulus. (At the Holy City Zoo one night, Barry Sobel was on stage, and a heckler-by-choice strode into the club and listened for about a nanosecond to hear Sobel say, "I was riding MUNI" and the heckler screamed, "MUNI! Yeah! Well I have a Fast Pass!" It's pitiful to think that his synapses were all a-firing and that's the best he could come up with. I threw him out of the club.)
The woman at the AIDS ward asked me to perform and bring other performers down to an AIDS hospice, explaining that "Their dementia won't be as pronounced." My mistake - my hubris - was that I looked upon it as another throw-away gig. Don't ever do that. If you do not respect your audience enough to know about them, don't do the gig.
I had a three minute bit about religion, and my lack thereof. One of my dearest friends, my fundamentalist liberal minister friend (who is one of the sole real Christians I've ever met), accused me of "mocking God." I wrote back, "You betcha. He's omnipotent; I'm guessing He can take it. Or do you think He's getting too old for frontal assaults?"
So at the hospice, I did my bit:
I asked the audience, "What are some of the miracles in the Bible?" and then I'd answer, saying, "The loaves and fishes, parting of the Red Sea, turning water into wine" etc. I'd then comment, "Do you realize that the special effects in the "Starwars" series are better than those in the Bible? George Lucas has more imagination than God!"
And even though you were destined for sainthood, wouldn't it make you just a little bit nervous to be invited to... The Last Supper? It's rather ominous and disconcerting, and I think it might just spoil your appetite. And then Jesus said, "One of you here tonight will betray me, and I will be killed." All the Apostles asked, "Is it me, Lord? Am I the one to betray you and get you killed?" Which, by the way, was the origin of those trendy dinner murder mysteries we have today.
And then you have the 10 Commandments. Do you realize that the only reason we have TEN commandments is because... that's how many fingers we have! God is decimal! If we only had three fingers on each hand, adultery would be okay!" [The commandment against adultery is the 7th.]
And what about those 10 Commandments? The ones like, "Thou shalt not have any god before me." Hey, God, no problem... I'm an atheist. I don't even have you before you. And "honor thy father and thy mother." Easy for God to say! He didn't have parents! And "Thou shalt not kill." Ironic words from the God who made all humans mortal."
While I was doing this bit, I noticed the women who ran the hospice were fidgeting. This is clue number one that something is wrong. I thought, "I'm not swearing, I think I'm being intelligent or at least clever, but something is wrong here and I don't know what it is." I switched to my Thor Heyerdahl material. In that, I only attacked literature and MUNI.
The next day, I called the woman at the hospital and told her what my paranoia had perceived had happened stemming from what I had said, and just washing my hands clean as comedians tend to do. She said - screamed - "You said that! Didn't you know that the hospice is run by the Catholic Church, and all the women working there were nuns?!"
No matter that it was a non-paying, onerous gig - I should have checked. Never go before an audience, be it comedy, business, pot-luck party, if you plan on speaking, and not know who you might offend. You might want to offend the people there - been there, done that, proud of it - but there was no place for me invading a hospice of those, despite the fact I disagree with their philosophy? religion? outlook? - who are doing more than I am to help. But even that is wrong. You don't walk into someone's house and insult their decor. It just ain't right.
I want to reiterate Stevens important observation: Never go before an audience . . . and not know who you might offend. Re-read his astute words of wisdom gleaned from real-world experience.
Also, his 'You don't walk into someone's house and insult their decor. It just ain't right' reminded me of a comedian who told me he once had a man his audience wearing yarmulke. The comic thought himself a comic genius when he recited "I'm a little teapot short and stout." And then reached and lifted the man's yarmulke as if it were the teapot cover.
I was absolutely appalled.
Stevens says 'You don't walk into someone's house and insult their decor.' Cantu says, 'You also don't walk up to a stranger in pubic and mock their apparel. It just isn't right.'
One final note that I have mentioned several times before, You should look outside the comedy clubs for performing opportunities. You can get too insular just performing to comedy club habitues, drunks, and other comics. Broaden your horizons, and expand your market options.
Some Words of Wisdom from Steve Allen
I had recently run across something by Steve Allen that I had marked for future publication. I offer it here as a tribute and as memorial. Edited somewhat for space purposes.
Allen made note of the critical difference between rehearsing your speech and rehearsing your mouth. He says, "The difference is partly psychological, since obviously--it will eventually be your mouth that will give voice to your speech. But before your mouth can do a good job of that it will have to be better than it probably is at present at the basic human act of speaking. On the lecture platform you won't be able to get away with the sort of bad habits that, being human--and being American--you have almost certainly fallen into.
It may occur to you that if you intend to do nothing at the lectern but read your speech your slovenly habits, if any, in daily conversation have no relevance. Forget that; they do. The reason is that even if you are a natural-born speech reader, you will inevitably have to do a certain amount of unplanned speaking, once introduced, in addition to whatever you might have planned or put on paper.
Circumstances always alter cases, and since it is inevitable that you will have to do some ad-libbing you might as well make this portion of your total address conform to the more formal part of it.
Here's an exercise I developed when I was twenty-one and first working in radio, in Phoenix, Arizona. There was no problem in reading commercials or other scripted materials, but even then, as a lowly local radio announcer, I had to do a certain amount of ad-libbing, even if it was just identifying the station, giving the correct time, suggesting that listeners stay tuned for the following program, and so on.
And there were occasional assignments - sports events, parades, interviews - where scripts were not provided. The solution was to use my car as a rehearsal studio. As I drove about the city I would simply give a "play-by-play" description of whatever I was watching. It sounded something; like this:
"Here we are again, folks, as I continue my description of the things and people and places I see as I drive around good old Phoenix, Arizona. It's slightly rainy out this morning, which is pretty unusual for this time of year and - come to think of it - for this part of the country, which is essentially desert, as you know. But in any event I now see, as I pass the corner of Fourth and Jefferson, two elderly women about to cross the street, waiting for the light to change. One of them is walking a small poodle. At least, I think it's a poodle, although I'm not sure it's pure-blooded. On my right now as I proceed along I see a hardware store, a bakery shop, and a place that sells Indian turquoise jewelry."
As you can see, there was nothing the least bit noteworthy about what I was saying. However, it was providing invaluable practice at communicating the impressions made upon me.
You may choose to emulate my example by using your automobile as a private rehearsal studio, but there is no reason to limit yourself to that physical context. You can perform the same sort of simple exercise almost anywhere you find yourself. The next time you're at home alone, for example, make the "play-by-play" experiment by simply describing to an imaginary audience what you are doing or experiencing at the moment. A sample monologue might go as follows:
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm broadcasting to you from my house here at 314 West Simpson Street, and my purpose at the moment is just to tell you what is going on here in my kitchen. It's not the most fascinating thing in the world, I guess, but you might find it of moderate interest.
"For example, in the background you might be able to detect the sound of our washing machine, inasmuch as my wife put a load in about fifteen minutes ago and I'm just hanging around at the moment waiting to turn the machine off for her, since she had to go visit her mother.
"I'm also making my own breakfast just now, which consists of corn flakes with a little skimmed milk, a sliced banana, and honey instead of white sugar. Both my wife and I are, if not actually health food nuts, at least people who eat a sensible and well-balanced diet.
"At the moment I'm looking at our kitchen window, because I've noticed that a couple of birds have settled on the sill. I don't know what kind they are - sparrows, perhaps - but every year at this time they seem to be fairly common here in the neighborhood."
That's more than enough to give you the idea. Don't be in the least concerned with making your account dramatic or "interesting." At this stage of your development as a public speaker, the purpose of the exercise is not to thrill or fascinate an audience (there is none) but simply to keep your own mouth working in as intelligible and coherent a manner as possible.
Don't be put off by the fact that when you first start this sort of exercise you "feel dumb." Of course you do; there is an inherently absurd element to the business of speaking aloud in an empty room. But that element is not of the slightest importance in the context of your purpose. Needless to say, if during the simple description of what you're seeing in your immediate environment you also happen to have a profound thought or two - include it in your remarks. But nothing of the sort is at all necessary.
"If you're not sure about the bias and emotions of your audience, just listen to its responses. While making a campaign speech, a candidate for political office sought to discover the denominational sympathies of his audience.
"'My great-grandfather," he began, "was an Episcopalian (stony silence), but my great-grandmother belonged to the Congregational Church (continued silence). My grandfather was a Baptist (more silence), while my grandmother was a Presbyterian (still frigid silence). But I had a great-aunt who was a Methodist (loud applause). And I have always followed my great-aunt (loud and continued cheering.)" He was elected.
The point is a simple one: On most occasions it will be to your advantage to know how your audience feels about the subject you may be speaking on. Obviously, this won't apply if you're speaking to the Garden Club on the care and feeding of rhododendrons. But if your subject matter has even a hint of controversy about it, you would do well to know, if only so that you are braced for it, what the audience's reaction might be. You need not ingratiate yourself with them if that is not your purpose, but you should know where you stand.
Excerpted from "How To Make A Speech" by Steve Allen Published by McGraw Hill (1986)