Our 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 just over 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 off comedy rooms. You can see Dan performing in his weekly show, Hindsight! The next show is Wednesday 11/19 at 8pm and its free! RSVP Here.
Different audiences respond to different material. The demographics of the crowd can impact their reaction to the set. These facts may sound obvious but, before starting in stand-up, I did not fully appreciate the extent to which crowds vary.
Even when I first started, ‘the audience’ felt like a faceless, amorphous blob, interchangeable from one room to another. Initially, I just wanted to write and develop any decent material I could. The notion of recalibrating, that is, considering the specific audience was not something I had the skills, experience, or awareness to even begin to factor into the equation.
A white comic who plays a lot of black rooms (i.e., predominantly-black crowds) gave me that advice before I did my first black room in Brooklyn. He said, for that specific spot the audience draws, the dirtiest stuff is the only thing that will gauge a reaction. I laughed at the advice, not taking it seriously. How could I? I say plenty of words, but ‘pussy’ is not a part of my everyday vernacular. I could not see myself sincerely opening a set with, ‘How you pussies doing tonight?’ or ‘Great to be here. Only thing better than this crowd is pussy!’
the laughs sloped consistently downward until it reached sweet nothingness.
My material got few laughs. The more things I said, the laughs sloped consistently downward until it reached sweet nothingness. I got the light from the host, signaling to wrap up. Channeling the ‘pussy’ wisdom, I launched into a bit about fingering — something I had joked about at open mics, but had never done in a show. It is not a piece of material of which I am proud, but it got everyone’s attention. I closed with the strongest laughs I had gotten through the set. I left the stage wishing I had ten minutes on pussies and finger-banging.
It’s an interesting distinction. The material that got big laughs at that black room would not play well in some alt-rooms, with more IFC-comedy fans who may tense up at the graphic material. Material with more obscure references may be lost at a comedy club audience, comprised of families from Sweden or Australia. The same stuff that may cause a comedian to lose one audience may also be the only material that would earn attention and laughs in another crowd.
Obviously, these generalizations are not absolutes. It’s no guarantee that just because certain material or a specific approach went well in one black room, for instance, that the next time I perform in that room, or a similar room, that the same stuff will hit. The best I can make are educated guesses, which have been and will continue to be further informed with experience.
The benefit of playing different rooms is acquiring different skill-sets. Tougher audiences, out of my comfort-zone, force me to earn their attention through attitude that otherwise I would not have had to develop. The purpose of playing different rooms is not necessarily to develop different material for every type of audience, but rather, to learn how to be myself and still connect with the audience, no matter the environment.
The tough but fun part is finding a way to be funny for a wide array of audiences.
Watching how experienced comedians handle different audiences is invaluable to growing, as well. Seeing how they pace, sustain, re-engage, recalibrate, and build in different environments.
The tough but fun part is finding a way to be funny for a wide array of audiences. I wouldn’t want to be a situational comic — who can only perform in specific environments. Performing constantly, in different settings, has helped me grow as a comic and develop the necessary callouses. I can constantly work to hone my voice and strengthen my act to work in different rooms. There have been – and will continue to be – missteps along the way, sets that go awry, but that’s part of the process. I cannot yet confidently walk into a black room and destroy. Yet, fortunately, I can have a good set without opening with, ‘Make some noise if you love a good pussy!’
Admittedly, I do want to try that line sometime.
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian and writer from New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @danjperlman.
Go see Dan Perlman’s show Hindsight, in New York City on Wednesday November 19 at 8pm at Stand Up NY Labs on West 78th Street.
Part-stand-up, part-storytelling, part-interviewing, “Hindsight” has consistently turned in an interactive, unpredictable, and hilarious monthly show. Hosted by Dan Perlman (SiriusXM’s Ron & Fez) and Billy Prinsell (Comedy Central’s Up Next), NYC’s top stand-ups tell funny, true stories, and face follow-up questions from the mic’d up hosts and audience.
Here’s a clip from Hindsight.