I was at party recently and I had the privilege of meeting another veteran comedian, a comedian who had reached a certain notable level of success.
We were talking about comedy and I had mentioned that one of my students—Sascha Knopf—was a finalist in the ‘CA’s Funniest Female’ Comedy Competition this year, and another student of mine—Pauline Yasuda—won it in 2013.
This comedian looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t believe in competitions. This is my art.”
“You’re falling into that trap, are you?”
And although I know what she was trying to say and I respect it; it’s a common trap that ‘artists’ fall into and it’s utter nonsense.
This Is Not Art School
I didn’t engage in a discussion with this comedian about the topic, but it’s an important lesson to address and should be part of Art School 101 for everyone whether you’re an actor, dancer, writer, painter or comedian.
It’s an especially important lesson if you’re in one of those arts where there is little—if any—formal training; like stand-up comedy.
That lesson is:
This is Show Business, not Art School.
There is a difference. In art school we can do whatever we want. We can paint, or sculpt or write and be as creative as we want, flavoring our art to our own tastes, express ourselves purely without regard to the world’s judgment.
If they think it’s bland or too spicy, ‘screw them’ because it is my art and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in art school the beholder is you and a handful of other artists, but mostly you, because at Art School, you write the checks (or if you’re lucky, you are the offspring of parents with money, then it’s their check).
When you get into Show Business—which is two distinct words—read that again and let it sink in: Show-Business is two words. Each word should have equal weight, but they don’t. They call it a business because it is just that. If you don’t put butts in the seats or sell your art, nobody gives a damn.
In show-business, who is the ‘beholder?’
- Club bookers
- Talent Coordinators
- Casting Directors
- Listeners (if it’s radio)
- The network
- The Advertisers
- The audience
You are therefore beholden to those who make the decisions and write the checks. After all, comedy is not performed in a vacuum. You have to please those who are in charge and that includes the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, a strong developed point of view and character are essential to making you unique and brand-able, but you have to adjust when the ‘beholders’ demand it.
If you are such a powerful presence and your brand of art is generating ticket sales, filling arenas, generating a million followers on social media, the ‘beholders’ will acquiesce and will see the beauty in what you do, because they will see the revenue that you will generate.
But that’s only because they see that as good ‘business,’ because, really, most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny.
Let me repeat that: Most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny…
I mean c’mon! They released and distributed a remake of “The Three Stooges!”
Talk about being completely disconnected from the mass appeal of a comedy audience! (FYI Fox: Comedy Audiences have evolved beyond the hysteria from a ball-peen hammer to the head—if it was ever even hysterical in the first place).
That movie’s colossal failure underscores the concept that the audience is the final judge and they are a part of what makes up the essence of show business.
What’s that make us as comedians?
Comedians Are The Ultimate Panderers
Did that sting? Yeah, it hurt to write it too, but it’s true, so get over it.
Art? Yes, but not like in an painter who paints a picture and puts it out there. You either like it or you don’t.
In comedy we seek immediate gratification. That’s one reason we do this amazing art-form. But to get that gratification we have to adjust our subject matter and our jokes so we get laughs.
If we perform material and it doesn’t get laughs we immediately do two things:
- Re-write the material, or…
- Throw it away
We adjust to what the audience laughs at. You can be pure and and artist all you want, but you have to be aware of the audience and if they are laughing… and if they’re not, you make the adjustment.
Because if they are not laughing, you are not a comedian; you are a talker.
And in their comedy club or on their comedy show, a booker or a talent coordinator doesn’t want a talker.
Take a comedian like Bill Burr or throw back to Bill Hicks; you might think they just say (or said) anything they want, but that’s not true. They work their acts and edit and rewrite, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t.
Comedians adjust because we want laughs. Laughs get us noticed and laughs get us work. Because we’re not in it simply for the art. We’re in it because we not only love what we do but our goal is to make a living doing it.
It’s business and show-business is the game.
Comedy competitions are a part of the game.
There are few things, besides a personal reference from a legendary comic, that can help boost your notoriety faster than a strong finish at a notable comedy competition:
In short comedy competitions:
- Are solid resume boosters
- Get eyebrows raised
- Demonstrate a level of credibility
- Provide invaluable networking opportunities
- Give an opportunity to put out a press release
- Great ways to impress an agent or manager and snag representation
So, although being an artist is commendable and I work hard on my art, the end result is that this is show business and to ignore that fact and only focus on the art is, in my opinion, a naïve approach to the business.