Taking the Bullet and Surprising the Back of the Room
Last week in Ottawa provided a very strong contrast to this week in Toronto that illustrated the differences between the two rooms. Both the Absolute Comedy showrooms in either city are laid out the same way in terms of stage, seating, everything. The difference was the crowds and the manner in which I stood in front of them. Yanked from the usual role of hosting that I do every week at McVeigh’s, I pulled on the middle shift at Ottawa with my buddy Ward Anderson as host and Matt Davis (my newest funny friend) taking the headlining duties. That presented challenges. Coming back to TO, I pulled back on the comfortable jammies of hosting but not in my familiar haunt of the snug McVeigh’s but at Absolute Comedy in full view of a full room on a Wednesday filled with amateurs who I apparently gave some a shock akin to walking in on your dog as he composes a sonata on a harp.
It’s not that I find it difficult to do a 20 minute spot. It’s the fact that hosting is a different muscle. As a host, the crowd wants, nay, expects to be worked into the opening in some manner. How else do you explain a gaggle of drunk women flanking their friend sporting a tiara or a wedding veil and holding a clutch of balloons shaped like a man’s happy gland? So much for keeping things on the down-low. Yes. I get it. I can’t possibly ignore you because I’m getting hit in the head with floating phalluses, so I might as well bring you into the joke fold. You get to play around and as necessary season the spot with material as needed. Not so with 20 minutes. Sure, you don’t want to ignore the folks in front of you, barreling through your set list like an auctioneer in desperate need of a bathroom, but you can’t spend your entire time on stage looking around the crowd with a “So, what do you guys wanna talk about?” look on your gob. Go up and get the jokes at them. This was middling in Ottawa.
As such, it took me a show or two to get my footing. The Thursday was awkward as I tried to grapple with not only piecing together a set that had some form of arc and meaning to it, but I kept my instincts in check and kept to the task at hand. Effed up a joke or two, but still got applause breaks. Oh, Ottawa. You’re so forgiving. Come Friday late show, the rhythm was more than there and I had my groove, but I was now in front of a crowd that can only be described as ‘judgemental’, akin to a judge on “Law & Order: SVU” listening to a ‘mea culpa’ confession of a man with a white van and a load of Raffi’s old records explaining how he spent his weekend at Coney Island. No idea what made them not hate things, but ‘ooooooh’ the white-kitten-in-a-sponge-suit-lying-on-a-pillow-y of softest premises that Ward opened with as host. But they were doing it nonetheless. I hit the stage and got the brunt of the heavy sighs on a few of my jokes. Again, not hating it, but definitely drawing some imaginary line. Instantly I knew that I was not about to bring up my new voice work bit where I describe the Westboro Baptist Church. This is a new joke where I describe their modus operandi of picketing the funerals of dead American soldiers with signs indicating that the Almighty probably won’t be swinging by Pride Week this year. So, in the middle of the spot, I called an audible and brought on the substitutes in the 70th minute à la Walter Smith.
Came off to adequate applause and realized I fulfilled my role as middle. Not only do you try to make them laugh, but you lay the ground work for the headliner. Poke at the ground for a bit so that the final act of the night knows where the landmines are. I provided the boundaries so that Matt knew what would fly and what would suck a goose into the engine. This all ramped up to a Sunday show that was not only packed, but appreciative and ready to laugh. Show of the weekend easily. Club owners that have not booked me yet are probably going to get a copy of this show. Consider yourself warned.
Back to Toronto we go and now I’m hosting which is where I’m typically placed to the point of pigeon-holing, but I take it as a compliment. I like to think that I can pull a room together and level-set for the acts as necessary. I like to think so, anyway. Wednesday night is the Pro-Am Show and by far and away the most difficult night. Reason being, with seven acts on the show, that’s a lot of walking. A man gets tired beating a path to the stage that many times. Regardless, in between acts, I got to do some material and as such, got some decent response from the crowd. After the show, I received some shocked looks at some of the amateur comics that I’ve taken the stage with at open mics across the city. The sentiment boiled down to words to the effect of, “Dude, I didn’t know you were funny.” Again, compliment taken. I’ll freely admit, if someone only saw my open mic offerings where I’m trying to discover the funny in a new premise or trying to extend some material that every comic in the place has heard more times than the Stars and Stripes during the baseball playoffs, you’d come to the same conclusion I would: “Van Allen thinks he can make money at this?” Not much, but some. I love the open mics for the sparring and stretching of material. I love the crowds at McVeigh’s that get a mix of professionals, amateurs, and me stepping on stage in between to bother these poor people. But when you’ve got a club audience in front of you that’s paid decent coin for a show, you want them to like it a little bit. So you bring just a little bit of A-game and confuse the young ‘uns that had dismissed you like a woman poking through a bin of LuLuLemon knock-off pants. What’s wrong with LoLoLemur?