It’s funny that Tom’s column was about a disaster show (and a funny column, too). I had planned a similar theme this week, mostly inspired by my rant about professionalism last week. And while there are no clowns in my story (oh, how I wish there were!) – I’m going ahead anyway.
About a year ago, I was booked to MC a show at a hotel lounge in Hamilton. I was bringing one of the two middles down with me from Toronto. The other middle and the headliner were coming from another city. I didn’t know either of the other guys, and knew nothing about their comedy or their reps. Not that that matters, a gig’s a gig!
We arrive at the hotel and were a little dismayed at the giant, mostly empty room. Nice stage, however and it was early yet. Met the other comics, got paid by the manager and were treated to some food and drinks. Unfortunately, however, only about 10 people showed up and scattered themselves around the cavernous space. (And I’m counting the one guy at the bar who was watching the game).
As you can imagine, it was a rough one. But I tried my best to warm ‘em up and brought up the first guy from the other city. He did a hurried 7 mins, then took off without a backward glance. I did a few more minutes then brought my friend from Toronto up and wow, did he ever impress me. He totally won all 10 people (and the staff) over. He enjoyed his set and it was infectious.
While he was onstage, I leaned over to the headliner and asked him how much time he planned to do and his response was “I dunno, 5, maybe 10 minutes”. I was gobsmacked to say the least. Was he messing with me? It wasn’t my show; I was just hired by the same guy as him. But ultimately, I would be painted with the same brush as him by the audience and bar manager. They didn’t know we were strangers, as far as they were concerned we were “the show”. The booker wasn’t there, and I felt a certain responsibility that we put on the show he sold to the hotel. So I said that I was pretty sure there was an expectation of him doing at least 25-30 minutes.
After my friend finished his set, I brought up the headliner who, I shit you not, grabbed a chair from the audience, sat down and said: “I understand I’m contractually obliged to be on stage for at least 15 minutes, so you carry on what you’re doing while I wait it out”. We all thought he was kidding, this must be part of his act – he’ll surely start doing material! No, it would seem not. After a painful few minutes, my buddy jumped up with another chair and tried to “interview” the prick. His efforts to rescue the situation were met with grunts and non-answers. Two women in the audience said “tell a joke”, to which he replied, “No, you tell a joke”. He finally got off after about 13 of the most awkward moments I have ever had to witness. I tried to close the show on a decent note, told a few more jokes, but the damage was done. By the time I got off, the a-hole had scarpered.
I told this story to a good friend of mine (a comic), who actually took his side. She said that we (comics) are not responsible for promoting and booking a show, and when we arrive to a gig, we should expect there to be an audience. If there is no audience, we shouldn’t be expected to perform. I understood her point, for sure, but the fact is there WAS an audience. Only 10 people, but should they be “punished” for turning up and supporting live comedy? If I had booked a sitter for the night, paid for parking, bought my ticket into the show, I’d be damn angry if the show was cancelled, and even more angry if the booked comics threw in the towel.
Plus, we all pocketed our pay before the show. Once you do that, you not only have a moral obligation to perform as you had promised, but I suspect that you also have a legal one.
I (and I’m sure all of us) have played to many audiences large and small. While the large audiences are generally more gratifying to perform for, some of my favourite nights have been to small crowds. Yet I continue to be amazed at how many comics give up before they start in front of just a few people. It drives me crazy when they comment on the “pathetic audience” etc. They aren’t pathetic – they are awesome. It’s the comic who believes he’s wasting his time entertaining them who’s pathetic, in my opinion.
Now, off to my happy place. Have a good week, folks.