The perfect mix of fringe NYC shows and mainstream road shows

I saw a TV movie once about the American team that went to the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. (Note: This is probably a bullshit story but I like it.) At the time, the discus was unknown in America. So the American team went to a blacksmith, showed him a picture of a discus from Greek art, and then had him make one. He made a discus that weighed 20 lbs. The American discus thrower trained with it and could barely throw it. But when he arrived in Athens and picked up the discus to be used in the actual event, it weighed only five lbs. He could throw it easily and beat the Greek champion.

That's kinda what I feel like doing standup in NYC is like. Training with a discus that's way too heavy. It's annoying and frustrating but it also is making you better. When you get out to real crowds in other towns, you know you can rip it.

NYC is a bizarre place to do standup. You've got to fight for stage time here. Meanwhile, I did a show in Virginia last week for a room of 80 real audience where some of the comics were total newbies. What a different way to come up than starting out in NYC.

In other towns, people are enthusiastic to be at a show. They're willing to meet you halfway. In NYC, it feels like a constant progression of arms-folded audience members silently asking, "Ok, why should I pay attention to YOU?" Show after show, it's a grind — like you're constantly trying to scrape people off the floor and inflate them.

(Worth mentioning here: The shows I do on the road are more crowded so that certainly helps. It's nice to be able to drop into a town and do the best shows there and then leave. Living in another place would probably be a whole different story.)

In other towns, there are Republicans in the room. In NYC, everyone already agrees with each other. In other towns, you can actually shock people. Here, it's almost impossible to truly push people's buttons. New Yorkers have their buttons pushed all day. They're numb to it.

Different material works. Things that are considered hacky here can get big laughs on the road. A guy can talk about his kids for 30 minutes on the road. Never see that at a show in Brooklyn. I've got a bit on 9/11 that works great in NYC but eats it on the road. As soon as they hear 9/11, you can feel the tone of the room change and a sense that they no longer feel it's safe to laugh. They shut down. Talking about drugs, rednecks, religion and other stuff can take on a different tone too.

It's fascinating. And it gets to the truth of what's really funny about your act. Not just to one group of people, but to everyone.

Last summer, Patton Oswalt hit the road with Kyle Kinane. While announcing the dates, Patton talked about Kyle finding his voice...

Kyle’s been opening for me for about two years, and during that time he’s grown in those lurching leaps forward that young comedians take when they find their voice and everything they experience then becomes a joke. The act of writing “jokes” is no longer a task separate from them being in tune with how they recognize and react to even the most mundane details of their lives...

...and then Patton praises the way Kyle books his own tours:

See, what he’s done for himself this summer is what a lot of young comedians with a lot of free time and slim prospects should be doing – he posted, online, that he was putting together a tour, and saw who invited him to use their space...

This is why Kyle’s going to be huge – he’s mixing the fringe with the mainstream. Doing those three D.I.Y., loosey-goosey alt-style places (and yes, there’s “alt” in Oklahoma – hell, one of the best shows I ever did was a punk club in Salt Lake City). Then he follows it up with a bucket of ice water called The Tempe Improv.

Comedians who only did rooms like The Largo and Uncabaret never grew any muscles or hide. Comedians who only did the road and never experimented eventually had their voices muffled behind the muscles. Kyle’s pursuing a balance here.

Getting out of NYC definitely helps you get that balance. In "In The Life of the Road Warrior with Nikki Glaser," Nikki talks about sounding "roady."

When I first moved to NYC, I was super self-conscious about sounding too "roady" in the sense that it might seem too rehearsed, but really, I try my best to be the same comic on or off the road. I try and challenge road crowds to go with me on certain, more absurd bits. On the other hand, I try to trick hip NYC crowds into embracing bits I've been perfecting for years...

They don't want to laugh at something that sounds contrived in any way. The trick is adding more "ums” and "likes” to give the illusion that you're coming up with it off the top of your head. I’m kidding, but seriously, they tend to clam up when they sense it has been done to death, as would anyone. It's good though, because it forces you to freshen up stale bits. It's a challenge...

I have learned over the years that the more liberal the town, the more groans you'll get. I remember thinking that San Francisco was going to be a place where I could spread my wings and let my darkest, weirdest material fly, but I quickly learned that was not the case.

Yeah, the absurb/weird stuff that might fly at a Brooklyn show won't get you far at a club in San Diego filled with marines. At that point, you start asking yourself: What kind of comedian do you want to be?

How do you want to handle it when a girl yells out "You're funny for a Jew"? What about when the MC brings you up by mentioning his buddy that was killed in Afghanistan by an IED? Or when a gay heckler yells "fuck you"?

Sure, strange stuff happens at NYC shows too. But it's a different kind of strange when you're on the road. And dealing with all those different elements, it feels like that's how you get good.

I'm glad to train with the heavy discus here. But it sure is nice to get outta town too. It's all about the mix.


Josh Homer said...

But in NYC there are also shortcuts, like Patton Oswalt mentioned in his infamous interview where he addressed alternative comics.

This is the excerpt I am referring to:

"...you know what’s even more fun? Watching an alternative comic out on the road. That’s hysterical. They’re on stage going, 'Yeah, me and my friend Terry … you guys know Terry, right? … Huh. Well, we went to Blockbuster and Terry rented “The Wedding Planner” … I mean, if you guys knew Terry … Hell-oooo? Ok, fine, you guys are fucking idiots.' That’s my impression of an alternative comic on the road. Here’s my other impression of an alternative comic on the road: 'Ok, you guys aren’t listening to me.'"

Josh Homer said...

"Things that are considered hacky here can get big laughs on the road. A guy can talk about his kids for 30 minutes on the road."

So talking about your kids is hacky? Tell that to Louis CK. Funny how people shit on the topics he talks about but then talk about him like he's a god. I think he's funny as shit, and love the stuff about his kids. To me talking about unicorns and singing goats is bullshit, but that's just me.

Matt Ruby said...

Josh: It's how you talk about it that matters, I guess. Talking about airplanes is hacky. But CK does that masterfully too. Related: There is no hack subject, only hack approaches.

ECN said...

As much as I love Patton, that particular quote never made sense to me.

I feel like, if we're going to stereotype here, "alternative" comics tend to be a lot more writer-ly than "mainstream" comics, and a lot less prone to telling long rambling stories.

Though maybe this is a '90s "alternative" comic thing Oswalt is referring to? I feel like that whole Un-Cabaret scene was into rambling, and maybe one-liners became fashionable later?

I mean, I don't know. I feel like being able to perform in venues you have nothing to do with is the most overrated "skill" in comedy. I mean, what if you tried applying those criteria to musicians? Sure, there are plenty of great musicians who everyone loves, but there are also plenty of musicians who have achieved widespread success by presenting bland material, and plenty of great musicians who do what they want to do and expect the audience to come to them. (Which the audience does.)

I mean, I'm not discounting audience reaction here -- I don't believe you can be a great or even particularly good comedian unless you kill regularly.

But I also don't believe every great comedian should be expected to be able to go into a rural mining town and perform for a bunch of miners, or whatever. There are smart audiences across the country, but there are also dumb audiences, and if the dumb audiences can't keep up, that's not the comic's problem.

(Unless the comic insists on repeatedly booking him/herself to perform for said dumb audiences. That's just irresponsible.)

Meghan said...

Can I just start by saying how much I love that you based this post on the epic 1984 miniseries: The First Olympics? It's like this huge, nerdy part of my childhood. I watched it all the time like a weirdo and own the DVD of it today.

Anyways...I started out doing sketch, improv and theater in Boston almost 9 years ago. When I moved to NYC last summer to work on my comedy writing and performing more, I finally gave stand up a serious shot. The one thing I get all the time is how dumb I was to start stand up here. I can't really go back and change things and start in an "easier, more supportive, smaller town", so I just have to spin the positive out of starting stand up in NYC. From what I've gathered through talking with my Boston friends and doing shows up there, it's a LOT easier to get stage time and find supportive audiences. As I'm still in my first year, one of my biggest issues is I need more experience in front of non-comics, but all I can really do is keep plugging away at the mics and making every small, booked opportunity I do get count. That said, I love that I started here because, as you said, it's like training with the heavy discus. I think it's made me a lot stronger and I can tell when I do go to Boston that I definitely have some edges over the local guys who may have been doing it years longer than I have. I think doing the quick 2 and 3 minute mics here forces you to really work on tightening joke set ups and punchlines--as well as writing something that's original, but has wide appeal. Doing rooms where no one--not even your best friends--will laugh at your best stuff teaches you to be a little bit more resilient when taking the stage. NYC is definitely a tough, strange city to start comedy in, and because of that, it might be harder to stick with it for the first few years because it can be so discouraging. In a weird way, though, that's what gives me confidence. Even if I quit stand up tomorrow and packed up and moved elsewhere (which is %99.9 unlikely), I'd still always be able to tell myself that I survived about a year in the trenches of NYC stand up comedy.

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