One time I was performing for an audience that was half British and half German. I call this “picking your poison”. To many performing neophytes, the very notion that one must decide which segment of the audience you’re going to go after is anathema. “You must please the entire audience” they protest. No, you don’t. In fact, you can’t. More to the point, you’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to do so.
Politicians strive to appeal to as many voters as possible. But what do you think of a politician who you perceive as trying to appeal to all voters? You see him or her as a panderer. And you are right to do so.
We all know the type: overwhelmingly nice guy, never steps on anybody’s toes, goes out of his way to help – and most of all not to offend.
These are wonderful qualities – they really are – but too many comedy performers make “unoffensive” value number one. But what, you ask, is wrong with wishing not to offend your audience?
First of all, I’m not talking about “blue” material or anything dealing with race – although many adults like me believe there is a time and place for both. Rather, I’m referring to the phoniness and reflexive flattery that informs so many performers.
You don’t have to have a lot of experience on stage to realize that audiences do not think, feel and react in concert. This is worth exploring at greater length but I will only allude to it here because I’m frankly tired of performers spoiling what should be a fun show by becoming an edgeless blob when it comes to making observations. The issue isn’t even giving offense – for many entertainers the very idea of expressing a political opinion on stage, for example, is beyond the pale: you might as well open your show by deconstructing someone’s theology.
Some audiences have shared values. To my mind, being deliberately provocative is far worse than being “offensive” – whatever that means. Late in his career, George Carlin had two types of routines: the ones that were angry and inspired (henceforth “the funny ones”) and the ones that were mostly informed by laziness (“I can prove to you rape is funny – imagine Elmer Fudd being raped by Porky Pig”). The former we laugh at in spite of ourselves – the great enigma of comedy is how it bypasses our moral prism – the latter were rather pedestrian attempts to get laughs by shocking the middle-class values.
Do you know who finds pandering in a comedian most tiresome? The successful and affluent.
You don’t need to be a wealthy, successful businessperson to know what it’s like to be a wealthy, successful businessperson: you’re getting your ass kissed all the live-long day. You’re surrounded by people who want something from you – a contract, a promotion, a re-tweet – by people who therefore can’t help themselves from telling you what you want to hear.
Now imagine this CEO in attendance at a comedy show. He is no longer in his czar-like surround but is now an anonymous equal hopeful of some diversion from his usual routine. And what does he get? Another lapdog comedy act who’s afraid to say what he thinks of Mitt Romney.
Audiences comprised of highly successful people, especially, find comedy entertainers who are funny while remaining “real” – in their language, opinions and attitude – are a breath of fresh air from the yes-people they are surrounded by in their professional lives.
Below are some examples from my own show that may explain what I’m talking about.
– “I’m originally from San Francisco, California. I’m not only president of the Bay Area Republicans Club but I’m also the member”.
This is hardly “edgy” and I do not pretend that it is. But how many otherwise politically-oriented performers would never dream of broaching politics, much less acknowledge membership in one of the two major, normative political parties in the United States? And even less than that – since the joke is about political isolation, not about denigrating San Francisco values (which are coercive and un-American. There. I feel better).
– “People criticize all this stimulus spending because it’s our children and grandchildren who have to pay for it. Frankly, that’s the only thing I like about it. I think congress’s motto should be “We tax your children and pass the savings on to you” “.
Again, this is hardly an full-throated endorsement of the GOP. On the contrary, it’s the sort of populist bashing of politics-as-usual that Americans of all political stripes eat hand-over-fist. But that’s my point: how many performers couldn’t conceive of telling this joke lest a Keynesian in the audience raise her eyebrow?
Let’s say politics is way off your radar. Nothing wrong with that! But what is to stop you from saying the following? (Other than the fact that it’s my joke and not yours).
– “I was walking through the photo gallery on my way to the stage, looking at the pictures of all you folks… Don’t you think that pictures of ugly people should cost less money than the other photographs?”
And so on.
My most-fervent prayer is that there is a special circle of hell for people who walk on the elevator before giving others the opportunity to get off. Do I hammer these people mercilessly onstage knowing that some in the audience are these people? You bet I do. I’ve seen morbidly obese folks preoccupied with getting tan. Do I avoid pointing out their absurd vanity knowing that some in the audience are absurdly vain? No, I don’t. Throw in all the grown-ups who are prepared and eager to laugh at themselves and, well, you get the point.
In comedy, as in so much in life, there is a fine line. But just because you don’t wish to cross it does not mean that you must stay as far from it as possible. The adults in the room will thank you.