Our new series, “A Comic’s Life” focuses on life on the road, performing stand-up. Dan Perlman is a young writer and comic, who has been performing comedy full time for two years. He performs nightly in New York City, and tours around the country at festivals, clubs and colleges. Dan is writing a series of articles for “A Comic’s Life”, which chronicles some of his thoughts and stories about being a young comedian just getting started in his career. This week, he writes about working “check spots” at comedy clubs.
Starting in clubs, young comics have an uphill battle.
“Okay, this is the worst part of the show,” the host told the crowd. She was intro’ing me.
The host called it the “worst part,” not because I was coming up — at least, I hope — but because I had the “check spot.” The comedy club check spot is the second-to-last spot on a showcase, when the audience receives their checks while you’re on-stage. Check spots are where many clubs break-in new comics. During these spots, distracted, paying audience members — annoyed upon seeing just how much their night-out cost them — occasionally glance up at the comic for ten minutes, before tuning out to figure out how to divvy the check.
My first check spot went badly. I didn’t anticipate just how distracted the crowd would be. I saw the table up front and center, a large party of eight, all talking to each other as I walked on-stage. I tried to talk to them, but they continued paying. I did my set, half-disheartened that I didn’t have their attention, quickly felt disconnected from the entire crowd, and got the hell out of there.
Bill Simmons changed how I thought about navigating tough audiences. He wrote an article in ‘08, praising New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Simmons quotes sportswriter Mike Lombardi:
“On each team there are three types of players. The first are the ones who will do anything that is asked, willing to help the program. The second group are the undecided players, the players who are not sure what to do. And the third are the malcontents. These are the players who want to buck the system all the time and try to break down the team. As a leader, there is a tendency to try to win over the players in group three by trying to make them happy. But all that does is move the players from group two into group three, and cause you to start to lose the players in group one. What Coughlin has done is focus on group one. He pays no attention to group three and what has resulted is that Plaxico [Burress] is on an island and no one wants to join him. The team is bigger than Plaxico.”
That Three-Group classification struck me as interesting, and applies to stand-up. In check-spots and regular sets, some folks are distracted. Yet there’s still Group One, which is paying attention. If I focus on winning Group Three, which may never pay attention, all that happens is the audience that could’ve been entertained will lose interest as they watch me fail to win over those who aren’t listening. Alternatively, if I entertain Group One, those who are making eye contact and on board, there’s a chance Group Two will see Group One enjoying the show, then they’ll join the fun. The ten people enjoying the show becomes fifteen, which becomes twenty-five, and continues to grow. Once a few people buy in, others follow suit.
Of course, none of this stuff is a science. Sometimes you’re gonna fail spectacularly.
‘Okay, you guys hate me,’ one comic repeatedly said during checks, to a distracted crowd. His set wasn’t going well, but mainly because most people in the crowd weren’t paying attention. Watching from the back of the club to see how others handled these spots, I wanted to toss a life-raft and yell, “Yo, they don’t hate you! They’re just mad that the mozzarella sticks cost so much! It has nothing to do with your OKCupid joke!”
Checks are difficult, but it’s a fun challenge to have to grab the audience’s attention, be present, ride the wave of energy coming from different sects of the crowd. Some hosts are exceptionally kind and warn the audience that they’ll be distracted by the checks, but please focus on the comic; some hosts just throw the comic to the lions.
“You’re all getting your checks, but we’re gonna keep the show going!” one host said as she quickly brought me up to a noisy room. “We have a young guy coming up. You’re all distracted, but he’s gonna come up here and he’s gonna give it his best. Dan Perlman!” That one has probably my favorite credit – ‘You’ve seen this next comedian giving it his best all over New York.’
Established comedians, understandably, don’t want the check spot, because they shouldn’t have to compete for the audience’s attention. For a younger comedian like myself, I was just happy to receive stage-time. It’s a chance to get better. And hopefully, for ten minutes, make the audience forget that it’s the “worst part” of the show.
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian from New York. Follow him on Twitter @danjperlman.