The art of performing unannounced

This piece in the Sunday Times (UK) offers an intriguing look at how London comedy clubs allow famous comedians to perform "anonymously," at least on the listed bill, as mystery guests so audiences don’t get their expectations out of whack. Comedians talk about trying to get ready for a new tour and shaking off the rust (as Chris Rock did, acknowledging to me last summer and fall before his current tour), about how they approach surprise club dates differently from theaters, and how to deal with audience expectations.

Here’s one of several good quotes from the article: “It’s about managing expectations,” says the comedian and TV host Dara O’Briain. “If you’ve been away from the circuit, you’re not match fit. And you never know if something’s funny till you say it out loud – the amount of stuff for this tour I’ve had to ditch when I found it wasn’t as funny as it had been in my head.” O’Briain did a dozen club nights of varying degrees of hairiness as he got ready for his current show. “Once the tour starts, you’ve got to be ready,” he says. “No one pays £20 to be on your side as you work through some stuff.”

The situation, of course, is not unique to London. The article even describes one comedian watching Rock work out new material at the Comedy Cellar here in New York. Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams also drop in at the Cellar, never announced ahead of time. At the alt-venues such as Rififi, the UCB, or the Slipper Room, you’re just as apt to see touring theater comedians Demetri Martin, Zach Galifianakis, Jim Gaffigan, Louis CK, Mike Birbiglia or Todd Barry show up as a mystery guest now and again to try out a new five minutes of material. At Rififi, you may see one or several of these acts for $5 or even for free. In exchange, you tacitly agree to the understanding that you’re not getting the full theatrical performance, nor are you getting the finished product, nor even a joke that’s meant to last. That’s another reason why comedians can get rather frustrated in this digital age when they see an audience member raise their cameraphone or actual camera in venues like this. (related: Dead-Frog) I sometimes wonder how New York and Los Angeles audiences feel about having such great access to the talented comedians who live and work on their acts in their midst all the time. It’s wonderful for me, naturally. But do audience members get jaded or more snobby in their views on comedy because they not only see top-notch stand-ups more often, but also see them trying new and untested material? Jokes have to get tested somewhere, somehow.

Tying it all back to Britain, I think I prefer John Oliver’s method, or at least the process he jokes about sometimes, in which he has reproduced the measurements of the club in miniature and tested his material out on small animals he has crammed into the mini replica of the club. It was funny when I heard him say it for free. Trust me. It’ll be much funnier when you hear it aloud, no matter the price.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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