Alt shows give comics an excuse to be lazy

At an alt show the other week with a big crowd, 100 or so people there. And this comic gets up onstage and refers to notes the whole time. Not a set list, but actual sheets of paper with written material on it. And this is just for a 10 minute set.

If there's a real crowd, I think even pulling out a set list is a bit iffy. But big pages that you shuffle through trying to remember your set? Lame. This person is "on TV" so I guess there's the whole "working out new material" excuse. But it just struck me as being rude to the audience.

It's one of the things I dislike about alt shows. They give comics an excuse to be lazy. You can be unprepared and half-ass things and use "it's an alternative show" as the reason why. And since the crowds are polite, they don't call you on it.

You'd never see that at a club. At clubs, comics know they need to bring it. If they don't, the crowd tunes out and starts talking amongst themselves. Or goes to the manager and says, "I paid $20 for this?"

The experimentation you get at alt shows is great. But that "anything goes" attitude can also be a crutch for comics who aren't willing/able to bring A game.


myq said...

How "on TV" is this person?

I believe Carlin used sheets of paper when he was working his new stuff out, even in big theaters. (Correct me if you know different, anyone.) Maybe this is something of a different thing? He was clearly working towards a goal of creating an HBO special, which would be done without notes and presented as a finished work for any audience to watch and enjoy. But that doesn't change the fact that the audiences along the way got treatment that might be classified as "rude," no?

And I'm sure some people might have felt that way, after seeing him. But certainly many others would just be excited to see GEORGE FUCKING CARLIN, no matter what he was doing...

And if the person at the show that you're talking about made the audience feel that way, like it was THIS FUCKING PERSON! Then I don't think it's as big a deal. Because maybe they're working on their next comedy special, or late night set, or other thing that this "rude" work is necessary for.

So, question: was it affecting the enjoyment of the crowd? Were they happy just to be in the room with whoever it was?

Or is the point that that WASN'T happening, and this person didn't care anyway?

I have more thoughts and questions but I'll start with that.

PS One last thing for now--I certainly think there's a time and place for notes, but understand that different comedians draw the line in different places, sometimes vastly different.

Mo Diggs said...

I hate when I sometimes refer to notes at a mic, so yeah Matt. Yeah to your words.

myq said...

A couple other things I meant to include in my first post--

One, I saw Mitch Hedberg a few times, and remember him having pages of notes, and not caring about it at all. I would certainly rather see quality comedy from a guy with notes as opposed to lesser quality from someone without. (And obviously, I recognize that referring to notes can decrease the quality of comedy, so the math gets more complicated.)

Two, I saw an HBO special of Bill Maher's, a recent one, where there was a shot of the audience from behind him where you could see pages and pages of notes taped to the stage in front of him (at least 10 pages, maybe more I think). Of course, this is interesting because the audience probably doesn't know he's using notes, but the at-home viewers do. I don't believe it particularly affected his performance (certainly don't remember him ever taking a moment to look down and specifically read something).

As for using notes at a mic, that seems a totally different situation... I mean, certainly feel free to judge yourself personally for doing it, but I would never say that having or referring to notes is inherently problematic at an open mic. (What COULD be problematic is if you are too dependent on them, and if your performance suffers from your having them.)

Which is sort of the whole issue here.
How much is the performane affected?

Unknown said...

was it George Carlin's corpse that was looking at his notes ? If so I think we can give him a pass.

Matt Ruby said...

I guess there is a formula to this note stuff that everyone needs to figure out for themselves. The factors: # of people in the audience, how long the set is (45 mins = sure, bring notes, 10 mins = a brief list, at most, should be required), how much the audience is just happy to see you at all, how much you care that the audience thinks you're acting like a professional THAT night, the audience's expectation level (they expecting an open mic or experimental drop-in set or a polished set?), how much you look at your notes (an occasional glance better than a long read), how visible they are (if notes are hidden and no one sees you looking at 'em then that seems fine), etc.

To answer your questions Myq: This person is not very on TV. (Due to karma + Google alerts, I'm trying to shy away from naming names when I'm shitting on people at this site.) It def affected my enjoyment of the set when this person referred blatantly to PAGES of notes. Others prob noticed less but I guess at least some noticed a bit and it affected their enjoyment.

Jonathan said...

Can I add something else besides "flipping through pages of notes?"

I've only been doing comedy a few months, but I've also noticed a lot of "headliners" get very lazy, even at club venues. I've done multiple shows where the headliner simply sits on the stool and just talks for 10-15 minutes, telling 2 or 3 jokes along the way, and isn't funny in the slightest. Why do they feel they don't have to be funny just because they are already established. And in no way did they display that they are "working on new material". They simply get way too comfortable, and rather than do a set, they just vent and talk. They will occasionally make a joke every three minutes, but their body language/posture don't exactly radiate humor to the audience in the slightest. It seems like many headliners with TV credits feel that no matter what they say, the crowd is going to think it's funny based on their credits, but it is never the case. It is dissapointing because I get excited to tell friends and family that so and so are going to be headlining my show, and then they do nothing but disappoint.

I also went to a Whiplash show at the UCB, and one of the "comics" simply read off "what's better" idea's from his iphone for 10 minutes, claiming something like, "if we give the right answers he will grace us with his presence and perform again in the future." but it was just 10 minutes of "what's better count chocula or fruity pebbles." sadly, the young crowd was into it because he had some sort of credits and they just assumed what he was saying was funny. But it simply wasn't comedy and was just very disappointing.

Kevin said...

I agree that a lot of "alt" comics are lazy, and it only encourages up and comers to do the same. I think notes are fine as long as the comic has a good handle on the material and it doesn't detract from stage presence or delivery.

That is, notes used more for quick reference are better. I think in some cases, it can inject life into a set and make it more upbeat, since the comic can quickly refer to the next topic and jump into it faster without awkward "ums" and blank-outs that sometimes happen on stage to everybody.

It bothers me when someone clearly puts a lot of effort into developing and delivering material, while someone else in the same show is being lazy and reading off a notebook. It's unfair to everybody.

myq said...

Alt comics can be lazy. And club comics can be lazy.

HUMANS can be lazy. (Which doesn't even have to get us into the "what makes a comic an ALT comic," because certainly many comedians can perform at clubs and alt venues. Also let's not get into "what's an alt venue," or let's, no worries. Whatever people want.)

We've all seen comics phone it in at a club, and we've all seen comics do whatever at a non-club.

One other thing, I'm curious about Jonathan's experience at Whiplash though (perhaps this should be a side conversation, but might be relevant)...
The two experiences you've spoken of seem different--one, seeing a headliner at a club just talk instead of doing an act, to the detriment of the show and the audience's enjoyment, and two, seeing someone at whiplash do something that didn't seem like an act, but that the audience was into...
In my experience with Whiplash audiences, they usually strike me as more comedy-savvy than a lot of crowds, which I don't associate with just giving someone laughs because they've got a credit, but rather maybe giving someone credit because they know and trust them... I don't know who this is that you were talking about, I wasn't there, but if that audience was laughing, I don't think it's because they were tricked. They're certainly a very good audience, most of the time, but not good in that they will laugh at anything no matter what.
Though I could be wrong.

And relating this back to the club comic just talking, there are many headliners who will just talk, not do their act, and be hilarious. For some people, that IS their act.
I'm also curious about the "headliners" you've seen do this, Jonathan (and perhaps it's telling that you put "headliners" in quotes?), because there are "people who are on at the end of a show" and there are headliners.

I'm curious about everything though.
Sorry to get off track.
If you need to use notes to remember what we were talking about originally, go for it.

Matteson said...

I saw the comic Jonathan described a couple months ago, at another UCB show. I've forgotten his name, but in this case I don't think he was using the notes on his iPhone because he was lazy, but because it was part of the bit. The bit was that he was such a great comic he needed to test the audience to see if they were worthy of his comedy. He did so by asking a series of arbitrary questions, as Jonathan described. I dug it, but I could see how it could turn some people off.

The best thing about alt comedy is that it's sometimes so hard to tell the difference between ground breaking and bad comedy. I wish in school there had been an "alt" math scene. Matteson got all the answers wrong, but...maybe he's just working on a level we're not getting. Maybe he's more of a mathmatician's mathmatician.

Eric said...

I would agree that alternative shows give ample opportunity to be lazy and because of it I stopped going so much. One thing you do hear as an excuse is that alternative shows don't pay so why bring it.
I've always found that strange because when you look at the people who came out of the alternative scene with heat, they are the ones who don't use that excuse. You can't make an A-B connection since they are also truly funny, but seeing Aziz or John Mulaney or Eugene Mirman when they played almost entirely alternative rooms, that was what made them special. They always brought it.
However, to equivocate, there are a lot of comedians in the alternative scene who might be funny but will probably be (or often are) mostly writers because they don't have strong performing skills. It can feel like they are being lame, doing the same act too often or being withdrawn (which can come off as hipper-than-thou), but really they just don't want to fail and are trying.
There have been several times when I thought one of the comedians at an alternative is total garbage and it turns out he's a Conan writer and could very well be responsible for something I loved on Conan.

myq said...

"The best thing about alt comedy is that it's sometimes so hard to tell the difference between ground breaking and bad comedy."

I don't know if I agree that it's the BEST thing about it. But it is a thing about it sometimes.

"I would agree that alternative shows give ample opportunity to be lazy and because of it I stopped going so much."

I would say that it's always wise to pick which shows you go to based on factors like who specifically is performing, what the venue is and how much they care about comedy and the show, who's producing the show, things like that...

But the thing that gives comedians the opportunity to be lazy (open-minded audiences, supportive venues, whatever the case) are the very things that give comedians the opportunity to be different, try new things, grow, experiment, etc., I'd say.

And as far as shows paying vs. not paying--I'd say the reverse makes sense, that if you're getting paid, you have an obligation to bring it at least that much money's worth, whereas if you're not being paid, those ARE at least some of the times when you should be able to feel more comfortable trying new things (especially if the specific show circumstances warrant that even further).

RG Daniels said...

What's an "alt show"?

soce said...

I discovered that it's really not all that difficult to practice and learn a few bits for a show.. but maybe if you're writing new stuff all the time, it can be tough to keep track of it. All you should need though should be a quick glance, preferably not too awesome.

I got really pissed off once though because a few years ago, I saw this guy I was enamored with. I had seen him on tv and commercials throughout my life, and I was so into him. He got up on stage and sang a song from a musical. It was so terrible. Not one joke. Just him singing, out of tune.

It was definitely one of those "I'm so famous, I don't need to try" moments, and I was completely let down. I still see him on tv, and he's still quite funny. I just wish he had told actual jokes in person and not just goofed around.

myq said...

Look, I'm sorry I let you down by singing that song. It will always happen again.

But at least I wasn't singing the song from notes, was I?

Jonathan said...

Myq, sorry for the late response...

As for the guy talking at a club- two headliners come to mind. The first one I can't remember his name. It was a very small crowd at the Laugh Lounge and the guy got up there and sat on the stool and just started talking. It took about 3 minutes before he told a joke. He also kept fiddling with something in his pocket and finally someone from the audience asked what he kept reaching for, but he wouldn't say. But the audience member (who was restless from the lack of jokes) kept asking. Finally another audience member stood up and yelled at the other audience member for "interupting his set", which was odd because he wasn't telling any jokes. Eventually a near fight broke out and the comic simply walked off the stage after 10 minutes of maybe 3 one-line jokes total. He wasn't just someone they called the headliner because he was last. He had the swagger of someone who had been doing it a long time and had plenty of credits which I can't remember. But he sucked. Very badly.

The second person was Pat Dixon. This was in the downstairs of a bar and not a club. The first 4 comics were great- did their sets, all of which killed (yours truly included), and walked off to big applauses. Then Pat came on, sat on the stool, and just rambled and rambled, while burying his hands in his face. Perhaps that is his style to constantly rub himself, which is fine, but he would only tell a joke every so often. They were funny, and got chuckles, but they were so few and far between that it seemed like it was his first time on stage.

He did about 15 minutes, and even took the time to talk to another comic during his set, just shooting the shit as though there was no audience (the other comic was late and was being put up after Pat). Pat even said "good luck with this audience they are a real treat." Which upset me because they were in fact a great audience, and had he told some jokes he would have realized that.

I've never hosted my own show but I feel bad for the people who run these shows and bill them as having these big name headliners(or at least more recognizable names with tv creidts), yet they stink up the place. *(Side note- I talked to Pat after the show and he was a VERY nice guy. I haven't seen his act before so maybe he does a lot of rambling, but I highly doubt it. There's no way he would have gotten anywhere doing the things he did during this specific set.)

Anonymous said...

I've never forgotten a bit while on stage ever, but I have trouble remembering the order, so I often have a list of bits somewhere on a stool, often hidden from the audience.

To me, it's no different than a setlist for a band, just so you don't waste time between bits trying to figure out what comes next. I've had pro comics pooh-pooh that notion, but I think they're full of shyte. To them, they're like a greatest hits record to be memorized, but some nights you might need a list to figure out which bits would not work in that situation.

But whole notes? That's a bit much.

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