How to perform in front of your worst audience as if it’s your best
They call you to the stage. You know you’ve done all the practice and prep you could have for this show, you get on the mic, start your set, and…it doesn’t go well.
It’s not even your fault! At least, you’re pretty sure it’s not.
You know you can kill, you know you’ve killed before; you’ve got tags on tags that normally have folks rolling in the aisles by now. For whatever reason, the vibe is way off tonight.
Does this mean you’re a failure?
Shoot, you still have fourteen of your fifteen minutes left, how are you supposed to survive this?
Don’t Let Them Smell Your Fear
Take a deep breath. Try to repress any doubts and put on a brave, confident face. You can cry in your pajamas later. Right now it’s time to convince these people that you know exactly what you’re doing and you’re not afraid of them. Strike a power pose, square your shoulders, and deliver as if they’re loving you. Fake it ‘til you make it, champ.
Look For Your Allies and Perform To Them
I once did a variety show that doubled as a political fundraiser. The local politician who was the night’s guest of honor spent every performance at the back of the room having conversations with a throng of people.
Sometimes you get an audience that’s rude, an audience that isn’t really listening and isn’t really there to see you. But there was a handful of people near the front of the room who were absolutely listening to me. Instead of getting flustered that I was being upstaged at the back of the room, I focused on the four faces who were enjoying my jokes. If worst came to Worcestershire, and no one had been listening, I at least had the other comic on my side.
Prepare For Hecklers
You can’t anticipate every situation you’ll face on stage. But the more you perform, the more likely it is you’ll run into a heckler at some point.
Some venues do a great job of handling repeated harassment, but being able to do some light crowd control is a skill you can practice.
You might want to look for recordings of your favorite comics responding to hecklers (or any number of top responses to hecklers compilations). You don’t have to improv the perfect comeback (though this is another skill that can get better with time), just think of and practice a line that’s calm and firm. Most of the time, the audience wants to be on your side, and some cool, withering condescension toward a heckler can be enough to keep them there.
End Your Set Early
The more you perform, the better sense you’ll gain for crowds and the more tricks you’ll develop if you feel an audience’s attention slipping. But remember that giving up is okay, too.
If being up there starts to feel like torture, if you’re absolutely not having a good time and nobody is laughing anyway, if you’re sweating through your shirt (and it’s a tank top!), if the whole room feels hostile, then there can be some measure of dignity in the retreat.
Failure is a teacher too. Maybe the lesson is that next time you don’t do the why golfing is dumb and should be abolished jokes at the Golfing to Solve Cancer event. Or maybe the lesson is that a certain venue or type of audience isn’t your scene. Or maybe there is no discernable lesson and so the lesson is how to support yourself after a particularly bad night. I recommend ice cream, PJs, and Twilight movies.
Bad audiences happen to the best of them and they’re bound to happen to the rest of us, too.
Bad experiences can understandably rattle us and shake our self-confidence. But if you’re a comic there’s a pretty good chance that you use humor as a coping mechanism. So, as bad as you might feel coming away from a particular performance, try to remember that eventually, you will probably mine this night for new material.