Respecting the Stage

This should be really obvious, but for some reason it's not

A guy at a desk grasping his head in frustration.
The requirement for getting on stage looks something like this.

It's our New Material Night, which is where new performers and open mikes try out for the first time, and the guy sitting at a nearby table leans over and says "Hey, can I go up and perform?"

"No," I say, flatly.

"Come on. It's an open mike night, right?"

"You can't go on," I say. That settles it for while.

Later, as one comedian is leaving the stage and another is getting on, the same guy as before asks again. I don't quite catch what he says, but it's something like, "Come on, let me go on. I could do at least as well as that last guy."

"No. You're not prepared."

"I'm not drunk," he says, turning away in a huff. I don't know if he misheard me or misinterpreted me, but either way, our interchange gets lost in a shuffle of activity as there's some people moving around between us.

Whether he was drunk or not, I doubt he would have ever given me enough focus to have listened to the real reason I wasn't even for a second considering putting him on stage. That the mistake this guy is making is to think that the criteria for getting on stage at an open mike night show is one of ability.

It's not. It's respect.

The kind of misconception this guy has is not just confined to standup comedy, it's something that occurs in performance in general. At least it seems that way to me, as I've been to dance performances, plays, live music, and whatever else, and in each category of art I've encountered performances where the people on stage are clearly just winging it. Worse, they seem to think that's all they need to do, a belief supported by a self delusion that they're so gifted that preparation is unnecessary.

I suppose there's lots of different reasons why unprepared people get on stage. A dancer who indulges in the idea that people find his body sexy probably has a different psychology than the guy beside me who just now decided he felt like trying a few jokes. But I would argue that common to just about all of these wanna-be performers is what seems to be a pervasive idea that audiences just exist by default. That going to see shows is just something that people do, and that when they've shown up to a performance, then they've basically agreed to sit through whatever happens on stage. So if there's an audience, then, in some people's minds, that's an opportunity to get in front of those people and scratch whatever particular itch they have.

Oh, hell no.

Even at an open mike night, where most of the performances have a high likelihood of failing, audiences don't just show up because they have all this spare time in their lives to fill. They're not relieved to discover that there are people with delusional hubris willing to get in front of them and do whatever.

Why does an audience show up, then?

Most people are at least fleetingly aware that there's kind of a give and take agreement between performer and audience. Performers of almost all arts are people who crave attention. Audiences crave entertainment. So if I entertain you, then I get your attention, and we all win.

But that virtuous cycle has to start somewhere, and so we're still left with the question of why should an audience give the benefit of the doubt to the next performer, the one who hasn't yet proven any ability to be worth watching.

Especially in the case of an open mike comedy performance, because when it comes to listening to people who think they're funny trying and failing to make me laugh, I get that for free, all the time, without even asking for it. I get it even despite actively trying to avoid it. It could happen at an awkward conversation at a party. It might happen in off moments at work with coworkers. It has happened when I've fallen into random conversations with strangers on the train or out and about wherever. It's a subset of social interaction that has the potential to spontaneously occur any time you're dealing with people who you aren't that close with. I deal with it, as we all do, because it's just part of life.

But there's no way in hell I want to knowingly volunteer for it. I hate it when I'm cornered at a bar or a party by some blowhard who thinks they're funny, which is something that happens to everybody but I think it happens just a little extra to those of us who introduce ourselves as comedians. So there's definitely no fucking way I'm going to commit, in advance, to the idea of giving somebody three minutes on stage for doing essentially the same shit. What am I, a masochist?

I'm not, and neither is the audience. They might have come to this show ready to see people who fail to entertain them, but they definitely didn't come to the show to see people who fail to entertain them the exact same way everyone else in their day to day lives failed to entertain them.

The difference? Preparedness. Everyone who gets on stage needs to come on stage with an act, a sincere attempt to want to do something for them. And this basically means coming prepared. Even if improv is your thing, then you need to have prepared a methodology, an approach, a system, so that your time on stage carries the audience through an experience that you are controlling.

Preparedness shows respect. The less prepared you are, the less you are respecting the audience's time. Simple as that.

Even if you're super established and famous so that you can offset the amount you prepare for any one show with the ability you've built up over the years through experience and effort. It's a preparation of who you are internally instead of what you've written down externally, but you're still prepared. And don't kid yourself for a second if you're some open mike who thinks that you've got that kind of offset built in with some kind of natural talent. Natural talent isn't preparedness, and the audience can always smell that shit from miles off.

What makes an audience take a chance for three minutes on someone getting on stage, instead of the last random jerk at some party, is that they're hoping the person getting on stage has spent some amount of time crafting something specific to say. A performer needs to respect that the audience is giving them the most precious thing that any human can give another, which is their time. We all know the value of time, so I won't belabour it, but it amazes me to the degree that some people will get on stage as if that time the audience is giving them just happens to be there. No, time is a precious commodity, and if you don't respect its value, then you shouldn't be on stage asking for it.

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I organize shows, and what that really means is that I help facilitate the transaction of respect. It is, essentially, me, via the show, introducing audience and performer. The performers show up because I've set up a venue and done some marketing so they hope there will be an audience. And the audience shows up because they hope that someone, in this case me, has filtered out people who will waste their time, and I've selected people who are more likely to do something worthwhile.

For an open mike show, part of how I uphold my part in the exchange is that I screen for prepared people by insisting that they sign up by email in advance. It's not the only filter, but it's one that directly addresses the concern of preparedness. Hopefully the people getting on stage are the ones who at least had the presence of mind to think in advance about the fact that they will perform, and have wondered about what they will say. They should even be a little worried about making an ass of themselves to the point where they'll want to reduce that risk by preparing. Those are the people I put on stage.

The guy who just leans in during the middle of a show and asks to perform? Filtered.

It is, of course, entirely possible that a comedian can sign up and not prepare, but so far the system has done a good job of weeding out people like that. We still get a lot of terrible performances at our New Material Night shows, but for the most part it's okay because I, and the audience, can respect a performer who tried in earnest and missed. If we can see this person really wanted to reach us, then we are sympathetic to the fact that they are new to the craft.

I'm always saying to performers there's a world of difference between wanting to make the audience laugh and wanting to make the audience think you're funny. If you fail at the former, the audience roots for you to do better the next time. If you fail at the latter, the audience hopes you don't come back.

Respect for what it means to be on stage, to be given the audience's time, is a big part of determining which side of that judgement you'll land on.