Laughing in Real Time: The Joys of Live Comedy Performance
On a recent Sunday night, I had the incredible opportunity to see Mike Birbiglia at Carnegie Hall, performing his final incarnation of his second full-length storytelling stand-up special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Birbigs has been performing this particular story set since its award-winning off-Broadway run on 2011. In that time I’ve been desperate to get my hands on an album version of the show, particularly due to my love of the album version of his first storytelling special, Sleepwalk With Me. I will no doubt seek out Boyfriend once it’s released on iTunes, but seeing it live was a special experience. Why? To put it simply, his jokes and my laughter bounced off the same wall at Carnegie Hall.
Live performance is something I often fear for in these modern times of streaming content and virtually unlimited entertainment. Truly, when there is enough content on Netflix alone to keep you glued to your screen until you die of futon poisoning, why pay an exorbitant amount to see a show you can probably see pre-recorded in its “ideal” form? Well, here are a few key reasons I have in mind:
Comedy Needs You
Without the audience, comedy does not exist. Sure, you’ll still have your single-camera sketches and your situational comedy, but live comedy performance, whether solo or group-based, is a still-cherished art form, as proven by the love shown to comics like Louis C.K. for his live material, even as part of his single-camera TV series. Thing is, there’s not much point to even airing these sets to the home viewer without warm, laughing bodies reveling in the experience.
I can personally attest to the difficulty of lacking a live audience. I’ve performed in quiet, mostly empty spaces, making energy and forward momentum a chore. I’ve performed for a full room of fellow comics, few if any of whom are paying attention, making measurable feedback nigh imperceptible. I’ve even showed up for shows with no audience, making beer a delightful alternative. The classic conundrum is as true for trees as it is for comics: if a comic makes a joke into a microphone, but no one is around to hear it, does the comedian actually exist?
Despite the allure of cheap, convenient content at home, I like to think of it often as a guidance tool to what might be worth your hard-earned cash, should a comedian you’re fond of roll through town at the right time, or for that matter, a band, play, or musical. I recall that when Napster first made news, making many recording artists fear the death of traditional music, Garry Trudeau pointed out in his comic strip Doonesbury that whatever shift came would only embolden performers to step up their live action game, weeding out those who couldn’t hack it as modern-day minstrels. Now, with streaming content costing next-to-nothing, comedians need your support to keep comedy alive, and you better believe they will deliver.
It’s Different Every Time
There is a set notion that the pre-recorded version of any live show is the best incarnation of that show that there is. Just as when a show dog trots out to be inspected by judges, it’s been groomed to “perfection.” But I say, is that dog any less perfect, or at least perfectly adorable, when it rolls dirt onto your new carpet, or wakes you up too early with face kisses, or runs onto a baseball field during an NCAA tournament game? I say nay!
Comedians like to try different things with different crowds, especially when on the road; things that haven’t been rehearsed, or even things they wrote that morning. Sometimes these attempts fall flat, though usually, because they are targeted humor attacks, the audience reacts strongly.
The best example of this is crowd work, the art of improvising off your immediate observations of the people who paid extra to sit in the front row (naive bastards). People often say crowd work is easy, but a true master can create nearly an entire set off audience interaction alone, and to great avail. I’ve not only seen great crowd work, but crowd work that is called back to later in the set, and even crowd work that informs and expands preexisting jokes! It’s a unique thrill to know you’re witnessing a version of someone’s material no one will ever get to witness again.
The rough and gritty side of this, though, is dealing with a tough crowd. When the crowd’s not responding to the people onstage, or they’re actively antagonizing them, some comics have the tendency to shut down. I’ve actually brought up some rough responses to heckling in a previous article that didn’t go over so well. But on the opposite side of that coin, if an audience is truly lucky, they might get to witness a truly clever off-the-cuff retort to heckling that captures lightning in a bottle. Cracked.com compiled a series of 10 of the best all-time counter-heckles. At number one was this incredible endeavor by Bill Burr, taking on the entire city of Philadelphia:
It’s Just For You
… Well, and the 1000 or so other people in the concert hall. But to bring both of the first two categories back around, when you see a live performance of any kind, you are making that performance happen simply by being there, and in recompense, you are witnessing a version of that performance that will not be replicated the same way anywhere again. A live comedy show is a truly intimate experience; the comedian wants YOU to laugh, he wants YOU to gasp at the details, he wants YOU to see his side of things, his take on life. He could give a damn what the people at home watching on the television do, because they’re not there to laugh. You’re the one who showed up to revel in not just the jokes, but the comic’s physical presence, and the kinetic energy firing back and forth and off the walls.
Comedy, at its core, is the art of telling a funny story to a friend at a bar, or an observation about your day, or a clever knock-knock joke you just came up with, but on a grander scale. Even when the material has been tried and tested on hundreds of other audiences across the country, the intimacy of a live event is such that it’s as if no one has heard this joke or story before but this audience, right here, right now.
For that incredible sensation, it’s worth your hard-earned dollars to help keep comedy live and alive. And if you’ve never had the thrill of seeing a live stand-up show before, I say pick a comic you love and check his or her website’s touring schedule today! In closing, I’ll share a paragraph written by NPR’s Ira Glass*, who also performed on Sunday at Carnegie Hall as an opening act for Mike, on the two-year journey of “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend”:
This Sunday our contributor Mike Birbiglia is doing the last performance of his one-man show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, after a long New York run and over a year of touring. Some of the stories in this show began as This American Life pieces, but over the last 18 months, Birbigs has rewritten and remade a lot of the show. I saw it in its first run in New York and am dying of curiosity to see the changes he’s put in place. About a fourth of the show is new and what that means is not just that Mike swapped out better punchlines here and there; he re-engineered some of the storytelling and structure. As a result, I’m told, the show’s now more emotional and more affecting. And yes, funnier, which isn’t easy because it got huge laughs in its original version.
*As a delightful sidenote, I got to hear Ira say the word “motherfucking,” and then watched him dance hilariously.
Mikael Page, codename “Here’s Johnny,” is an NYC-based comedian, writer, and Amazon shopper. Check him out on YouTube, and if you see the UPS guy, tell him he owes Mikael two new electric toothbrush heads.