Today, I got an email from a student of mine:
The lesson I learned tonight is that university students are PC to the point that it is unnatural. These are the people posting PC crap all over Facebook! At first I was confused about my inability to connect with the crowd. I felt it from my first joke (about marriage/children).
Some of the other comedians were outright angry at the sensitivity of the audience. This was the first time any of us had performed at a college.
If comedy is indeed a “veiled attack”, then these 19 year olds don’t know comedy! But I got to thinking: If it is funny TO THEM, they will laugh. One guy got up and talked about how after eating chicken vindaloo, his “asshole was blistered”.
At the comedy rooms he never gets a huge laugh with that bit. But last night the crowd loved it. What the fuck? They seem to love descriptive vulgarity … so long as you only make fun of yourself.
Then he went on to say, “After the show I read an article in which Seinfeld says stay away from college campuses at all costs. However there is money to made at such places…
So how do we make this work?”
First, for all the brilliance that is Jerry Seinfeld, he is wrong on this. Jerry is old school and seems stuck in an era that–as far as the 18-24’s are concerned–doesn’t exist. And it seems the more interviews I watch, read or listen to with Seinfeld the more he’s turning into his stubborn old Jewish Dad on his show ‘Seinfeld.’
Due to Jerry’s celebrity, he will continue to be able to work no matter what, but if he doesn’t adjust, he runs the very real risk of becoming mainstream obsolete.
One of the things you learn as an artist, writer, musician, is that different generations have different perceptions of life, therefore their tastes for what’s considered acceptable, changes.
Change, Update or Become Obsolete
Political correctness is nothing new. I started to see this clearly about 23 years ago. Don Rickles did an appearance on Comic Relief in 1992. Rickles is the original ‘insult comic.’ But of course the crowd was filled with people who were at the event to support the benefit to raise money for the homeless and disenfranchised; a very ‘politically correct’ crowd, indeed.
Rickles spent his 7 minutes fighting several groans.
Rickles is a fast and funny comedian, but his inability to play that type of audience was evident.
Rickles showed how out of touch he was with an evolving society. Trying to explain his insults by saying, “I love the ‘blacks;'” (in fact, candidly using a politically incorrect term to explain his act), exposed him as severely dated.
He reminded me of my grandmother when I brought my friend over to dinner. She referred to him as the ‘Colored boy.’ Which was totally weird because he was Puerto Rican. (Kidding).
Being out of touch made Rickles obsolete in the mainstream. He still plays Vegas, but mostly for the crowd that fits his age group and remembers Rickles for Rickles.
Don’t get me wrong, I hold Seinfeld and Rickles in extremely high esteem. I just want to call it how I see it.
Adjust, but don’t lose your voice or your edge!
George Carlin was able to continue to fill venues and remained a college favorite until he died. He kept his voice, kept his edge but also had something for everyone. Carlin was never only one voice.
I remember him saying. “You gotta put in some observation, some wordplay, some fluff. Fluff is important to remind everyone that although you think religion is bullshit, it’s still a comedy show, so lighten the fuck up.”
At some point Carlin also, said, “I don’t give a shit what the audience thinks…” The moment Carlin groomed his act to get on Late Night T.V. and did the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine for two years, I knew as far as that statement was concerned, Carlin had to eat those words. He adjusted and chose the material that was right for that audience.
In fact, we’re all full of shit if we don’t think we care what the audience thinks. Because, at the bottom line, isn’t that why we’re on stage in the first place? If we don’t get a laugh, we figure out the joke until we do. In essence, we all pander.
But I digress…
It’s About the Audience
Yes, the college kids are overtly PC, but it’s not “ruining” comedy. As a comedian/writer you should learn the acronym M-A-P, Material-Audience-Performer. The material has to suit the performer and suit that audience. When the audience changes, the material has to adjust.
I once played a corporate in Salt Lake City. The guy who hired me said that this was a very hip group and they like to make fun of everything, (famous last words, right?).
In my act, I started doing my Mormon section of my set list, (making fun of Mormons). The audience wasn’t laughing.
Evidently, the audience that likes to make fun of everything, did not like making fun of Mormons.
I needed to figure out why this audience wasn’t laughing or I was sunk.
A guy brought up a piece of paper and I read it. It said, “This crowd is mostly Mormon.”
So I looked at the audience, read the note out loud, took my set list out of my pocket and said, “That explains why that part of my act isn’t working.” And I tore up the set list.
The audience laughed at the candid remark, (because I made fun of myself), and I went back to my act, and instead, made jokes about Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They felt superior, loved it and laughed!
I adjusted my material to fit the audience, but if I took that experience and I said, “Wow whatever you do, avoid doing corporates at all costs,” because I’m unable to adjust to the crowd, I might as well get out of the business now.
Does this make sense?
My point is this: learn to work the crowd. Learn to adjust your material and shift gears so that the audience follows your trajectory.
In the email above, my student said “if comedy is, in fact a ‘veiled attack,’ then they don’t know comedy.” Allow me to talk about this briefly because comedy is a veiled attack; we’re attacking something. Even ourselves. But the key is to attack UP. Attack above yourself.
- If you’re white, don’t pick on minorities
- If you’re male, don’t pick on women (without recourse)
- If you’re female, male, hispanic, black or other… don’t pick on Special Olympics kids.
This is a shortened version of the attack philosophy and it’s only if you don’t have a valid reason, (IE: If you’re a male don’t pick on your wife or ex unless they cheated on you or did you wrong and you share this information with the audience; now you have reason to pick on them and the audience will actually crave for you to retaliate; simple story telling.).
One Solution: Lot’s of Self-Deprecation!
That being said, you should check out my deconstruction of Daniel Tosh. He’s loved by the college kids and he’s soooo NOT PC!
So why does his material work?
One reason is that he provides lot’s of self deprecation. The edgier the attack the more Tosh picks on himself. The reason he does this is to remind the audience that he really doesn’t take himself too seriously. This allows him to ‘step over the line’ then knock himself down a peg or two.
When you watch his act, you’ll see this pattern repeat. For those who are struggling with the idea that comedy have definite structure, it’s a great lesson. Tosh is masterful at this!
Second Solution: Double Down!
The second is when he does hit on something that’s politically incorrect, he doesn’t bail on it, he doubles down. He pokes at it and pokes at it until the audience (mostly 18-34 males) laugh out of the embarrassment that they shouldn’t be laughing at that joke.
They are also laughing at the ambivalence of Tosh; that Tosh doesn’t care that they didn’t laugh, (or instead, groaned), at the original joke. They audience recognizes that same ambivalence in themselves and since recognition is a top laugher trigger, they laugh.
Doubling down could be as simple as saying something like, “I’m going down this road with or without you people…” Or “Hey I’m twenty-one, this is the shit I talk about,” or “One day you’ll look back and laugh at this, like maybe the day when you actually become adults.”
The point is that all audiences have a degree of overt political correctness corrupting their ability to laugh openly at certain jokes from a comedian–
Be Unstoppable, Don’t Give up… Just figure it out!
Remember Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes? He ate it!
Did he say, “Avoid the Golden Globes at all costs?” No. He came back the very next year and had a great time making fun of the previous year’s performance!
College kids might be more PC than usual, but the object is to figure out what they laugh at, then figure out out of the stuff they laugh at what resonates with your persona, then approach your college set that way.
Go to a college show! See what the kids are relating to and write some stuff that fits your persona but also resonates with the crowd.
For the last two years. Comedian and former student, Tony Ming, produced some shows at Cal State University, Northridge.
He had five comedians doing sets for around a hundred and fifty college kids who were just starting their college careers. All of the comedians were our students…
I gotta tell you right now, none of our students bombed. That’s right, none. I’m not saying that to blow smoke up anyone’s ass. It’s just the plain truth. Each one went up on stage and had terrific sets with solid laughs every 18-20 seconds.
Their sets were all about their obstacles, and their struggles to figure stuff out.
The first year, Brian Kiley was headliner. Brian is the head monologue writer at Conan O’Brien. He performed for fifty-three minutes and EVERY JOKE WORKED!
His jokes worked despite the fact that Brian doesn’t really have any dynamic change in his emotions. His jokes are just nearly perfect in their structure.
Fifty-three minutes in front of a PC college crowd. Rocked.
The following year, I was the headliner in that same room. This time there was an even larger audience. I actually struggled with a few jokes. In my head I was like, Wait a minute. This shit kills at the clubs. What’s up? I then shifted gears, made fun of myself. Made it more interactive, (within my material), with me encountering or sharing similar obstacles with the kids in the crowd and the set went well.
Bottom line is, while still staying true to my style and my voice, I adjusted.
Because after all, this is show business. If the material doesn’t resonate with the purchaser, then, in order to survive, you have to adjust.
I learned a long time ago to approach my comedy as both an art and as a business. Most comedians miss this part of it.
Show Business is two words
Most comedians approach this business like, “Screw the audience, this is about my art.”
To a certain extent it is, but… “Show-BUSINESS” is two words and ‘business’ is usually in all CAPS.
Every performer, must understand is the the “Golden Rule,” which is: “He with the gold, makes the rules,” and if the one with the gold wants it clean or very PC then you have to be able to adjust.
You might consider having several different types of sets:
- A set for the clubs (Can get blue, (use profanity or graphic sexual situations), maybe edgy, or politically incorrect)
- A set for Colleges (Extra sensitivity toward being clean and very politically correct).
- A set for Cruises (Two 45 minute sets; one clean, one a little edgy for the midnight show).
- A set for Corporates and Fund raisers, (clean and focusing on theme and interests that usually appeal to the business or industry you are performing for).
- A set for Late Night, (A set on late night is 4-minutes, 30-seconds. It’s ‘T.V. Clean’)
It’s something to consider and take seriously, because those college kids will be out of college soon and be the primary audience members of the clubs and mainstream performance venues.
A comedian interested in having longevity should adjust when necessary or resolve to becoming obsolete.