I learned one of my greatest lessons in comedy watching Hannibal Burress’s Sunday show at The Knitting Factory. Hannibal crushed almost the entire show. Aside from about 7 minutes where he tried to convince the audience how great birka porn would be. He dug such a big hole, he had to do three A-bits to get out, and it changed my approach to comedy.
Hannibal just works stuff out there. Constantly. And when something goes wrong, he knows he has the ability to win them back, so he doesn’t care. He wants everyone to have a good time, but doesn’t care what the audience wants to hear, whether or not a bit is working, anything (I may be glorifying this a bit, but he made an impression). I saw him have bits that people weren’t on board with for a while, and then he worked through them until he found the funny in it. He just kept pushing through until the laughs happened. It didn’t matter, he was just working on what he wanted.
The past few months I’ve been beating myself up a bit, mentally. I feel like a lot of my comedy strategies have been wrong now (a lot have been right too). For one, one of my ideas of what comedy was, was having a bit for every occasion. However the show’s going, you can interchange bits, move them back and forth, adjust to the audience. That’s wrong. Don’t shape yourself to the audience, shape them to you.
I’ve been too concerned about the audience. Particularly if they’re comics. Everyone wants their peers to like them, but I would try choose bits during the set, depending on how the people were reacting. I’d just do jokes once or twice in front of the same people and then kill myself with worry about having enough new material for repeat crowd members. Terrible plan. It’s actually reminiscent of how my actual personality developed during my teens. I wanted everyone to like me, so I’d just reflect the values of the people around me, and when two people would have conflicting ideas I’d look like an idiot trying to agree with both.
I also worry so much about being “original” or “saying something.” Again, I think that’s a symptom of wanting people’s approval. In a way, Carrot Top may be one of the most original acts of all time, but no one treats him as such. Originality is something to strive for, but not something worth developing self-hatred for. I would just see flaws in everything I wrote, hating bits for not having the quality of people 20 years into stand up, rather than just three. I’d start writing something I thought was hacky, and then just give up on it, forgetting that sometimes your associations start unoriginal before you put the pieces together to make them unique.
The great comics seem to give off this aura of “This is what we’re talking about.” Like a suave man who orders a meal for his date, knowing she’ll enjoy it. As opposed to my energy, which has been, “This is what I’m planning on talking about, but if you guys have different ideas, I’m up for whatever!?” People paid to hear what I have to say (also to laugh, probably), so I should just say it if I think it’s funny. The owner of The Comedy Studio, Rick Jenkins, has told me this several times, and now I think finally I get it.