Comedy Feng Shui: 10 things that ruin comedy shows

Comedy is a fragile thing. One little distraction can throw an entire room off.

So let's say you're thinking about starting a comedy room. Obviously, ya want funny comics and a decent audience. But there's more to it than just that.

Here's a list of 10 common problems that bring down comedy shows. Keep in mind if you're producing a show.

1) Distractions in the room
#1 culprit: The bar's in the same room as the show. People ordering drinks can be loud and distract from the stage. A venue where the bar is in a separate room is ideal. Also, any other distractions or things moving in the room can take a toll. If you have waitstaff, make sure they take orders quickly and quietly. Unplug any video games that flash or make sounds. Same goes for disco balls or flashing lights. If there are loud audience members, go over and politely ask 'em to keep it down. Etc.

2) The PA sucks
Get a decent sound system. Karaoke machines or boomboxes or tiny guitar amps rarely amplify a comic's voice enough. Comics need to be louder than the crowd. Otherwise, it can turn into a free for all. Volume is one of the powerful advantages a comic has over a heckler (or other crowd disturbance).

3) Shitty host
Nothing's worse than a mediocre MC who keeps coming back onstage and killing the momentum by doing too much time between acts. Good hosts aren't selfish. The make everyone feel comfortable, warm up the room, keep the energy positive, bring the crowd back if someone bombs, prevent distractions, etc. Save the indulgent sets for when you're just doing a regular spot. When you're hosting, your job is to make the other comics look good.

4) Crowd is too far apart
You want the room to feel as intimate as possible. (The goal is to get the whole crowd to feel like a cohesive unit.) So put your seats close together. And do what ya can to avoid a split room, where people are, say, on the left and right sides but the middle is empty. If you're not seating people, have the host encourage 'em to move up (or left/right) so the room feels balanced. It's an annoying thing to have to do, but it can make or break the show. And take away the back row(s) of seats if you expect a less than full house.

5) Too much light
The more light there is, the more people feel self-conscious and think others are looking at them. And when they feel that way, they don't laugh.

6) Noise spilling in
If there's a DJ spinning in the back room and it bleeds in, everyone's gonna be distracted from the stage. Same with a loud AC unit or other noisey stuff. The closer you get the room to feeling like a theatre (i.e. quiet and dark), the more people will get into the show.

7) Bad room layout
A wide but shallow room is better than a long and deep one. (If people are too far away from the stage, they don't feel involved and it's easier to tune out.) Also, make sure there's actually a raised stage. If comics are on the floor, they lose the power ya get from being elevated on stage.

8) Mixed media
Doing a variety show that has music, sketch, improv, and/or standup combined seems like a fun idea. But it can really wreck the flow of a show. Handle with care if you take this approach.

9) Free booze or tickets
Giving away free booze and tickets (aka "papering the room") gets people in the seats, but there's a price to pay: They're a lot more likely to be mooks that talk or don't pay attention. And if ya give out free booze before or during a show, things can get a bit rough 'n tumble.

10) Producer doesn't care
If the person putting the show together doesn't care, it shows. The best rooms are run by people who care about both the performers and the audience. That's why The Comedy Cellar or The Comedy Studio (in Boston) are such great rooms...the ownership gives a shit and it shows.

For example, check out The Cellar's reservation page:

Our space is limited, intimate and cozy. We find that parties larger than 8 are usually noisy (even without meaning to be) and this disrupts the show. Multiple reservations resulting in groups larger than 8 will also not be honored. Over the years, we have found this to be an essential rule to follow. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Most venues would kill to have a large group. But that can kill the show for everyone else. Admirable restraint on The Cellar's part I think. And the reservation confirmation e-mail also includes this note:

We ask that you please keep conversation to a minimum during the show. It's a small room, and even whispering can be heard by the performers and people around you. If this seems like a no brainer, it's because you are sober. After a drink or two, it sometimes seems less obvious!

Gentle but firm. A good tone to keep in mind when dealing with audience members.

Now, avoiding all these things won't guarantee a good show. But it will definitely increase the odds. And at least you won't have a bunch of bitchy comics in the back of the room making excuses for why they didn't have good sets.

Actually, you'll always have that. But at least it'll be a bit less justified.


Buddy said...

Great post. I'll add one of my own. Lights on the performer. If I can't see the performer's face I'm not engaged. If the venue doesn't have a spotlight, then you can buy a Par Can for like 20-30 bucks and set it up yourself.

Finny said...

These were all really on the nose. You should get them engraved on stone tablets, or something.

Anonymous said...

Great post .

i also have a thing about too much light in a room !

Anonymous said...

Nice post - nail on the head. About large parties, a couple of stand up buds of mine recently put together a night and banned big parties, as well as hen and stag parties......and it's a great night!

Anonymous said...

Great post!
The only one I sorta disagree with is mixed media. I think it's true that it doesn't always work, but I wouldn't say it ruins a lot of shows. Most audiences seem to really like a little music or a video thrown in.

Matt Ruby said...

Thanks guys. And agreed on what's been said here so far. Also, someone else mentioned little kids at shows. Yeah, that sucks too.

Anonymous said...

Two other things that ruin shows are 1. length and that's often caused by spot trading. When a host says "We've only got 2 comics left" and that 2 turns to 3 or 4 and there's just a huge dugout of comics who were all told they'd be on. I think a show shouldn't be longer than an hour and a half at the most. Nothing worse than a bored audience or walkouts. Short shows prevent that from happening as much.

2. Similar crowd work. You'll see this a lot in clubs when comics are jumping from place to place and the audience gets asked "Where are you from" a few times on the same show. It's insulting and causes audience fatigue.

Anonymous said...

Nothing ruins a gig more, for me, than having some painfully unfunny idiot in the audience heckling throughout and ruining gag after gag after gag.

Ugarles said...

No spot trading. Everyone needs stage time but if the only way you can get on someone else's show is if you put them on yours, decline the spot. I've been on a lot of shows that were ruined because a mediocre performer got his/her payback spot on a night that I was due to go up.

Keep your show pure by booking people that you think will be funny, not who you think will return the favor. Your audience doesn't give a shit where you get to go up next week.

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