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.