Comedians are fun people, we like to cut up, goof off and rib each other, and that usually makes us fun to be around, but there is a breaking point. No matter how “fun” you are to be around there are those moments where people just aren’t in the mood. I’ve talked it over in various conversations with other comics enough to know that I’m not the only one annoyed by comics that can’t turn it off, and I’ve passive aggressively expressed my feelings on Twitter and Facebook enought that I think I need to actually devote some paragraphs to it for the good of the realm (and my own sanity).
Ok, so where to begin?
Well, I really feel like it should be enough to just say “gimme a break man.” but based on the amount of emotional and social issues that lead most folks into comedy, I suppose it might need to be spelled out in greater detail.
I didn’t come here to get roasted
Several months ago I had a “discussion” with a young comic (we’ll call him “Kenny”) after a series of conversations over the course of several weeks. This guy would relentlessly pick and prod at every comic he would talk to. He would riff off of every comment on every element of your existence he could. Every conversation with him felt like a roast, but usually without the mushy part at the end where he says nice things about you. It was like he was constantly dressing down his fellow comics as if they needed to be taken down a peg.
I was one of the comics that he would “roast” and it got on my nerves, until one night he said something like “Mark I can’t tell if you’re mad at me or not, but I do like you.”
Of course the dude liked me, I don’t believe that anyone would actually be as big of a prick as he was being to my face and legitimately dislike me, but we obviously needed to talk about how I like to interact with people. I took this as my cue to educate him. The specifics of that lesson will no doubt come out as I populate this article with words, but the gist of it is:
DON’T BE A PRICK!
Stay away from personal insults, however absurd they may be, and don’t talk about their parents, pets or other loved ones in a disparaging way. Your fellow comics and *co-workers don’t want to be dressed down at every turn, so just don’t.
When you can’t act like a regular person, having conversations that involve real facts and details about your life and opinions on the world, it’s as if you have no personality at all and you’re covering for it by cracking jokes all the time.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with being funny, but if it all centers around picking apart the other half of the conversation it really starts to feel like a roast…. and there are times when you can get roasty, but it will become apparent when those times are, and if you can’t recognize those times then you need to keep working on your social intelligence until you can.
*most of this post is from the perspective of comics talking to other comics, but also of note is the fact that there’s a guy at work that cracks jokes at me, and he pisses me off cause he doesn’t know me that well… so also consider this a guide for how to not be that annoying guy at work.
Ease Into It
The first mistake that Kenny made, was that he ignored pleasantries. There was no buffer to a conversation with him. It was off to the races right off the bat. Pleasantries are important and they provide that buffer some folks need to get used to you. They allow you to establish a baseline of interaction.
Start with some version of “Hey Man, How’s it going?” If you’ve had prior interaction with the person you can step your game up to “How was your day?” If you’ve not really met the person, well you should probably introduce yourself….
Pay attention to body language and vocal tone as you enter the conversation with this person. This will alert you to what may be happening in this persons life that could be a cue that they’re “not in the mood.” are they hesitant to answer, vague or otherwise weird? Do they avoid eye contact, mumble or actually answer your rhetorical questions with sincere responses like “well my Granny died and my cat ran away.” These are clues that they may not be the best conversation partner for your zany off stage antics right then. At that point, if you don’t know how to act like a real person with them you should probably move along.
I’ll admit that I don’t often know how to interact with some folks beyond pleasantries. Just last night (and it wasn’t the first time it’s happened) a fellow comic asked me:
“Is there wierdness between us, cause I can’t tell?”
My response :
“Nah, that’s just how I am with everyone, I wish it wasn’t the case, but that’s my natural demeanor.”
My motto is “even if all you do is exchange pleasantries, at least your exchange was pleasant…” Now to the credit of this aforementioned comic, as soon as I mentioned that I essentially have a hard time with certain social interactions, he immediately launched me into a conversation about whether it’s ok to wear Corduroy pants in the summer time… Perhaps I’ll reference this later.
Know who you’re talking to
I don’t mean that you should “know” know the person but you need to bear in mind what level of familiarity you have with them. There are comics that I only know from interactions at comedy shows and there are comics that I will hang out with outside of comedy circles. You need to weigh this stuff in mind. If you don’t know them that well then you should keep your interactions basic until you know them better.
Not only should you Know how well you know them but you should also consider how well they know you…
i.e. don’t Facebook stalk them… or at least don’t let on that you’re stalking them. I probably have been guilty of this myself. I did a few shows with Ben Kronberg before he did his Comedy Central Special, and then I had some twitter exchanges with him; so I felt like I knew him well enough to “hang out” the next time he came through town… I quickly realized that I didn’t. I doubt he even remembered any of the interactions we’d had…. I was just that weird guy standing around (that being said, he was still nice, but more like the type of nice you’d be to the kid your mom made you invite to your birthday party, and less like the kind of nice you’d be to a fellow comic that you know and respect.)
As for another personal antecdote:
My sopholmore year of college I ran into this really cute girl I knew from my freshman dorm and I struck up a conversation as if no time had passed since I’d seen her last. The problem was (as I remembered very quickly in the catch up session) I had never actually met her. She was just the first really cute girl I had seen on the day I moved in and I had thought to myself “if this were a movie, that would be the girl that I would work for all year until I finallly got her.” I had constructed a whole history with her that she knew nothing about (and never will) and I was being weird. Luckily she was kind of a raver girl so she was used to weirdos bothering her, but I still felt awkward.
The point is to be cognisant of familiarity and act accordingly. When I talked to Ben I probably should have re-introduced myself to him (and I probably shouldn’t refer to him by just his first name). When I talked to the cute girl…. I probably shouldn’t have talked to the cute girl.
DON’T DO YOUR ACT
I can’t put it any plainer than that.
SAVE YOUR ACT FOR THE STAGE.
If you overhear some folks talking about their wives and you have a great zinger in your act about your wife KEEP IT TO YOURSELF. If you can’t contribute to a conversation like a normal person then shut up.
Ok, maybe you’re new to the scene or you’re new to standup in general and you’re nervous about your material. You don’t want to get on stage unless you know it will work… Well, I can understand that, but most open mics are predominantly specatated by the other comics. And no matter how great that wife joke is, and no matter how many laughs it gets in the smokers circle, if you then go on stage and recite everything you just said to us, We’re not gonna laugh and wer’e gonna feel taken advantage of.
Now sure, lots of comics will work out bits or stories off stage and run things past each other, but these moments are usually prefaced by a disclaimer identifying them as such. And this also calls back to the level of familiarity. I am more tolerant of my good friends trying stuff out on me than I am some new shumck I just met.
It’s the most basic improv game there is and it’s super useful when hanging out or conversing from day to day. Someone asks a question, shares a story or makes a comment, then you acknowledge that thing in some way and add on to it. By either answering them, sharing a similar story or expounding upon their comment. It’s good improv and good conversation.
But, don’t get confused, there’s a difference between good improv and good conversation. In the former, you are making things up and trying to be funny. In the latter you are talking about real experiences and attitudes and trying to make a human connection.
This is another thing that Kenny did that bugged me (poor kenny, he really is a nice guy) He didn’t “Yes, And.” I’d try to talk about something normal from my day, and he’d steer the conversation into a riff roast fest. I’d acknowledge his riff to a point and then try to change the subject, but no, he’d steer it right back to his riff. It was just rude.
When someone doesn’t “Yes, And” in an improv scene, the scene is doomed, and it goes the same for a normal conversation too. Improv is about giving gifts and taking cues from those around you. If you’re talking to someone and you start to turn the conversation towards a jokey riff fest, and they don’t take the cue. Well that’s a pretty good sign that you should turn it off for a while. You’re trying to take them down a road they don’t wanna go.
Don’t be a hyprocrite…
This is the part where I freely admit that I’m guilty of all the things I just complained about (some more than others). I love to cram jokes and puns into conversations, but I always feel a little guilty when they’re met with groans. I’ve already provided numerous examples of me assuming too much familiarity and I’m usually good with the pleasantries, but as I said, that is often all that I’m good at (and some nights, barely so).
I can sometimes be tactlessly honest, but I’ve never been a big insult or roast guy. When I’ve been given the opportunity to roast a person, I’ve always turned it down by saying “if I say something mean or critical about someone, I don’t want anyone to mis-percieve it as a joke…”
That’s not say that I always mean to be mean when I’m sounding mean, or that I never tease anyone. I tease my family relentlessly, but they’re used to me. Most of the time if I offer you a criticism I try to make it constructive and I want you to know that I’m sincere about it, even if you don’t like what I’m saying. This was part of the problem when I tried to talk to Kenny about his “roasts.” He couldn’t tell if I was serious, so I ended up escalating my reaction to him so much that I became deeply and truly insulting. The other comics around us thought I was going to punch him and I feel like he was on the verge of crying at one point. It really took some time and several peace offerings to patch things up and I’m still not sure where we stand some nights. I regret that the interaction got as heated as it did, but I don’t regret my attempt to reach a better understanind with him.
How Should I Have Reacted?
Part of me thinks I should have just sucked it up, put my big boy batman underoos on and started returning the snark, but I’m usually not in the mood for that. I had to armor myself like that in High School and I feel like, now that I’m an adult I shouldn’t have to do verbal battle with my peers just to have a social interaction.
I should have waited for a better context for my critique. He said some things that annoyed me in a one-to-one conversation and then we reconvened as part of a larger group about 5 minutes later and I was still irritated, so when I unleashed my thoughts on him, it seemed a little out of context.
If and when you encounter guys that can’t turn it off you should be gentle, but really make it clear that they need to knock it off…. or you’re going to punch them in the ear… Don’t punch them in the ear, but be really convincing of the fact that you might.
There’s nothing wrong with being funny and cracking jokes, that’s probably why people like you, but just be careful that that doesn’t become why they hate you as well.