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When It Hits the Fan: Dealing with Stand-Up Disasters Part 2

March 15, 2011

Welcome back to part 2 of this week’s article on dealing with stand-up disasters (part 1 found here).

I feel like I want to tip this kid…

Life wouldn’t be any fun if everything was easy.  Herman Melville put it well in his book about a jerky sperm whale named Moby Dick:

“…To truly enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is nearly by contrast.  Nothing exists in itself.  If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been for a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable anymore.” (Melville, Bantam Classic Ed. p.69-70)

There are two ways to view adversity, in my opinion:

1) With frustration – “Why does everything have to go wrong?!  I deserve a smooth ride, damn it!”

2) With gratitude – “I’m glad I keep getting these opportunities to step out of my comfort zone and become stronger.”

You’ve probably guessed that I prefer the latter philosophy.  It’s a more positive state of mind, and puts you in control of your life.  But as we discussed yesterday, appreciating adversity in theory, or after the fact, is a lot different than being in a bad situation and wondering what you can do survive.  It’s especially scary to encounter these situations onstage, when it’s a public display for everyone to see.  Let’s take a look at 8 possible disasters that might occur during a stand-up set, and some suggestions for how to deal.

1) Equipment Failure

Sometimes the microphone will cause problems.  The most common ones I’ve seen are:

  • Feedback: See if the volume or gain can be tweaked, and make sure the speaker is not pointing directly toward the performers.  Acknowledge the equipment problem, and move around a little onstage to find “safe spots.”
  • Crackling: Caused by a bad microphone connection.  Make sure the XLR cable is plugged properly into the microphone.  Grip the microphone so that your hand is at the junction between the cable and mike, so that your hand holds them snug.  If the issue is a frayed wire, your best bet is to keep the mike as still as possible by keeping it in the mike stand.
  • Mike Stand is Hard to Adjust or Loose: Sometimes the microphone won’t fit into its clamp comfortably, or the height is difficult to adjust because of looseness.  In either case, watch what solutions other comics try and act accordingly.  If it’s a struggle to take out and replace the mike, just leave it.  If the stand can’t be adjusted to your height, don’t settle for a hunched over set.  Take the mike out and sweep that crappy stand. 

2) Stage Lighting too Bright

Is this guy playing a show, or getting abducted?

In an earlier post on the perfect stand-up venue, we discussed the importance of stage lights not blinding comics.  It’s important for a comic to be able to see the crowd.  If the lights are up in your face and you can’t see anything, try moving back a bit out of the spotlight to see if you can find a happy balance. 

Also, don’t be afraid to ask the audience.  A quick “Can you guys still see me OK?” is much better than being improperly lit for your whole set.  If there’s nothing to be done about the brightness, you can also play up the situation and shield your eyes with your hands to take peeks at the audience once and awhile to get your bearings.

3) Fire

Run your ass outside.  And for God’s sake don’t pull a Costanza:

4) Bad MC or The Comic Before You Kills the Vibe

Not much you can do about this.  If someone kills the energy in the room right before your set, you gotta deal with it.  Consider making some last minute changes to your set list, giving priority to high energy, positive material.  Don’t be afraid to invest a minute or two in winning the audience back with some respectful crowd work.  You will make your remaining minutes a lot more pleasant, and the next comic in line will love you as much as you hate the douchebag that dug you a hole.

5) Someone Unexpected Shows Up in the Audience

Maybe it’s your mom, your boss, a TV executive, or an ex who you’re about to rip into.  Try not to let these distractions ruin your game, and make some quick decisions.  Also, if you constantly do material that might offend the people in your life, think ahead.  Have a back-up plan, something ready to go in case of a worst case scenario.  On a philosophical level though, if you can’t bear performing material about someone to their face, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

6) There’s No Beer

God, this is like a worst case scenario.  I don’t even know what kind of carnage would ensue if comics were not allowed to self-medicate.  Let’s just not think about this one.

7) Distractions

This could be any number of things, a band playing downstairs, people ordering drinks loudly at the bar, or other comics showing poor etiquette and talking through the set.  Your best strategy is to be more interesting than the distractions.  Up your energy and enthusiasm, treat it as a challenge to win back everyone’s attention.  If the distraction is simply too powerful to get past, acknowledge it and resign yourself to incorporating the event into your set.  If you continue to ignore it you will look like a chump. 

Matt Ruby has a good clip up at his blog Sandpaper Suit, in which he handles a frustrating encounter with a loudmouth.  I admire how he acknowledges the distraction, tries to push forward, then finally makes the decision to deal with the situation by telling the deadbeet to shut up. 

I’m sure he was pissed after this set – any comic would at having their stage time hijacked.  But the upside is we all get to learn from his flexibility.

8 ) Hostile Crowd / Hecklers

For a hostile crowd, do your best to adapt material.  Watch other comics and see what kind of material goes over well.  If you know ahead of time you are performing for a biker gang, don’t wear argyle.  I’m not suggesting you pander, but the ultimate goal of stand-up is to make people laugh.  If you aren’t willing to bend a little to meet a crowd’s expectations, you are severely limiting your flexibility as a performer. 

As for heckling, this is such a complex topic that I already dedicated an article to it, which you can find here.


Boom! There you go, some worst-case scenarios, and some ideas for getting through. If you do happen to fall victim to one of these situations, just don’t be a crybaby about it:

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