Friday, August 26, 2005

Vanquishing the "bad set" Comedy Demons

Did a short set at The Vault last night. The Boston Comedy Festival is just around the corner. I was fairly surprised I was invited to it, and fairly terrified when I drew "The Vault" for my preliminary (which is on Thursday, Sept. 15th, so you better show up!)

Dick Doherty's Beantown Comedy Vault, better known by local comics as "The Vault", has been around for years. I used to refer to it as "The Morgue", because it seemed like a place that a lot of damn good jokes have gone to die. To say my memories of The Vault are less than good would be an epic understatement.

I last performed at The Vault circa 1999, and truthfully, that show was one of the reasons I stopped doing comedy. Any comic reading this now is likely to be disgusted and chanting "pansy" or worse in their head, but it was not so much a nightmare as a seven hour root canal. It was near the end of my first year in comedy. I hadn't been working at all on new material and was doing basically the same 5 or 6 minute set I had been doing for the last year. It was what is called a "bringer show". This is a show where each performer is required to bring paying customers in exchange for stage time. Generally, these shows are overbooked because the point of this type of show is to maximize the audience. Also, the only comics that do these shows are brand new comics, as no one that's been around a while A) is willing to do a show where they are required to bring friends B) has any friends left that haven't already seen their lame-ass five minute set twelve friggin' times.

So yeah, by design, these shows are awful.

The show I was on had... ready? THIRTY-ONE comics on it. That's a lot of bad comedy. The show lasted about three and a half hours. About a third of the way into the show, the host started thanking the audience for "hanging in there" and promised they'd all get to see their friend perform soon. Wow... talk about creating an ambiance of hilarity!

A couple of the comics were veterans that had stopped in to get a set in, and these guys were hysterical- but got zilch from the crowd. This sent me into panic. "Holy crap," I thought, "that guy was awesome, and they hated him... they're going to throw me to the lions."

Midnight came and went and I did my pathetic set. I faintly recall grousing on stage at the jokes they didn't laugh at, which was all of them. I left the place wondering what the hell I was doing in comedy. I clearly wasn't working at it, wasn't getting better, but was actually worsening. It dawned on me that I was doing this just for the ego boost of having a few people pat me on the back and tell me how funny I was, and that had stopped. Boston legendary comic and all-around good guy DJ Hazard says (and actually Tony V says this all the time, too) "Have fun...if you're not having fun, get out" I'm paraphrasing people, but that's the gist of it.

Well, it wasn't fun, and I wasn't working at it. If anything, I owe The Vault. That night made me see the simple truth- I wasn't cut out for comedy. Comedy is a craft, an art that like anything else, needs to be practiced, honed, lived, and I wasn't living it, I was hanging around the fringe trying to syphon energy from people that poured their souls into this thing.

So I left. I stopped doing comedy and it was a good thing for me and the comedy scene that I did. A few years later, I was asked to perform at a convention. I had given a lot of recovery talks filled with humor, and somebody heard that I had once done stand up, so they asked me if I would do a show at the convention. Naturally I said, "NO!"

"I'm not a comedian," I said telling the truth for a change.

Unfortunately, I have this dude that I refer to as a "spiritual advisor" and he suggested that stand up was sort of in line with the one man show I was talking about writing and still haven't written) and should I maybe pray about it.

Fuck no, I shouldn't pray about it. When I ernestly pray, things NEVER go the way I think they should go, I always end up taking risks, endangering my ego and growing up, which really sucks.

...but I did pray about it, called the board memeber up and said a grudging, "yes."

Like so many "yes"es, that yes changed my life. I procrastinated for a few months, writing nothing. I presented myself before the board and asked them to hire a "real comedian, a headliner" and just let me host, but the budget was shot and they had no funding for it. I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to fail ultimately. That 3 or 4 hundred people were going to see me die on stage and go tell two friends, and they'd tell two friends, and so on, and so on and so on... the end result of course being that everyone on the planet that mattered would realize what a douchebag I was.

But that didn't happen. I put off preparing as long as I could, but when I asked God to guide me and showed up, I seemed to get through things. My first time back on stage in four years was terrifying. I got a spot at The Lizard Lounge, a show that was really cool but is now defunct as its founder moved to Washington DC. The crowd was small but attentive and the other comics on the show were very good that night.

I had written some stuff I thought was pretty good, but when I got up there, I went totally blank for what was probably ten or fifteen seconds, but felt like an hour. Memories of The Vault began to creep into my mind, doubts flooded, my ego began to chant, "you can't do it, give it up, quit."

I stopped, taking just one more second, and said a simple prayer. I started on whatever piece of material popped into my head, whatever I could recall of what I had written and just ran with it. I wonder how many people that night said a prayer, then told a joke about premature ejaculation... probably only five or six at the most.

After my set, a guy named Dan Sally who is now one of my favorite local comics came over to me and told me I did a good job. Focusing on the negative, I said, "...but I choked."

Dan said, "yeah, we all choke sometimes... but you came back strong."

"Really?" I thought, but said nothing but "thanks."

They had a tradition of giving the comic with best new material a gift certificate for $20 to the restaurant upstairs at the end of the show. When my name was called, I thought it was some kind of prank, but it was my first awareness that I could really do this if I just got out of the way, and stopped thinking so damn much about what everyone else thought of me and could just be myself on stage, I could really do it.

A few months later, I performed in front of those several hundred folks, and they were the kindest, most generous audience I had had up to that point. I was doing a lot of recovery material, stuff I couldn't do in clubs, so about 70% of the material I did was for the very first time in front of a live audience. I can't stress enough how much a terrible idea this is- but it worked. I didn't think I had ennough material, so just brought everything in the bag and unloaded. 70 minutes later, the show was over and people were asking me where I performed in Boston.

"Nowhere, I thought, this show was it, I'm done."

But I wasn't done yet. I stuck with it, took it seriously and embraced comedy. Through little effort and much luck, I got several show offers at conferences and conventions, including one opportunity to cruise the Caribbean for free in exchange for a performance.

I started to enjoy it in spite of myself. If I wasn't having fun, I tried to remember that I was providing a service and to do my job, trust that the Big Guy knows what He's doing and just show up as best I could. A year later, I was invited back to the same convention, and this time, there were more people attending. The crown was great.

I killed.

On the day I got accepted to the Boston Comedy Festival, I cringed when I saw my preliminary was at The Vault. The same voices chanted in my head, "what were you thinking?" "you can't do this!", "look at how talented these other people are", and my favorite, "CLEARLY, they've made a terrible mistake..." Guilt washed in over the terrific local comedians that weren't invited, including some of my absolute favorites.

I didn't want to show up for the preliminary with my last memory of The Vault, my only memory of The Vault, so I stopped in on a Saturday night and did a short set. It was okay, at least better than my previous experience by a longshot. Plus, I needed to get a feel for the room, its nooks and crannies, the sound, remembering to involve the people in the back with eye contact, and looking almost straight down to catch the people in the front row as well. I ran into Greg Howell, who books Thursday nights now at The Vault. It is a showcase, meaning many comics (19 last night). I asked him when I could get on and he gave me a date, August 25th.

As I sat where all the comics sit, literally in the "vault", I realized it felt like a different room now. The place was absolutely packed. As the show progressed, the crowd showed itself to be what I call "joke-to-joke". Meaning; they laughed, and laughed heartily, but judged each comic on a joke to joke basis, and didn't chuckle much during set up lines, even when they were reasonably funny. It was a good crowd, but crowds like that are hard to get on a roll. I sensed they wouldn't be into my thing of marinating with a thought and letting them get to know me, so I shortened the set ups and kind of charged to the punch lines. Most crowds want to get to know you, but it felt like these guys were more into material, and hey, with 19 comics doing short, tight sets, they might have a point.

It now dawns on me that I might just have a chance of becoming a comedian, slowly but surely. The old me would have plunged ahead with my plan of attack and blamed the crowd for being lousy, but my ears must have accidentally been open or something when DJ, Tony V or Tim McIntyre were talking about what it really means to be a comic, about not blaming crowds, but adjusting to them- they paid to see YOU, be grateful they don';t have much sense.

I had a sudden appreciation for the job Greg Howell has done turning this room into an actual good venue. A comic named Owen was upstairs chomping at the bit- wishing he was on the bill that night, genuinely excited about the packed house downstairs. I liked the way Greg gives a new guy a genuine "good set" and a look in the eyes so you can tell he means it, how he stays on comics to keep to time (okay, by "stays on" I mean "threatens"...he's sort of like the Mike Ditka of The Vault...but you know what- if I'm not mistaken, Ditka won a championship.)

Why did it take me until now to realize that there never really was anything wrong with The Vault, but that most of the difficulty rested with my work ethic and attitude?

Man, I can't wait to hit the stage at the Vault on September 15th. You know, from what I hear... it's a pretty good room.


Blogger GB said...


Not only are you fucking funny, but you are a damn good writer too. That was easy to read, flowed well, easy to understand, had a happy ending and a punchline at the bottom. Ever think of writing comedy short stories? Or maybe inspirational stories like that for the AA population?

Anyway, have fun the 15th. I will be in the crowd. I might bring a heckle-laughing machine, but the cheapest one I can find is $7.50 and it ain't worth it for one show.

11:33 AM  
Blogger olefriend said...

Keep banging away at this, Korte. You're going make if you don't hold anything back. Good luck, bro'
-old friend

4:51 PM  

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