TWO BUCK YUKS: Read your roomWritten by Keith Bergman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
At a recent gig, I was surprised when the headliner thanked me for “being a clean comic — you don’t see that much these days.”
Clean? I talk about finding used condoms in a parking lot in my act. I discuss “morning wood” and self-gratification near the end of my set. And I made passing reference to the sex drive of a blue-haired old lady in the front row. If anything, I thought I’d crossed the line a couple times.
But apparently the line has moved. Go to any open mic now, with new and untested comics, and you’ll hear jokes about abortion, rape, racism and enough F-bombs to send Lenny Bruce scampering back to charm school. It’s a brave new world, ushered in by YouTube, satellite radio and unfettered access to a new school of shock comics like Anthony Jeselnik and Daniel Tosh.
There’s an art to pushing the envelope. You have to establish a relationship with an audience before you bludgeon them with a shocking topic or an offensive joke. This upsets some would-be comics. The idea of easing an audience into a topic, or toning it down, sets off a Pavlovian cry of “censorship!” They reason that if a crowd reacts badly to something, it’s the crowd — it couldn’t possibly be their gem of a joke.
First of all, the same freedom that lets you say what you want lets them react how they want. That’s the nature of public performance. Once it’s left your mouth, it’s not yours anymore and your listeners can interpret, react, love or hate as they see fit.
Secondly, you have to consider your venue. Open mic night in a raucous dive bar? Let the filth fly. But I was in a room full of middle-aged, small-town folks who paid good money to laugh and enjoy their night out — and paid me to entertain.
The word “entertainer” doesn’t get used much any more, but if you take the money, that’s your job. Don’t pander or dumb down what you do, but if what you do is guaranteed to ruin those people’s Saturday night, and that’s the only trick in your bag, stay home.
There are those who’d find it fun to take the gig, get the money, then go in and offend everyone in the room on purpose. Those kinds of comics generally consider themselves anarchists, free spirits or rebellious artists. I prefer to call them “assholes.” See how I waited till the end to cuss? Ebb and flow.
Know your crowd, respect your crowd, don’t be a jerk. Simple!
Keith Bergman hosts the Two Buck Yuks Comedy Night at the Blarney Event Center, 601 Monroe St., Downtown Toledo, every Wednesday at 8 p.m. Oct. 30, Mark Sweetman headlines the room.