Wednesday, June 12, 2013

You Only Get What You Give

Last night I had drinks with a few friends who are also in the entertainment industry. We were discussing comedy and comedy acting and different approaches to it. In the midst of a fun and Prosecco filled conversation one of my friends said something quite offhand that has really stuck with me.

"Sometimes a performer is really good at making a laugh, not just getting a laugh, but making you laugh and seeming to really enjoy that."

That sentence made me really stop and think... I've never considered the difference between making and getting a laugh before. I feel like there is a real difference between the two and it's not just a linguistic detail that can be brushed away. As a comedian, which one am I really interested in? Getting a laugh and feeling that bang of audience response? Or making a laugh to watch people enjoying themselves?

My first instinct is that the comedian needs to get the laugh to have a successful gig.

There's a big difference in audience reactions and how they feel when you're on stage. It's not uncommon for a comedian to come off having suffered what they considered to be a humiliating defeat in the face of all that is hilarious and to speak to audience members who thought it was excellent and have no idea the comedian was suffering from the dry mouthed hell of a stage death. Comedians forget that audiences can be enjoying themselves without booming with laughter. We need to hear the laughs coming back to spur us on to higher energy and risk taking with improvisation and new material. In this respect I'd say that getting the laugh becomes more important than making the laugh because you need to physically get the laugh back to pay for the next energy infusion.

From the relative darkness of the stage it's often quite difficult to see the audience, or at least much past the first two rows, so we rely almost entirely on the calibre of the noise coming back to gauge our success in the gig. If the first joke receives a juicy, unanimous boom of approval then anything less than that for subsequent jokes can make the comedian feel like the gig has soured. Even if every person laughs at every other joke so that there are always 50% of the room laughing, it can feel like a loss - despite the individuals having a good time.

Is that the comedian having inflated expectations of his/her own level of attainment? Hard to say and would change from comedian to comedian. But once you've felt an entire room laugh, it's hard to be satisfied with anything less.

Or is it?

Is there something to be said for a joke which leaves a large number of the audience staring blankly at the microphone, while a select few are wiping the tears from their eyes because they can't believe how funny it was? A niche laugh? Is that making or getting? It's far from the singing revelation of an entire room loving you, but it does elevate you to an elite within the room. Does a joke that makes a select few laugh have a superiority to a joke that any old sod can laugh at? What about a laugh that inspires a reaction other than a laugh?

A nod?
A clap?
A murmur or approval?
A "very good"?

Is it as satisfying for the audience and comedian if a joke makes someone say "that was funny"?

What about heckler interaction? Would any comedian worth their salt set up a gag that helped a heckler get a laugh? Can you be that selfless in a medium that can turn as quickly as stand up comedy? I think in this case you have to look at the intention of the heckler - if the audience are loving it then you can gently encourage the interaction as it's upping the overall laugh rate of your set (which is what people are going to go away thinking about) but if the heckler is quicker than you, and saying things that are causing the rest of the audience to reconsider their enjoyment of you then it's up to you to control the situation and bring it back to your own comedy.

I've seen a lot of gigs where a heckler has been taken down swiftly and viciously by a comedian and it's left the audience wondering what happened that was so awful. From the stage, it can be hard to gauge whether a heckle is an attack or simply an over enthusiastic fan joining in. There's certainly nothing worse than a misguided aficionado being torn a new one by a jumpy comedian who sent nuclear missiles to deal with a scouting party from deepest darkest Wales. But when there are a limited number of responses you can get:


 and milliseconds to decide what to do about them before you look unstable, you have to deal swiftly and hope that you've understood the nature of the interaction appropriately.

So, I guess I've slightly gone off topic here, "making" or "getting" a laugh? I think overall stand-up comedy needs to get the laugh - making a laugh is for writing, TV and other non live performances where the action is already set before the audience is given it. Stand up and live theatre are about an audible dialogue and the approval coming back is a key part of the brilliance of the routine.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Who You Calling Soup?

So, recently I've been doing some acting. Usually I pretend to be a different person for laughs by myself, but this acting seems to be much the same except that I get to blame people other than the audience when it doesn't go well. What more could a budding young therapist's rent bag want?

Yesterday, the acting contract ended and I was faced with an evening on my own to contemplate how much I'm going to miss it. The only thing I can compare it to is the feeling you get when you finish a tub of ice cream and you realise you want more but you're already in your pyjamas so going to the shop isn't an option. Unless you're willing to get dressed... but that's going to require taking your pyjamas off to put clothes on and, as we've discussed, you've just eaten a tub of ice cream so you're quite unwilling to look at the thighs and stomach area in case they look as much like a bouncy castle made of pork as you imagine they do.

So you dash to the computer but then realise that Tesco Direct aren't like Dominos, and besides what if they have run out of Haagen Dasz* and bring you Greek Yoghurt instead and then you'll be Vanishing that out of the carpet for hours because you'll have to throw it at the door behind the rapidly retreating delivery man as he cowers before your ire.

That's how I felt. Over the top and a bit lost. And also, possibly hungry. Yes, I was hungry.

So, I decided to do something productive with my evening. I went to the supermarket and decided to make a salad. Making the salad was not going to be the challenge - eating it and pretending it was a satisfying way to live was the challenge. But I was up for it. After 8 weeks of hanging out with actors I was ready to pretend absolutely anything was more interesting than it actually was.

But... But! But, then I saw a different challenge. It was sitting there on one of the shelves of the supermarket. In the fridge. Looking all chilled and goose bumpy. Legs held tightly together by a teasing piece of string... A chicken. When I first saw her, I was actually holding some breasts in my hand. But I quickly let go, apologised to the shelf stacker, persuaded her not to press charges, and decided today would be the day I bought an entire chicken for the first time in my life.

How hard can it be to dismantle a chicken? Is dismantling the word one should use? It turned out to be very, very appropriate.

I got the chicken home, set it out on a chopping board with a variety of incredibly cheap knives and found a YouTube video with a suitably chirpy Irish chef who seemed to know what he was doing. His chicken looked a lot like my chicken at the beginning, all quivering and pale pink on the chopping board. We began. He sliced, I sliced. He pulled, I pulled. Then it all got a little slippery... and there was a dilemma where it was difficult to find the tip of my finger in the off cut pile... My Irish friend did not seem to be struggling to find the tip of his finger** so I paused the YouTube video (taking the time to smear chicken and my own blood across my laptop in the process) and addressed the situation.

With the finger happily sorted and the chicken still looking like it was going to come off better in this than me, I got back to work. Legs first across according my ever optimistic Irish friend, and as that's always been my motto I was more than happy to oblige. I hacked away with more enthusiasm than Silvio Berlusconi at a Super Sweet Sixteen Party.

I made three piles of chicken:
A pile of bits that looked a bit like the ones in the YouTube video.
A pile of bits that were almost certainly inedible.
A pile of bits that I might be able to fashion together to make the pet I've been yearning for since moving away from the family home.

I'd sort of got two legs and two "fillets" off when I noticed that my chicken still seemed to have two more legs that the somewhat sadistically deft chef chappie did not have. I briefly panicked that I'd spent the best part of an hour dissecting a dog and the lasagne horse/beef scandal was just the tip of the iceberg in this twisted generation of outstanding food ignorance. Then I realised that my chicken still had it's wings while the unfortunate soul I was emulating had already lost his in a previous battle with a Global. Improvisation time. Bring it on, I thought, every single one of those cringingly awful 50 word summaries of my career I've written have waxed lyrical about my ability to come off script***... how hard can it be with a chicken?

Turns out liberating a chicken from it's wings is a lot harder than it should be given that the legs popped right off and those are the bits that are useful to the damn things anyway. Seriously chickens, this is why you're not going places - sort your priorities.

I was already fairly off piste with my chicken so I decided to cut my losses with my video tutorial and just start pulling off all the remaining pink bits and putting them in a newly created fourth pile entitled "Bits I'll Eat Today Before Anyone Gets Home".

Eventually it was done, and I incarcerated my piles in the freezer so I can whip them out at a later date and pretend that I do this sort of thing all the time and it doesn't even affect my ability to have great sex more than twice a month. But, there was still a pile of chicken bones on the counter**** and I thought, well, I can't throw them out unless I empty the overflowing bin first, and that will take effort, so I will make soup.

Yeah! I'll make soup!

I've seen my mum boil up carcasses before for soup. How hard can it be? Turns out there are potentially more ingredients in my mum's soup than just the carcass I've noticed her putting in. After about 4 hours of careful boiling I was left with a saucepan of fairly watery choking hazard. I refused to give up, however, and racked my brain for ingredients that might make soup more "soup"y and less "unfortunate chicken in a geyser"y. So I poured in a bottle of wine, some flour, some sugar and some gravy powder and sat back to see what happened if I cooked it some more. It got thicker, angrier and made my house smell like Boxing Day hangovers. I was even more reluctant to throw in the towel***** now that the soup was more like meat wine than anything resembling people food, so I decided to blend it and add some buttermilk that has been in the fridge since the "cake" I made last week. The buttermilk curdled instantly but after some ferocious blending it has calmed to a violent puce and is back in the saucepan awaiting Tom's return so I can guilt him into trying it to see if cooking can fill the void in my life that acting has left.

I feel a bit like the bastard prodigy of George's Marvellous Medicine and shall be watching my unwitting taster carefully for any signs of a mouth like a dogs bottom.

Over and Out.

*Sod off. You can't spell it either.

** I will point out (with a different finger) at this point that I have not lost any amount of finger worth worrying about but I thought it was best to find the offending gouge before it made it's way into the food. I felt like the massacred contents of my freezer were going to look incriminating enough without there also being traces of human DNA in there.

*** It would be churlish to tell them the actual truth that I have trouble focusing on the road on the way to the gig let alone what I'm doing when I get there. A lifetime of Haribo and a childhood obsession with CatDog means I am not the best at doing one thing at a time. I'm making a fairly pathetic yet elaborate clay horse with my toes while I write not just here in the bottom bit, but also at the top in the main text whilst watching Frasier in the back ground and listening to old Adam and Joe podcasts.

**** If Americans have taught me anything it's that counter sounds far more glamorous than work top.

***** Not least because there isn't a single recipe blog on the internet that recommends tea towels as aides to soup flavour.