You have been toiling on your act for a while. You’ve written. You’ve tightened. You’ve rehearsed. You’ve sweat. You’ve honed. You feel you’re beginning to find your voice.
You’ve developed a crystalized point of view and a through-line that’s on steroids and you’re ready to flex it like a 20-year-old with a well-earned six-pack.
You’re beginning to feel like you don’t just have laughs, you may just have a purpose!
Then you get a booking at a club you’ve worked in previously and the booker drops this bombshell: “I don’t like this new style of comedy you’re doing. I think you should go back to the old you.”
What do you do?
Several comedians have asked me about this over the years. How much do you adjust your act when a booker doesn’t dig your style?
My answer is “That depends.”
In my career as a comedian, I have walked away from gigs, I have fired managers and I’ve made other decisions–both good and bad–that go against the grain of the take-any-gig-that-comes-my-way attitude.
And although I probably would’ve never considered doing that in the early part of my career, when I finally started to feel my voice, to really express myself, to come from a place that meant something to me, that’s when I decided to be my own man, my own artist, my own company.
Basically I made a decision that I’m going to succeed or fail based on my own brand, my own goals and my own business model.
It was both freeing and frightening. But then I got the best advice ever from a surprising source… George Carlin.
When I started out, I emulated a variety comedians. I was studying George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. I was also a big fan of Bill Hicks.
I’ll admit it, I went with the trend at the time and I was very quirky. I was very “Seinfeldian.”
I was booking a lot of feature work. My first audition for Bud Friedman resulted in being booked in Vegas at least 4 times a year and getting a spot on A & E’s “An Evening at the Improv,” my first television spot as a comedian.
It wasn’t until I met George Carlin that I got the best piece of comedy advice ever. He changed my approach and subsequently, my career.
Carlin said, “There’s a line. Cross it.”
At first I didn’t know exactly what he was talking about. Then he clarified: “Take the stuff that drives you crazy and make it funny. You ever watch T.V. or read the news and call bullshit? That’s your comedy. Use that. But make it funny…
Say something that means something to you. Otherwise you’re just one of those cookie-cutter comedians who ain’t sayin’ anything!”
Then he said, “You can mix it up with fluff, if you have quirky and observational stuff, because the audience needs that playful stuff too, but say something that means something.
Don’t just make them laugh, make them think!”
It was that coincidental meeting that changed my entire approach to comedy. I started building an act that came from a real personal perspective. I started taking the stuff that drove me crazy and started to make it funny.
I started watching the news and reading the paper and when I felt myself call ‘bullshit,’ I wrote it down and made it funny, using paradox and irony, word-play and incongruity. I used powerful benign retaliation like Carlin, Bill Hicks and Chris Rock, (a powerful form of payback-style comedy) that you can learn in my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”
I became more of a socio-political comedian. I also had my quirky, fun observational stuff, but most of my act was driven by my angst and strong point of view. I blended it when I needed to, dropped certain edgy stuff when I did corporates, but most importantly, I felt like I was me!
Ninety percent of communication is non-verbal. The rest is visual and emotional.
Shortly after that tip from Carlin, my act changed. I took it on the road. It was getting a good reception.
Then I played a club in Sacramento. It was a club I had performed in for years as a feature, then a headliner. I went there with my new act; a very powerful socio-political act with kind of an underlying theme of tolerance.
Five nights, seven shows; after the first show, the club owner said, “I don’t like this new Jerry. I like the smart, quirky Jerry better.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was stuck. I liked this guy. He booked me a lot. I liked the club. I liked the people.
The next night I came in and did my quirky act. He was happy. But I wasn’t.
In my hotel room that night, I decided that I was going to take Carlin’s advice rather than some club owner’s in Sacramento. I came to work the next night. Did my socio-political act and pulled out all the stops.
That night I received my first standing ovation. I was beyond surprised.
After the show, the club owner came up to me to congratulate me… or so I thought.
He said he wanted me to finish my week doing my quirky act. and that he already expressed his displeasure with my socio-political act and that if I wasn’t willing to do as he asked, then I wasn’t welcome to work there anymore.
WTF!? Did he not see that standing ovation?
I tried to convince him otherwise, but he wouldn’t budge. I’m not sure why, but I think the issues I was pointing out as ridiculous, he actually believed in.
I finished up that week giving him what he wanted. After all, it is a business and I live by the golden rule, (He who has the gold, makes the rules).
Besides, I had to remember, I’m a guest in his club.
But after my last performance, he cut me my check and I respectfully told him that I’ve made up my mind that the quirky Jerry is no longer true to me and I wanted to evolve–at least in the clubs–and if he didn’t approve, then I wouldn’t be working for him anymore.
When I returned home, the check bounced! Eight months later, that club went under.
The club closing had nothing to do with me. It was because the club owner was a bad business man. That wasn’t my point of view, but that of the IRS.
The lesson for me in all of this was clear; Be True To You!
In my collective business model, I know that all work in this business is a collaboration. The club owners are absolutely a part of that collaborative effort and as long as it doesn’t hurt the integrity of my act, I am always willing to make some adjustments to it.
But, once you hit that stage, it’s just you, that crowd and that microphone.
Think about it. Even if I did what he wanted rather than what was true to me, my check still would’ve bounced, that club would’ve still gone out of business, and there still would’ve been a gaping three-week hole in my schedule that I would’ve had to fill anyway.
To round it out, before the end of that year, I started working at the rival to that club in Sac. Many of the same people from the previous club came to see me there.
The rival club owner liked me. He liked that I brought an audience with me.
He liked when the audience gave up a standing ovation and…
He liked to have a comedian that wasn’t afraid to say something that means something.
Oh, and I liked that his check always cleared.