One of the main reasons I started blogging was to create a space to chronicle my understanding of how to perform standup. That kinda fell by the wayside over the last year or so, replaced by the bizarre ark-of-frustrations that is my life.
After the 3-4-5 Tour (for the uninitiated: me, saad haroon and Danish Ali performing in the major cities of Pakistan over one long weekend), I’ve been really wanting to go over the lessons learned. So let’s do that here, and then we can go back to more youtube uploads and musings on pornography later.
The first show of the tour, in Karachi, felt incredible right after it ended. Danish opened strong, Saad upped the ante and then I closed well. I remember watching from the wings as Saad just riffed with the audience and admiring his skill. Just using a “hello, what do you do?” to spin-off into improvised material. It’s something I’ve never tried because I tend to be so obsessed with the material, but it really helps warm up the audience. It makes sense too, Saad and I both have backgrounds in Improv, and yet he is the one with the confidence to try to just put the material aside and go off-script like that.
After that show, I was fairly happy with the reaction people had to my material. I had gone for, alot of the audience, from a family friendly Sienfeld-esque comedian to a gonzo perv with a penchant for fetish porn in the space of one 20 minute performance. Alot of the audience wasn’t expecting it and they were great sports about it.
After the show though, in conversation with a friend (I always rely on one or two friends for honest criticisms), I realized that I maybe overdid it a tad. I talked about one topic for a little too long, combining 3 long bits into one extra-value bit which stretched to 10 minutes. My friend also pointed out that what was really missing was my self-deprecating signature style which really eases people into topics are hard as “child molestation” and “kinky sex”. It’s easier to get into the subject matter if I am making myself the topic of conversation and letting people think, “yeah! that happens to me too!” as opposed to making it seem like they are the ones I am directly talking about. It was only after it was pointed out that I realized it’s what makes Patton Oswalt’s material so much more enjoyable. He takes the piss out of himself regularly. The more you make fun of yourself, the more serious the audience takes you. Odd but true. Obviously, this doesn’t hold true at an extreme level but moderately so it can make all the difference.
I also recently heard the audio recordings of my performance in Karachi (we recorded audio and video of the entire tour). I totally rushed through the material. I nearly stepped on my own punchlines and didn’t pause at all anywhere. Not for effect. Not to take a breath. Alot of the bits get laughs because the audience in Karachi is more familiar with my rhythms and speech-patterns, but it really weakened the performance. Got laughs. Could have been bigger laughs though.
Lahore was fun. The first LUMS show was just so that I could introduce Danish and Saad to the audience. Apparently the audio from my previous solo show there had been doing the rounds on the university LAN and since the organizers asked that I do family friendly material only (which almost the entire audience came up to me to complain about later!) I didn’t do much material, just kind of transitioned from Danish to Saad. I did try my hand at riffing with the audience though and it was fun and easier than I thought it would be. Spent the first 5 minutes of my stagetime just chatting with audience members, spinning off new material from whatever they gave me. Thank God I did that then, because I needed it the next afternoon.
The LUMS alumni show was a survived-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth debacle. 50 people. Under a tent in the afternoon. Traffic noise in the background. A stage that was miles away from the sparse crowd. God. I remember just having a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach before going up. Like I was about to give some kind of oral version of the SAT and my future depended on it. Just horrible arrangements. Saad warmed up the audience as best he could (and he really was fantastic to watch. They wouldn’t crack a smile so he just kind of shut down for two minutes, went through his material in his head while standing there, and then came back and won them over). I just decided screw it and started the audience banter again. And it worked like a charm! Got the crowd relaxed, would talk to them then spin-off into a bit that was relevant to what we were talking about, then do the same thing again. Horrible crowd but we still made them laugh.
It did make me decide however, never to do another corporate show. In Black Fish we do corporate gigs all the time. Infact I think 90 percent of our 2006 performances were corporate. Probably 30 shows in all or something like that. And most of the time they go well enough but not at all as much fun as a regular comedy crowd show goes. With Black Fish, I don’t have much of a say in that decision. There are 3 other troupe members and the money is a big part of what we do. It pays for alot of what Black Fish hopes to evolve into.
With my stand-up I have no such need. I do stand-up because I love it. I do it for audiences who appreciate it and I take a big enough risk everytime I go on stage. I have a day job partially so I can subsidise my stand-up shows. There is absolutely no need for me to go up there, in front of an audience who has no interest in me and my comedy and then work my ass off to get them to crack a smile that they think has no place in their suit-and-tie getups. So no more corporate shows for me. The money may be fantastic, but it’s not worth the pain.
I think the most educational show for me though, was the Islamabad show. I had lost my voice almost entirely. My normal speedy-gonzales on crack shrill voice was dulled to a raspy whisper. We had done 4 shows in three days at this point and the tour had exhausted me. I was cold and I decided I had done enough good shows in Islamabad to not have to prove anything. Got on stage, talking low into a mike, took my time and really kinda of let the material do the work. No physical comedy, just leaned on the mike stand and kind of purred out bit aftet bit. Did some new material penned the same day, did some of the Karachi material, just really enjoyed myself because I was comfortable as could be.
And I think that’s what made it, as Saad described it, my best performance ever. I was completely relaxed and really fit into my own material for the first time. The audience wasn’t trying to keep up. I was letting them enjoy each bit at their own pace. All this time I had been trying to do that whole Chris Rock style, which is pacing up and down and rat-a-tat-tat delivery. But for me, it turns out, Mitch Hedberg is a better model. Not his one-liners. I can’t write material that finely compact if my life depended on it. But just the really chilled out and laid back delivery style. And it works like a fucking charm.
Saad and I have been discussing doing a school tour. Schools and colleges in Karachi throughout Jan ’07. Maybe 6 or 7 shows. And I know how I want to try them. More improvisational. More conversational. More relaxed. Don’t rush the material. If I wrote it I should try having more faith in it. It hasn’t let me down yet.