My Worst Night as a Standup Comic




photo courtesy of Christop via Flickr

I have waited two weeks to tell this story, and now I'm ready. For the first time in my five years as a standup comic, I was booed off the stage.

The Setup

I've had some rough shows before. Every comedian has. I've gotten an audience that didn't get me and just sat there, giving me the silent treatment. I've had the frat boys more interested in the NCAA finals on the bar's flat screen than my jokes. One time I even had the tiniest audience (three people) just interrupt my set and tell me to talk about something else. That last show was one of my greatest ever, because in the end, I improvised some pretty funny stuff.

What happened to me two weeks ago was far worse.

I was participating in an audition for Bill Bellamy's show, Who's Got Jokes, which airs on TV One. I've never seen the show because I don't get TV One from my cable company, but it sounded interesting. My boy, Corey Manning, told me about the auditions that were happening in New Jersey, but I was in Austin that week for the SXSW festival.

It turns out there were some audition slots at a club in Dallas at the same time. Coming off of my decent showing at the Bay Area Black Comedy Festival, I decided to do it. I rented a car in Austin and drove three and a half hours to Dallas to audition with three minutes of clean material. They made a point of stressing "clean material." That's all I have. (Update: by this, I mean all I have is clean material, NOT that I only have three minutes of clean material. Those who know me from my blog, shows, books and other writings are aware of this fact, but new people might not be.)

I should add that for the full week preceding the audition, I had barely spoken a word due to some intense problems with my voice. I thought it was worth breaking the vocal rest for three minutes for a chance to get my comedy on television. I was wrong.

Arrival

The club was called Hyena's Comedy Club (turned out to be a perfect name), and it sits in Arlington, Texas between Dallas and Fort Worth, but since no one cares about Fort Worth, everybody just says the club is in Dallas.

We were told to arrive between 5:30 and 7:30pm to sign in. The show was set to start at 8:30. I think I got in around 6:30, signed in as comic number 24 and was handed a 16-page contract to read and sign.

The contract used big words like "indemnify" and gave new meaning to others ("parties" had nothing to do with a gathering of people for the purposes of fun and socializing). Basically, it said, "we own you and your soul, biatch," but it spread out that message in paragraphs and subsections and lots of bulleted lists. I don't even know what the point of all that was. Why have people read it? We couldn't change a damn thing.

I signed away my rights and grabbed a bite at a vietnamese joint called "Pho 3.99."

When I got back, they had all the comics line up for a quick videotaped interview and photo, and the show got started.

"Black Comedy"

For those outside the world of standup comedy, there is something called "black comedy." That's not when you happen to see a black person telling jokes on stage. "Black comedy" has come to be defined by a style and a look and a certain type of material. Just think BET's Comic View. It's generally very physical, often profane, and guarantees you exposure to material about certain inescapable topics:

  • how nasty black women's feet are (I have no idea why this is such a common joke, but it is)

  • how broke black people are

  • something about the black church

  • downlow brothas and (falsely) how they are responsible for spreading AIDS to black women

  • sex, usually re-enacted on the stage

  • some anti-gay jokes

  • how black people and white people are different

  • and more on black women's feet


I basically don't talk about any of those things, not because they aren't funny. They can be hella funny, but they are used a lot, and I don't connect with the topics on a personal level. I just don't care. I talk about what I know. I talk about politics, social issues, the news, Africans vs. African-Americans, surviving DC in the 1980s and 90, the Euro's currency exchange versus the dollar. You know? Real hood shit.

Yet I wasn't initially nervous about this. If anything, I could almost guarantee no other comic would come close to covering my jokes, and I'd done a set of my material in a Def Comedy Jam audition with an incredibly positive response. It was that audition which made me comfortable doing this one. That sense of security was as false as a hair weave.

The Law of Diminishing Audience Patience

What really separates "black comedy" from mainstream comedy is the impatience of the audience. They will rip you if you are not entertaining them within 10 seconds. (see: Amateur Night at the Apollo)

The audition had 36 comedians. Thirty six. I had signed in at 24, but somehow got bumped to 31. There is even less patience for the 31st comedian, and I had seen a few before me fall without finishing their sets.

I admired the hell out of this one brotha, Ethan Hardaway. I overheard him during his interview before the show. He's only been doing comedy for about six months and has plans to go into a PhD program if this doesn't work out. He's also gay as hell, but managed to use that to his advantage even in the super anti-gay room.

After an earlier comic hated on gay people and talked about how everyone in the room has "that one gay cousin," Ethan's used his opening line to tag with something like, "I'm your gay cousin." This shocked people awake and got good laughs despite the homophobia. and made them laugh.

He had some killer material about T-cell counts I can't quite remember, but check his MySpace page if you get a moment. The boy is funny!

But back to my crappy show.

I think the problem started with the way the show was run overall. I'm not trying to make a lot of excuses, but I've done a bunch of auditions, and this one was missing a few things.

Usually they meet with all the comics to explain where, when and how to approach the stage. They'll also let you know where the lights are to remind you that your time is almost up and then that your time is up. We didn't get any of that, so there was a lot of confusion about when people should get off the stage. This was extra stressful because they claimed your judging points would be cut if you went over your time, and three minutes is a strange amount of time to keep track of.

What you'd have happen is a mix of signals. In general, there was a woman standing in the back with a flashlight, and she'd wave it or flicker it, but it was never clear if she meant, "you have 30 seconds" or "you're over your time." At other points the DJ would just scratch a record. Although it was meant as a time warning, it was interpreted by the audience as an ejection. A DJ scratch sounds like a mistake. It says, "you're not funny. Get off the stage." The audience picked up on all this.

More importantly, I think the host, Rodney Perry (who I first met at the Bay Area Black Comedy Fest and who is mad funny himself) made a pretty big error at the beginning of the show.

He announced to the audience that this was a professional audition with clean material and was being taped to send to judges in LA. He demanded respect for all the acts and said they wouldn't tolerate heckling. But then he said this:
"If you hear something you don't like, just say 'Alriiiiiiiight.'"

He meant that people should say this when he, the host, returned to the stage after an act, but he did did not make this clear to the audience. More importantly, if you say to the audience that you expect them to respect the comics, why would you then give them a tool of disrespect. "Don't heckle, but if you want to heckle, you can use this acceptable heckle." That just didn't make sense to me, and it gave the audience way too much freedom.

As the show progressed, I watched one section of dudes in the audience increasingly cut off comics with loud, synchronized yells of "ALLRIIIIIGHT" to the point where the comic couldn't continue. When these dudes saw they had this power, they only abused it more. I remember one comic caving in: "Oh, is that my time then? Ok, goodnight."

Rodney berated him, "Don't you ever let somebody tell you when to get off stage if it's not your time!"

Nice words, but what was the comic really supposed to do when he can't be heard over jeers of "ALLLRIIIIIIGHT!!!!"

My Set

I had planned my set based on some feedback from the Bay Area Black Comedy thing. I took out any political stuff that didn't have to do with black people. No jokes about Alberto Gonzales jacking the Constitution. Nothing about Dubya being gangsta. I would do:

my always-used, always working introduction of my name

(Update: here is a video clip of the joke actually working)

being from DC with a crackhead mayor: "When people find out I'm from DC they feel the need to remind me my mayor was a crackhead. I know that.... I SOLD it to him"

a somewhat new bit about being caught in the jetblue meltdown

a black history month joke about how when black people rob white people it's not a crime but instead, "involuntary reparations"

a joke about scientists who found the gene that causes black folks to have high blood pressure. the name of the gene? white people

a joke about the federal government pushing crack cocaine into black neighborhoods

I barely got halfway through the material. Remember, I only had three minutes.

Rodney brings me up and even manages to say my name right. I start off asking people to give him a hand for hosting. The audience gives up nothing. I say, "fine, don't applaud him" to some laughs, then I start off, "My full name is Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. Baratunde is an old Nigerian name--"

"Stop stop!" I hear from the crowd. It's Rodney. He tells me I have to get off the stage. They need to change tapes.

Right in the middle of my opening joke, I get pulled off stage. Talk about a momentum killer. And remember what I told you about the impatience of black audiences. Even though it wasn't my fault, I'm held accountable for that.

Rodney talks a bit while they change tapes and brings me back up.

I started off. "Don't give up nothing for Rodney Perry who messed up my intro. And do give it up for the Allright Crew over there. I don't want to hear from yall ever." I figure it's best to acknowledge these idiots from the top, and I get good laughs on this line. really.

However, I made the mistake of going back to the "my name" joke, The tape change effectively destroyed the joke, but remember, all this is being taped for judges to see later. They won't know my set got hacked by a tape change, and I want them to see this opening joke that has served me so well.

I get to the "one with no nickname" and get laughs.

"Rafiq is an Arabic name which means, 'really. no nickname.'" A few more laughs.

"Thurston. Thurston is an old British name that means--"

"The Third!!" some people in the audience yell out, inspired by Gilligan's Island from approximately 200 years ago. Nice. I tell them this is my time and they can do their own jokes when they get three minutes (more laughs). The momentum of the joke, what little was left, is completely gone.

"property of massa thurston."

"I can see some of yall didn't expect that last one"

They were confused, saying "no" and "huh?"

"Well neither did we." A few folks who managed to stay with me through that butchered joke actually got it. Most had bailed. And then it came.

"ALLLLRIIIIIGHT!!!" from the peanut gallery of fools who had been allowed to destroy so much of the show already.

It's my first joke, and the bullies want me off stage. I will not leave (recalling Rodney's admonition to the other comic), but nothing matters at this point. The audience is done with me. There is no chance for redemption. I go into my Jetblue joke about being stuck at JFK and clearly no one gives a damn. Frankly neither do I.

I don't show it, but I've given up on this set, this audience and this audition. But I refuse to leave the stage. I still have about two minutes left.

I start into my black history joke about how when black people rob white people it's not a crime. It's involuntary reparations.

The punchline is overwhelmed by sounds of "ALLLLLRIIIIIIIIGHT!!" They are getting into it. People are enjoying this destructive force against my creativity.

This is probably the worst public humiliation of my life. Then the DJ joins the mob. The DJ starts scratching a record even though I'm maybe halfway through my time. Now I'm angry. I even call him out on it. The audience, I can understand, but the DJ is part of the staff and the audition. He's supposed to be representing TV One and the "respect" Rodney talked about earlier. That's unprofessional man.

Then the lady with the flashlight starts flashing me. With a minute left. Horrible.

The Post-Game Report

I've been heckled before.

I've had audiences not get me before.

But I've never been so structurally handicapped and rejected in the way I was that night. There was nothing fun about it. It was ugly. It was a mob. I was the witch, and why?

Because I dared to not talk about women's ashy feet or how black people and white people brush their teeth differently?

The quickness with which the audience turned on me was devastating. It doesn't make me want to quit comedy, but it makes me lose faith in that crowd. See, I know the loss is theirs. I left the show mad at everyone including myself. I broke my silence for this bullshit? I drove a total of seven hours for this? I missed a day at SXSW for this??

I looked back at the other acts of the evening, and so many followed the script: feet, gays, money or lack thereof, sex, feet. I strayed from that and paid a price as did others that night. I felt like people were mad at me for not talking about their feet!

After I performed at the Bay Area Black Comedy Fest, the producer, Tony Spires said my material was over a lot of people's heads. Maybe that's true, but it's only because stereotypical "black comedy" has been holding their heads under water for so long with bullshit.

What does it say to a comedian who sees what happened to me? You better stick to the script? Standup comedy should not be about a script.

As a comic, I know I can't appeal to everyone. Even the biggest names have their detractors. Plenty of people think Jerry Seinfeld is a talentless hack or that Chris Rock lacks intelligent material. I know both views are wrong, but knowing that doesn't make it easy to deal with. No one wants to be rejected by their own people. It's like being kicked out by your family.

And the family is dysfunctional. The family is often homophobic and misinformed. I heard one performer repeat the urban myth that black women have the highest AIDS rates because of black men on the downlow. This is not true, but it's a convenient bogeyman. It just hurt to see that joke work so well because people believed the bad science behind it. They weren't laughing out of a sense of irony. They were laughing out of a sense of ignorance.

It's pretty good timing that on my way to the show I was listening to a hip hop artist from Oakland (Brutha Los) talk about the state of rap music. "Rap music is basically hair metal. It's built on black death and is nihilistic at best. It's a parody of itself. But rap music is not hip hop."

I think those words prepared me to go through what I did. "Black comedy" is not black comedy. In other words, I too am black comedy, but the mass production of stereotypical images has led an audience to believe I don't belong.