Stand-up — the Pro Advantage

September 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to the early show (7:00 p.m.) at the Gotham Comedy Club last night — a line-up of unknown, hopeful comics, most of them with day jobs. To get on the bill, they had to guarantee six friends or relatives in the audience paying the cover and two-drink minimum. One of the comics knew my wife, and so we went.

The MC was a pro, and she warmed up the audience. She really did ask people in the audience where they were from, and had some ready-made lines for Connecticut and New Jersey. Then it was one comic after another, each doing their solid six, some good, some merely OK. The first half dozen performers took us to about 8 p.m. That’s when the MC announced a special guest. Jim Gaffigan.

He did 25-30 minutes. He killed.

Then the MC asked us to welcome a newcomer, someone not too sure of himself, someone who needed our support, etc. Nobody bought that ruse — she didn’t really try to sell it. We just didn’t know who the “newcomer” would be.

(It’s Jerry Seinfeld. Apologies for the lousy photo. I wasn’t even sure that we were allowed to take pictures, so I was in a hurry.)

Seinfeld too did 25-30 minutes, and he too got big laughs with every joke, even the ones I didn’t think were so great. Some of the other comics had lines that didn’t work, and I’ve noticed that comedians now, when a joke doesn’t land, will often comment immediately about either the joke or the audience or both (“I don’t know. It worked in Jersey”). Seinfeld and Gaffigan didn’t have that problem, and I was reminded of something I wrote ten years ago (here) after I’d seen the Judd Apatow movie “Funny People.” George (Adam Sandler) is a top comedian. Ira (Seth Rogen) is an unseasoned hopeful who George hires as an assistant.

It makes you appreciate how difficult stand-up is, with its strange relationship between performer and audience. The key to success is not to tell a funny joke but to capture the audience. The same jokes that seem lame when done by an unseasoned, aspiring performer (Rogen) become good material in the hands of a pro like George, partly because of his ability, his craft, but also because the audience is already on his side.

Last night played out the same story but with real people, and it illustrates the importance of expectations and impressions. (No, not that kind of impression, though one of the comics last night did do a very good Obama.) The comedian coming onto the stage has two related tasks. First, they have to be funny and to get the audience to form the impression of them as a funny person. But they also have to get the audience to like them and to feel comfortable with them.* A Seinfeld or a Gaffigan doesn’t face that challenge. The audience already knows them, likes them, and thinks they’re funny. Even a weak joke won’t damage that impression or definition.

A comedian that the audience doesn’t know has to create that impression and do so quickly. Even then, the joke that falls flat can undo that work. It sends the relationship back to the beginning, with the audience wondering: Is this person funny, and do I like them?


[For some excellent sociology of stand-up, see the recent work of Pat Reilly. Or listen to him here on the Soc Annex podcast.]

* Andy Kaufman was a notable exception. He sometimes seemed to be deliberately trying to make the audience feel uncomfortable and uncertain about him. See this earlier post.

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