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Should a comedian be able to play any room?

Essay and opinionPosted by Bobby Carroll Wed, May 01, 2013 14:25:04
On Sunday 28th of April the Professional Football Association booked Reg D Hunter to perform a comedy set at its annual awards ceremony . Reg D Hunter, a comedian who has appeared on prime time comedy shows like Have I Get News For You, Live at the Apollo and 8 Out of 10 Cats, would seem on first glance a solid booking; high profile, able to perform a TV safe set. And for the PFA after constant racist controversies dogging the sport booking a black comedian might seem like a gesture towards inclusivity even at their overpriced, exclusive jolly. Clearly not a lot of research went into booking Reg, an act whose material often focuses on race and saying the "unsayable", whose tour Trophy Nigga, saw many venues refusing to post the name of the show and the London Underground banning the promo posters.

Following a typically frank and no holds barred set from Reg, the PFA have publicly complained and demanded a refund. They asked him to keep things clean, avoid racial slurs and even race as an issue. Reg may have to return the fee (though the publicity among the football community and broadsheet papers will no doubt punt him to even bigger venues for his next tour so no great loss) but if he does it sets a bad precedent and highlights a common misunderstanding about what comics do onstage.

I hate booking acts for corporates. You know the set up will not be great for comedy. You know most of the audience have not signed onto watching comedy but are having it forced onto them. The acts, and their agents, want a lot more for the gig knowing their act is less likely to be in a good situation to do what they love doing, making people laugh. With the increased price tag (£500-£40k) the client who knows very little about the dynamics of comedy feel they can make demands on the comedian; can the act talk to this person but not be too rude, can the act do the raffle before their set (Sure -let's put the person whose job it is to entertain everyone in the position of disappointing 95% of the audience before they've had a chance to say anything funny), can they avoid doing any jokes about this, this and this.

The minute you start taking subject matter, jokes and words out of a comedian's repertoire you take the funny out. Comedians in the main have a set, 20-45 minutes of prepared script that they do that is their best and most up to date stuff. They spend months writing, editing it, trying it at new material nights before a new bit beds into their main 20 with a specific place in their set list and a specific wording and timing that works with most rooms. Swearing can be integral to some jokes or even a part of the rhythm of how the comedian confidently says or times the joke. To remove a routine, joke or even a word from an act's 20 is make the comedian second guess themselves on and off stage, have to be prepared to jump ahead in their well practiced flow and force them away from doing their best. To simply ask Reg D Hunter not to say 'Nigger' in his set is like asking Mickey Flanagan not to say the word 'Out' onstage or Wil Hodgson not to refer to Chippenham. Sure they can do it... but you are effectively removing an integral part of what they do, like asking Eric Clapton to play Layla with a string missing. Also with such an amount of money a sense of entitlement comes in play, as demonstrated in Inception. Ask someone not to think of the word Elephant and instantly elephants will appear in their brain. Ask a proven funny person not to talk about something then pay them more than the annual salary of someone on minimum wage to talk for half an hour and a certain amount of ego kicks in with that taboo at the forefront of their mind. I reckon Reg did not walk onstage thinking "I'm going to do exactly the opposite of what's been asked of me as a fuck you." I guess he thought "These people have paid several grand to watch, trust and enjoy Reg D Hunter so I'm not going to mix and cut that successful and intelligent experience with baby powder and brick dust."

The lesson learnt for the PFA is when you book Reg D Hunter you get a big plate of Reg D Hunter, not the a la carte Reg D Hunter menu or the lukewarm all you can eat Reg D Hunter buffet. If you book a comedian and they do their set there is very little a promoter, venue or client should be able to say other than we got what we asked for. You can't bring something back to the kitchen if it turns out Reg D Hunter you ordered contains peppers and chilies. They are part of the dish and it has been prepared over years to perfection. If Tim Vine or Harry Hill walked onstage and did 30 minutes about racism, full of derogatory words you'd have every right to feel ripped off. But that did not happen. This is a classic case of non-comedy types booking an act with the idea that all comedians do the same material and should be able to play any room.

Comedians are very much all distinct separate entities and while we still do subtly share subject matters, heckle putdowns and certain joke structures or performance tricks the focus on modern comedy is for acts with self generated material and distinct voices. "Voice" in this case is not just an accent or an affectation. A comedian truly finds themselves onstage when their persona, delivery style and material intersects together into something recognisably individual. It takes many years for an act to find their voice but when it does it improves their art and careers incalculably. When you have a fixed idea of how you uniquely will broach a subject or deliver a joke it focuses the writing process and makes editing before you even try something onstage easier. When promoters see you confident in your well defined self onstage they trust you more to pay you but also to know what they are paying for. The act who completely changes their style and material every year is a far less safer bet than the act who is happy in what they are improving and developing from an already working format. Having a voice informs your choices when onstage; if you are heckled, if the power cuts out mid joke, if a routine is not working... all you have to do is stay true to your voice and the audience will feel they are in safe hands and in such disasters your choices slim down to the ones that honour your onstage persona which make decisions faster and more sure footed. All creative, business and marketing options go through the easy filter of "Does this fit in with who I am onstage?" before any hard choices have to be made. When you find you voice after years of trial and error it just makes comedy... easier. Sadly you can't buy your voice or magically have one, it takes a lot of gigs and wrong turns to find and recognise the right one for you.

Yet when you find your voice you do lose something too. You've set a stall of what you are as an act and occasionally you'll be booked for audiences who don't want to buy anything from that stall. Comedy is a numbers game where the more unique your voice the more people might be turned off by it as it is out of their comfort zone of what 'funny' is; you can't do 20 minutes of puns to people only willing to groan, a prop comic cannot do their set to blind people, a confessional comic who has gone through rehab and has a terminal STD will not have the same points of reference as a group of six formers. There needs to be enough people in the room capable and willing to try to enjoy what you do and a voice can limit that. If an audience sees nothing but bad musical acts they aren't going to rise to their feet clapping when someone walks onstage with a ukulele, if the Canadian comic called everyone cunts then pulled his trousers down and took a shit onstage last time, then next month if your opening line is "So Hi... I'm from Toronto and I suffer from IBS" expect to put some hard work in before your first around the room laugh.

If act and crowd are not gelling a good act will try and mix things up, keep things chatty, avoid certain bits of material but when a good act is thrown into a situation where their set and the audience are unlikely to connect at all that is not their fault, nor the audiences, it is the bookers'. The booker should know what works and what doesn't for their rooms and arrange line ups with imagination but both the customers and act in mind. You might be the best rape and paedo gag comic on the open mic circuit, and a lovely person who needs to pay the rent to boot, but I'm sorry I'm not wasting West Norbiton Golf Club's investment and my relationship with them just because your ego feels you can play any room and if people walk out that's their fault. The odds are you are not going to work in that room of white hair and starched blazers so why are we wasting each other's time.

This is not me giving new acts carte blanche to die at my gigs they do not like the look of. The act who walks on with the preconception that this is not "my audience" and therefore throws the gig away is of just little use to a booker as an unfunny one. If you are sitting there second guessing what a room might like, you are damaging your own confidence in what you knows works for you. At least give them the first few minutes of what you do with the same professionalism and enthusiasm you would your ideal audience. Your material is the reason you've come to the gig, trust it enough and give it the best chance to do what it does. I appreciate when an act after struggling through at least a few minutes of their best stuff tries to change things up and moves off script to win a room over. But I prefer it when an act is confident enough in their material that, while it might not be the ideal marriage of set and demographic, is keen to stick to their guns and find a way of doing what they do that the audience might have to broaden their horizons to get value from.

Often its just a case of finding common ground or making a pact with the room you and they both might have different expectation of what comedy are. Eye contact, a little preamble to put things in context before a routine starts, grace that they might have had life experiences far different from yours. The act who blames the crowd for being small or quiet or wrong is being human onstage but in petulant self serving way. We've all been there but how often has that gambit worked to win the people who do want to enjoy the show in their own way over. If you blame the audience or settle to phone it in you not only are diffusing your good qualities' chance to shine but making it harder for acts similar to you to have a good show in future. At the end of a death the turn who does their best stuff and sticks to time is a lot easier to explain and justify to an audience or venue owner than the act who throws their toys out of the pram onstage or faffs around for the sake of not damaging their own confidence in their material.

Some acts walk onstage and blindly stick to their routine no matter how bad the response is. Like people whose only route through a minefield is a straight line. I'm not advocating that, you need to have a bit of hustle about you onstage a willingness that your monologue is not the most important thing at a comedy night. Once you have a good 20 of material and a working understanding of who you are onstage, and also who you aren't, bad gigs become easier to handle when they happen or accept afterwards. You've got something that usually ring outs but that night that make up of people weren't singing along . The booker would be silly to book you for that type of gig again but they may have other venues and audiences where what you do should work a treat. You do not have to gig for everyone, or play every gig but if you stick doing what you do onstage you give the booker or promoter a fair idea of what you are capable of and where you'll work. If all you do is move out of your set and persona to do hack tricks, berate the audience or visibly compromise into doing safe but unoriginal routines without giving the room a chance then even the most imaginative and conscientious comedy industry person will struggle to see where they can utilise you.

So Reg D Hunter was a poor booking choice for the PFA rather than a bad or unfunny act. Reg D Hunter stuck to his voice and performed what he felt was the funniest material in that situation. He might not get booked for many award ceremonies this Christmas but he'll have a least an arbitrary million more people now with an idea and curiosity of whether the Reg D Hunter live experience is for them or not. The next day Reg tweeted lots of images of attendees at that event happily having their photo taken with him. They had a night to remember. And you can't put a price tag on that.