Posts Tagged ‘live entertainment’

Nobody Has To Know

March 6, 2014

Tuesday March 4th, 2014 – Chicago, IL

Once again I was called in for short term bullpen duty by Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago, and once again I answered the call. For whatever reason, they needed me to fill in for tonight only so that’s what I did. I always enjoy the chance to work, even though the crowd isn’t always stellar.

I’m not talking about Zanies crowds necessarily, but about audiences in general. There are a lot of variables that make up any particular group of random strangers, and each gathering is its own mini lottery with astronomical odds. Like hands of cards, the possibilities are virtually limitless.

Sometimes a given group meshes perfectly with the act on stage, and when that happens life is absolute bliss. Depending on the experience of the performer, he or she can make adjustments to find the sweet spot of what the audience is buying on that night. Trying to find what that happens to be is part of the fun of live performing. It all happens in the moment, and it’s a calculated risk.

Inexperienced entertainers have a limited range of where they can go. They give whatever they have, and leave it to chance. Sometimes it’s the correct fit, and sometimes it isn’t. That’s part of the process, and why it takes so long to master the craft of standup comedy. It’s quite involved.

Matching wits with an audience is a tremendous challenge, and I’ve learned to respect it over a lifetime. It’s a constant mental chess game, much like how the quarterback takes on a defense in a football game or a pitcher vs. batter matchup in baseball. It’s a series of guesses and adjusting.

On rare occasions, it all works out right from the start. I’ve had nights I could seemingly do no wrong, and I can’t figure out why. It just clicks, and I run with it. Other nights nothing works no matter what I try, and over time I have amassed quite a stash of tricks to haul out in the moment.

Part of the process includes trying several tactics to obtain the most positive response. One that can be highly effective is interaction. A dead audience can spring into life with crowd work, and I’ve implemented it successfully many times. I’ve also had it blow up in my face too. It’s tricky.

This whole game is tricky – but that’s why I love it. It’s a constant challenge, and even when it goes right there’s always the next audience to figure out and they could be stone faced. I liken it to doing crossword puzzles – something else I really enjoy. There’s always the next one to solve.

Tonight’s crowd on the surface seemed very good. It was quite large for a Tuesday, but I found them to be one of those rare hands of cards that was difficult to play. Vince Maranto was hosting, and he’s one of the most experienced emcees around. They liked him, but he talked to them a lot.

Calvin Evans was the feature act tonight, a younger comic who is very likeable on stage. I saw him have a tough time keeping their attention, and he eventually had to politely ask them to keep the table talk down. He handled it very well, but I knew I would be in for a challenge and I was.

This was one of those shows when every little thing went wrong, and no matter what I tried fell flat. It didn’t help that the whole front row was chatting during the whole show, but that happens. They all clapped loudly at the end, but I’ve had far better audiences. Shhh. Nobody has to know.

Performing for live audiences is never the same twice in a row.

Performing for live audiences is never the same twice in a row. That can be good and bad.

Home Cooking Tastes Best

February 15, 2014

Thursday February 13th, 2014 – Rosemont, IL

I’m very fortunate right now to be in a great position in the Chicago standup comedy scene. It took a lifetime to get here, and there’s no guarantee how long it will last. But for the time being, I am one of the main go to acts for three Zanies clubs and it’s keeping me booked a lot locally.

This is exactly what I want, and I’m not taking it for granted. There have been a lot of odds and ends random dates that have come up of late, and I’m on the current call list to fill them. I always say yes when those calls come in, and tonight I received one to headline the club in Rosemont.

I hosted the Tuesday night ‘Ten Comedians For $10’ the week before last, and was delighted to get that call as well. Lucky for me I can fill in effectively at any position on a comedy show, and not everyone can or wants to do that. I can see the reasons why, but with Zanies I have a history.

Many comedians wouldn’t accept an opener or feature spot once they achieve headliner status. It’s a long hard climb to get to that position, and they view anything less as an insult. I see why they think that, as often bookers and club owners just want to fill spots and couldn’t care less.

I have nothing to prove with Zanies, and they know I’m one of their top local headliners and it ends up being a win/win for everyone. They don’t have to worry about whether I can get the job done, and I don’t have to worry about my check bouncing or making long drives. Count me in.

Another thing that is helping is that there are several other comedy clubs in Chicago these days and not enough strong local seasoned acts to go around. Comedy clubs can be very territorial and often don’t allow acts to work for rival clubs. That’s a game that has been played since I started.

I’ve been on the wrong side of that game more times than I can count, but for once I’m the one in the cherry spot. Zanies has three full time clubs, and nobody else in town can give me as much work as they can. I’m in the spot everyone else in town wants, and I know how fortunate I am.

When I lived in Milwaukee, I would never get the last minute calls to fill in. I saw the ones that did, and wondered if they appreciated it. They often didn’t act like it, but try as I might I couldn’t ever crack the rotation. Twenty years later I’m the golden boy, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

I have what is supposed to be a tremendous gig at a country club in Rockford, IL tomorrow for a Valentine’s Day party, and I had tonight off. Zanies only needed me tonight, so it was a perfect fit. I was able to pick up some much needed extra cash, and Zanies got a need filled with ease.

The audience tonight was a bit stiff at first, but I reached back and brought all I had. I was able to get them eventually, and there’s a deep satisfaction that goes with that much like being able to solve a difficult crossword puzzle. I had to work a lot harder than usual, but that’s fine with me.

What tonight was was a paid practice session. I had a chance to work on my act, and that’s why I got into the business in the first place. I know I should be working on marketing myself for this year – and I am – but for tonight I was able to get in the gym and work on my craft. That doesn’t happen that often anymore, and I really enjoyed it. Those people got a solid show, and I got paid.

Zanies Comedy Club in Rosemont is one of the most beautiful comedy facilities I've ever seen. I was there tonight, and will be back again in April. www.zanies.com.

Zanies Comedy Club in Rosemont is one of the most beautiful comedy facilities I’ve ever seen. I was the headliner there tonight, and will be back April 4-5. http://www.zanies.com.

Calendar Alignment

February 11, 2014

Saturday February 8th, 2014 – Hartford, WI

For the second Saturday in a row, I did a well run benefit show for The Lions Club. This week it was in Hartford, WI at a beautiful facility called The Schauer Center. I’ve worked there before, but not in the same venue. It has multiple venues, and I played in one of the smaller ones the last time I was there. It was a full house and very well received, so I was delighted to be back again.

This time it was in their main theatre, which is gorgeous. It’s much bigger than where I worked last time, and there were probably the same amount of people so it wasn’t as impressive. I’m still glad I got a chance to work the big room, even if it wasn’t sold out. I enjoy playing bigger stages.

I had no idea this was a Lions Club fundraiser when I booked it, and in fact the way I got it was a bit of a fluke. I happened to throw out an offhand smartass comment on a Facebook post made by someone I recently friended, but hadn’t seen in person in more than twenty years. Someone in that person’s circle of friends saw it and recognized my name. He happened to book this event.

The person I made the comment to happens to live in Denver, but is from Milwaukee originally and so is the guy that saw it. His name is Phil Larsson and he used to be part of ‘Comedysportz’, a competitive improv group that was started in Milwaukee. He lived in Texas for decades but has now moved back to Wisconsin. All of that had to come together how it did to get this booking.

I’d met Phil years ago, but only briefly. To have him see my name like that and happen to have a gig on a night that I was open a month out is damn near miraculous. It’s amazing how when the mindset is in a positive space, things like this happen. I truly believe it’s because of all the recent events that have been happening with reconnecting with my family. It’s made all the difference.

Even if it hasn’t, I’m believing it is so that’s good enough. Maybe this would have worked out before, but I doubt it. How many other things like this have I missed because my mind wasn’t on the wavelength it should have been – but totally is now? I can’t worry about that. They’re gone.

The point is, they’re happening now and I know it. I claim it, and I see no reason why it won’t keep happening indefinitely. I see no reason to stop. I had a nice booking close to home on short notice, had a lot of fun doing it and helped raise money for a good cause. How could I top that?

By keeping it coming. I am still in my prime as far as performing goes, and can light up a room with the best of them when I’m on my game. I’m on it far more than I’m off, and I don’t want to miss even one opportunity to stay in shape and work whenever I can. Events like this are a blast.

The audiences now are reaping the benefits of the ones I ripped off years ago by being terrible. It’s a process all performers go through, and it’s painful. I wanted to be great when I started, but I was anything but. I was horrendous, but so is everyone else. The headliners then carried shows and I was nothing more than time filler. I was trying my best, but my skill level just wasn’t there.

Now I’m the one carrying shows, and the audiences today are reaping the benefits. They didn’t have to sit through my growing years – they only see the polished product now. “You sure make it look easy up there,” people often say. Well, looks are deceiving. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

For whatever reason, my booking calendar for 2014 has been filling up quite nicely. Two months down, ten to go. Knock wood.

For whatever reason, my booking calendar for 2014 has been filling up quite nicely. Two months down, ten to go. Knock wood.

Ninja Status

February 8, 2014

Tuesday February 4th, 2014 – Rosemont, IL

The brutal winter continues, with little relief in sight. Tonight we got blasted with several more inches of snow, and then it’s supposed to go right back into the deep freeze yet again. This is the kind of winter that makes a person move south, and I’m about ready to hop the next freight train.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to travel so much. I already spend far more time than the average Joe getting to and from work, but in bad weather it’s unbearable. People drive like idiots in good conditions. Add even a little snow, ice or freezing rain and it becomes a giant nut house.

Tonight I had a gig hosting the “Ten Comedians For $10” showcase at Zanies Comedy Club in Rosemont, IL. The weather was a big issue, and the crowd was rather sparse. There were actually more than I expected, but it was nowhere near full and that makes it very hard for the comedians.

These shows exist so newer acts can get a chance to audition for paid work at Zanies, but most of them aren’t ready even though they think they are. It’s hard enough to impress a jaded booker who has seen it all in a full house, but on a snowy week night with a small crowd it’s impossible.

Standup comedy can be very awkward on slow nights in front of small audiences, and I’ve had to face that scenario literally thousands of times. Some acts handle it differently than others but it isn’t ever fun to have to jump start a cold crowd. It’s my job as a host to set the acts up properly.

I always try to get the audience to focus their attention on the acts, and on a night like tonight it becomes a huge challenge to maintain it through the entire show. Ten acts are a lot, and trying to squeeze any kind of energy whatsoever out of the crowd can be a tall order. It takes experience.

I’m one of very few that can do it, only because I’ve hosted so many shows in my time. I’ll bet I am in the top .001% of living humans that has had the most experience hosting standup comedy shows since 1985. I don’t have a lot of skills in life, but this is an area where I claim ninja status.

Unfortunately, I think I’ve about maxed out on the pay scale even though I enjoy hosting these shows very much. There’s a definite art to properly hosting any kind of a live show, even though most newbies look upon it as a chore. I’ve never looked at it that way and still don’t. It’s a craft.

Standup comedy is a craft as well, but it’s not at all the same as being a good emcee. There are all kinds of subtle nuances involved, and a good emcee pays close attention throughout the show so as to keep the energy flowing as consistently as possible. When there is a strong act, he or she must bring the audience back down. When there’s a weak one, it’s the opposite. It can be tricky.

Then to make it more difficult, most comedy clubs give the job of emcee to the weakest act on the show with the least amount of experience. It’s the lowest paying position, and it starts a show off terribly in my opinion but that’s become the tradition over time. It weakens the whole show.

Zanies is one of the few clubs anywhere that places a premium on a quality emcee. It’s smart to do that, and doesn’t cost all that much more. The audience tonight got a much better show for the $10 they paid because I knew what I was doing even if they didn’t know it. I took charge tonight.

When it comes to hosting standup comedy shows, I have achieved ninja status.

When it comes to hosting standup comedy shows, I have achieved ninja status.

A Lion’s Share

February 6, 2014

Saturday February 1st, 2014 – Kalida, OH

Last week I was in Woodburn, IN. Tonight it was Kalida, OH. Three weeks ago I’d never even heard of either of those towns, and I was pretty good in geography class in my day. These are not places I ever intended to go, but after being there I’m glad I went. The laughter made it worth it.

It didn’t hurt that there was a paycheck involved either. Both these shows were fundraisers for worthy causes, and at the end of each night everyone was a winner. I’d do shows like these every single night of the year if they’d let me, but it’s not that easy. There’s a lot behind the scenes that needs to get done before any show can happen, and the last two weeks it was all done correctly.

Tonight we did a fundraiser for the Lions Club of Kalida. Apparently they’ve been doing them for ten years, and have been using comedians the whole time. I don’t know how they’d found out about Tim Walkoe, but I’m glad they did. Tim asked me to do it with him, and it made for one of the strongest lineups I can think of for any show. We’re both solid headliners, and we kicked ass.

The people in charge knew it too, and they were beside themselves with delight after the show. I knew we’d deliver, and they said it was the best show they’d ever had. Of course it was, but we both sacrificed decades of our lives to get to the point of being able to do it. They got a bargain at whatever price they paid, as getting one much less two acts like us in one night was a super buy.

Tim and I talked about it on the way back to the hotel. Not many acts of any sort would be able to pull off a red hot show like this no matter what they’re called. Most ‘comedians’ would be far too dirty, and most ‘humorists’ wouldn’t be able to get consistent laughs all evening like we did.

We both knew exactly what to do, as we’ve been at it for so long. This was a diverse group and not an easy read. There were ages ranging from 20s to 70s, and it takes a seasoned pro to pull off a show that makes them all laugh. Everyone might not get every single joke, but at the end of the night everyone had a great time. Nobody knew how much work went into it, and nobody cared.

It wasn’t their job to care. All they had to do was show up and have fun – and they did. It was a super deal with a dinner/show package that featured an all-you-can-eat steak dinner plus as much beer as you could drink. Normally that would be a giant red flag, but it ended up working well.

There weren’t any issues with drunken heckling, and in fact they were an excellent audience. It was a pleasure to perform for such a well behaved and attentive crowd, and they were all there to support the cause and laugh. Whatever the people who ran it did, they hit it all right on the head.

They got the word out with the town and surrounding areas, and I didn’t see an open seat in the whole place. I’d estimate there were probably 400 people in the Lions Club, and they brought in a very good sound system too. We had the tools we needed, and we knew what to do with them.

This was a home run from every angle. I have to believe there are groups like this in thousands of towns like this I’ve never heard of – and many more that I have. Getting people to set them up as well as this one was and last week in Woodburn, IN is a different story. They all did their jobs and it made ours easy. It isn’t like this every week, but for the last two it’s been comedy heaven.

I had never heard of Kalida, OH before last night. I'm glad I did. What nice people live there.

I had never heard of Kalida, OH before last night. I’m glad I did. What nice people live there.

Tim Walkoe and I did a comedy fundraiser for a packed house. It benefitted the local Lion's Club.

Tim Walkoe and I did a comedy fundraiser for a packed house. It benefited their local Lions Club.