Ian Hunt is a NY-based stand up comedian by way of Michigan. He is the winner of the 2017 New York Comedy Festival, a contributing writer for Mad Magazine, and co-creator of the hit webseries, Insta Boyz. Ian produces a popular monthly show in Brooklyn called “Good For You.”
I generally hate comedy advice.
Most of it seems arbitrary to me. My knee-jerk reaction when someone tries telling me I “have to” do something is to snap back with “who are you and why should I listen?”
Maybe that’s part of a comedian’s brain — an impulse that says, “don’t tell me what to do.”
Or maybe I’m just an asshole.
But, so much advice comes from people I don’t know without any context.
And so, I’m going to tell a story about me here. I’m going to give some context to an important lesson I learned about comedy because I think it’s good advice and maybe if I can express how I learned it (and from whom) assholes like me will be more apt to take it.
Here it goes:
I was two years into comedy in New York City and fortunate to get booked on a bar show in the West Village.
Now, bar shows in New York can be notoriously tough. Even a great producer who does all the right stuff — reaches out to press outlets, posts on social media, even barks audience members in — can end up with a rough show.
But, this one was especially brutal.
When I showed up, the “audience” consisted of four people sitting as far away from the stage as possible. Two of them were tourists from Sweden who didn’t seem to speak much English. On top of that, nothing seemed organized. The host greeted me, hopped on stage, shifted through some notes, and then looked at me and from the stage asked “Do you want to go first?”
No, I don’t, I thought. I want to wait. Maybe more people will show up. Put one of the other comics up first. Also why are we figuring this out now in front of the “crowd”?
I said “sure.”
Then, I sped through my set to the sounds of empty silence. No real effort on my part. When I got the light, I didn’t even bother to use my final minute. I got off stage and walked straight to the bar to grab a drink and stew in my own misery.
What a waste, I thought to myself. I knew I was a nobody, but I was better than this show. Hitting an open mic would have been a more productive use of my time. I watched the comic after me go down the same path of frustration and resignation as he too sped through his set and got off stage as quickly as possible.
Then Myq Kaplan showed up.
He took the stage and immediately engaged the audience. Both me and the second comic had done a little crowd work (with no success), but Myq’s approach was totally different. He didn’t have the defeatist attitude we had on stage.
He was excited to be on the show and the crowd knew it.
To my surprise (and the host’s too, frankly), the audience came alive. Turns out the two Swedes spoke English just fine and all four attendees were ready and willing to chat and laugh. Myq was by far the most accomplished comic on the show — at this time, he already had late night sets on Conan and Letterman under his belt in addition to a Comedy Central Presents — but he was not above this 7PM on a Wednesday bar show for four people.
He was tap dancing. He was on. I had gone on stage and punished the people who had showed up. I was like the teacher who yells at their class for skipping: “Why are we in trouble?! We’re the ones here!”
Mark Normand says “you’re not above anything.” And I know he means it because I heard him say it on an open micer’s podcast that sounded like it was recorded on a broken iPhone. It probably was, and Mark Normand has played Madison Square Garden.
The lesson here is simple: never phone it in.
Comedy doesn’t owe you anything. There are so many comics in New York alone who want that spot so bad. Who want to “make it.” You can’t afford to not give it your everything. Rolling with the punches makes you better. Saving a tough show feels amazing. You’re in control: every show is fun if you let it be. Doesn’t matter if you’re performing for four people or four-thousand.
Never phone it in. Take every spot. You’re not above anything.