Blaming the Audience

Dying on stage hurts. There is a cultish and irrational claim by some comics that “it’s never the audience” “don’t blame the audience.” And as frustrating as it is, they’re right. There are audiences populated exclusively by confused tourists who don’t understand English, or jaded and self absorbed comedians who seem to only look up from their own notebook when it’s their turn on stage. But honestly…even in those situations you can’t blame the audience. You can’t blame the audience, because if you do, you won’t get any better.

I experienced a similar mindset with canvassing for political campaigns. I was told, and I drilled into my staff “turf doesn’t matter” “don’t blame the turf.”  Never blame the geographic location to which you were assigned. There is a way to meet your goals, because where there is a will there is a way. We believed this not because it’s true, but because there is no alternative. If you can blame turf, or the audience, or what kind of socks you wore-you will. You will do anything to combat the scarier proposition that you need to be better, funnier, possibly more talented.

I played a room with only three comics in the “audience,” I died. I was shocked by the silence and I panicked. I had to ask another comic to bring me my notebook because I blanked after four minutes of a generous ten minute set. It was absolutely a shitty room and I could have blamed my performance on the audience, and for a few minutes I did. Except then another comic went on stage, and had most of us chuckling the whole time. He made his own energy and it was just too damned infectious to ignore. His name is Mark Buenning and he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he made magic happen. That was pretty inspiring.

Make Magic Happen

“Each indecision brings its own delays and days are lost lamenting over lost days. . . . What you can do or think you can do, begin it. For boldness has magic, power, and genius in it.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Dying on stage is always hard, I almost always want to eat ice cream and then throw up. Blaming the audience can take a little bit of the sting out of it. But you have to believe you can do well under any circumstances and then work to make that belief true. You can’t control the MC, or whether the mic works, or the age/race/first language of the audience. You can only control what you bring on stage. So, what went wrong? Something fixable went wrong and I better figure out to fix it or I should get the hell out of the way.

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One Response to Blaming the Audience

  1. I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I completely agree with you that you can, through sheer willpower, exuberant energy and self-confidence, change the energy in a room and make an audience want to come along with you.

    And, I’m also reminded of the year when my wife worked canvassing neighborhoods for donations for clean air & water. They gave her a neighborhood that was practically The Projects one night and she still met her quota — and did so by talking to the people who opened their doors to her as a person who fully believed in the need to do what she was doing to protect the planet for the children who were staring at this strange, impassioned white lady in their doorway. My wife believed enough to make the parents believe enough to give some of what little money they had to The Cause.

    Back when my wife and I were doing Arts and Craft shows I read a letter to the editor of the magazine of A&C shows who said much the same thing: “If a show is bad, I never blame the crowd, I always look at my booth to see what I can do differently to be more attractive to them!” (paraphrasing, of course)

    This attitude infuriated me.

    This was because there were shows when it simply didn’t matter what we were selling. It didn’t matter what our prices were, it didn’t matter where our booth was located or what our displays looked like. Some shows were golden, other were deadly. We weren’t doing anything different. It was the crowd that was different and raising/dropping prices didn’t matter one wit to them. (We experimented.)

    When we were doing shows I frequently blamed the show organizers. They were making their money on booth entry fees (and perhaps public entry fees) and had a minimal interest in the quality of the public who came out to see their shows. If show organizers did a minimal and/or otherwise lousy job of advertising their show, the only ones who suffered were the artists.

    As artists, we did shows where we became The Boardwalk for small towns for a weekend. The crowd walked by, window shopping, talking to each other and avoiding any artist who either spoke to them or even tried to make eye contact. Yeah, I blame the organizers there. (I also gave those shows bad reviews to try and keep other artists from suffering the same fate.)

    Is there a difference in these two types of crowds? Probably. A member of your audience has already paid a cover charge and knows they’re going to have to pay for two drinks on top of that for the privilege of sitting in the club. They’ve already accepted that cost in trade for the anticipation of entertainment.

    Someone walking down the street, looking at booth after booth of art/craft items has a very different mindset, I think. Window shopping is a more private experience, one where they decide the personal value of an object and they frequently don’t want any perceived hard sell accompanying it.

    “You can only control what you bring on stage.”

    My wife has a saying: “Doing shows is a lot like fishing. You don’t know what’s running and you don’t know what bait to bring.”

    — Tom

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