Comedy Clubs: Their Rules Don't Rule
Ask most comedians why they do comedy and you're likely to get some response that incorporates some version of the phrase, "be my own boss" or "do whatever I want to do" or "live by my own rules." You may even hear the word "freedom." The chance of hearing things like this go up significantly if said comic has just has just killed** OR if said comic has been doing comedy for a year or less. And the chances go down significantly if said comic has just eaten it* or they have been in the business for more than 15 years and are not famous. If either of those two things are in effect then said comic may just look at you and say, "I don't know why I do comedy." Often times they will then just stare longingly at you, as if to say, "Please, give me a reason to keep doing comedy. I entreat you. Pleeeeeeease!"
The fact is once you do comedy for a few years, you know FOR SURE that you are NOT your own boss and your freedoms only extend as far as your punchlines will take you. It turns out, no one is their own boss. Self-employed people everywhere are working for whoever they pay rent to. Hell, even Hunter S. Thompson had a deadline. "Hunter, this is Jann. I need that Vegas story ASAP! And let's see if we can get it in under 3,000 words this time." This is even more true when you go out --- cue scary music --- on the road!
"On the road" is not only where a comic finds out that there are rules, the comic sometimes finds out that those rules have been typed up, printed out, and posted somewhere the comic is sure to see them, i.e. the club's kitchen. Here are three of the most frequent.
"No excess fraternization with the waitstaff." "Excess fraternization" means sexytime. And this is very popular. The rule, not the activity. Honestly, most comedy club servers are so done with comedy that they aren't looking to talk to you, let alone, as this implies, exchange bodily fluids with you.
"Your first drink is free and food is 50 percent off." This is a club's way of saying that they are tired of comics eating them out of house and home. Or hanging out after the show and drinking the club's profits away. Comics say, "If you don't want me to eat your food then why put my people's food of Buffalo wings and nachos on the menu? And if you don't want me to sit around getting drunk, then put your club in a town where there's something to do after 9 p.m. And now I find out that I can't even hang out with the waitstaff? Back to the hotel for angry masturbation it is then!"
rick [flickr] No. The answer is no.
"That clever shit you do in the city doesn't work here." This is popular the further you get away from a major metropolitan area. Although one time when I was in Chicago a comedy club manager said, "Don't do that L.A. alternative comedy thing here tonight." I thought this was weird for a couple reasons. 1. I'm from S.F. and 2. I don't do "that L.A. alternative comedy thing" anywhere. And you would know that if you had watched the tape that I sent when you booked me. How'd I get booked here anyway? This is however a rule that I find helpful. Many times I have been five minutes into an hour set and thought, "Oops, that whole social satire thing ain't playing here. I wish there had been a sign." Sometimes, there isn't a sign, but there are signs. I walked into a club one time and saw a statue of Mike Tyson. Not the new pigeon/peaceful Mike. They had Iron Mike frozen into his most frothy, black shorted, black socked, black anger glory. I immediately set phasers to "No Irony."
And let me be clear, just because a club has rules like this, it doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad club. Sometimes it means that club is great and the manager just wants to keep it that way. Sometimes it means that it is a B club*** that has far too many year-one comics coming through with all that "king of the world" crap or they have far too many post-15-year comics who are taking out their career bitterness on the mozzarella sticks.
I bring all this up because last week I received an email from Rooster T. Feathers in Sunnyvale where I will be headlining this week that had a new one:
"Please note ... Every show you've been hired for is a pro show. Our Open Mic is every Wednesday if you'd like to come in early to workshop your new 20 minutes that isn't quite hitting yet or read a poem or practice your riffing skills."
WOW! POEMS? POEMS? How many poems did they get before they decided, "We really need to address this problem!"
My only worry is, what if after five minutes in I find that I have to drop all my clever stuff? Now I can't use my new stuff, work the crowd, or try out my poetry. My run starts on Thursday. Is that enough time to learn how to juggle?
And now here's a hilarious poem.
*Killed means you did very, very well.
**To paraphrase the genius comedian Robert Hawkins, eating it is when you eat it.
***However, no club ever admits that it is a B club. No matter how many times that club books just Lester from Willie Tyler & Lester.