I was at a crowded open mic on a Friday night – the last one of the night that everyone who doesn’t have a show goes to. A friend I had made a few days earlier (say, Jess) made her way up to the stage and started her three-minutes set. It was early in the night and so the majority of the comics were in the room paying close attention. She told a couple of new jokes that didn’t go over so well, so she asked the audience of comics “why isn’t this funny?” It was a genuine question, although it was definitely rhetorical. She was just wondering aloud.
“You’re not being silly!” Someone shouted from the back of the room. Everyone looked back. It was another comic known to be brash at open mics, let’s call him Ryan.
“You’re too much in your own head, you’re not being silly like you normally are,” he continued. “Usually you’re silly on stage and it sounds like you just memorized the words and are saying them. Be silly!”
“Okay…thanks Ryan.” replied Jess, prompting some laughter from the comics in the room. Although it was a helpful comment that I actually tended to agree with, it definitely isn’t customary for a comic to actually yell out serious advice to another comic while they were on stage. It was a good insight, but that didn’t change the fact that Ryan had taken 30 seconds out of Jess’s three minute slot. If he wanted to say that to her he could have easily talked to her after she got off stage. It was a weird thing for Ryan to do, and that’s why we all laughed it off.
Rightfully, Jess seemed a little annoyed with Ryan. But, she got over it easily and wrapped up her set.
After Jess, a comic who I’ll call Kevin was called up next. Now, Kevin is an interesting guy. He’s Asian (originally from China I believe), but the best way I can describe the delivery of his set is a “caricature of a black man.” To say the least, it’s an odd sight to see. As it always seems to do, his set provoked timid laughs from the comics in the room…”I can’t believe this guy” and “this is ridiculous” sort of laughter.
Kevin finished and then who was called up, but Ryan himself. Ryan started off his set by saying something to the effect of “Kevin, why are you even here? Why are you doing comedy? You either need to quit comedy or go home and fucking kill yourself.” As I mentioned, this is the sort of thing that Ryan is known for.
A few timid laughs led the room into an uncomfortable silence. But Ryan didn’t stop.
“Why don’t you just kill yourself man? No, I’m serious.” His eyes were locked with Kevin’s in the back of the room. “You’re wasting all of our time. Be real, man. You’re never going to be good until you say something real. You’re taking away time from comics who are serious about this shit.”
“That’s not how you talk man. Don’t talk like that.”
Then the host of the mic jumped in too: “Yeah man, I don’t know why you talk like that man, you gotta be yourself.”
Ryan kept going: “You’re worthless. Just be real man and quit wasting our fucking time.”
No one in the room knew where to look. It was quiet for a long time as Ryan decided what to say next. Dead quiet except for unsettled rustling in seats.
And then there was a soft voice from the back of the room: “Be silly!”
It was Jess.
The room erupted in laughter. The release of tension was overwhelming. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Even Ryan cracked up and was left speechless. What else was he going to say after that? How could he do any of his prepared material after something so real? He had no choice but to leave the stage.
I’ve told that story to several comics since and they all thought it was funny, but they also pretty much always sided with Ryan rather than Kevin, which I find both fascinating and slightly objectionable. Yes, everything that Ryan said about Kevin was true, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to say. Comics who were there seem to think “Well, Kevin had it coming. He needed to hear the truth and Ryan told him.” But, if that’s the case, then why did it get so serious in there? Why weren’t people rolling on the floor laughing? Shouldn’t that be Ryan’s goal? Instead of making Kevin feel horrible about himself, shouldn’t he be making something funny? It would be one thing if he commented on Kevin’s set in a funny way, but he didn’t. It wasn’t funny at all – it was awkward.
On the other hand, Jess’s comment was funny because it commented on the awkward situation, but in a positive way. She essentially said “Hey Ryan, you’re being an asshole” without saying “Hey Ryan, you’re being an asshole,” and that’s why I think her heckle worked so well. Jess’s comment reveals how stupid it is to take comedy that seriously – so seriously that you would give up a chance to make people laugh in order to mock another comic. It’s FUNNY that Ryan would be that serious and it’s stupid that he needed to say that. And to make it worse, Ryan also looked dumb for having interrupted her set. That’s why people laughed at Jess’s comment.
Sometimes I think that comics take comedy too seriously. It’s COMEDY goddamn it! Who cares? If Kevin wants to get up and do a stupid set then by all means let him! It was an open mic, not a television deal! Take it easy! Why are you over-thinking every person’s set? You should be worried about yourself and then just relax and try to have a good time watching other people.
Comics love to put each other down, thinking it’s part of the business. If someone bombs right in front of you, it’s your JOB to make them feel like shit because it gets the audience on your side. I don’t agree with that. And some people think I’m soft for thinking that. But, I think it’s the easiest thing in the world to make yourself look good at the expense of a comic who happened to have a bad day; it takes real skill to make yourself look good all on your own. Yes, we are competing against each other, but that person already knows they suck. It isn’t your job to tell them that. They can hear people not laughing at them when they’re on stage.
I don’t believe in saying “this topic is off-limits” in any comedy, so I’d never say that making fun of other comics shouldn’t be done. It’s just something I don’t do and don’t really understand the purpose of. Other comics are your friends not your punching bags (sorry I’m usually never this hunky dory).
All comics have the tendency to question themselves and analyze and over-analyze both themselves and other comics. I definitely have the tendency to over-think every joke in every set, and that’s terrible! I need to loosen up and have more fun. This happenstance was a good reminder to me that I’m trying to be a comic: it doesn’t make sense for me to be taking anything too seriously, I should only be focused on “being silly.”