June 5, 2013

Even One Person - By: Nick Sierra

Nick Sierra
I’m going to be doing a few pieces here in the near future about producing a comedy show, but before I get to all that I want to talk about something similar, but altogether different. Why I put on a comedy show. Specifically, I want to share why I will put on a comedy show for even one person.

The short answer here is the same as the long answer: because they came to a comedy show.

The whole reason (at least for me) to do comedy is because people will watch you. You get to be in front of an audience, to be the center of attention, to be special. If no one comes to your show, we all know what to do, you apologize to the comedians you booked, maybe buy them a drink, give them bus or train fare if you can and send them on to their next destination, be it their next booking, another open mic or just home for the night. That’s what you do when zero people show up for your show, just in case you didn’t know that. Here’s the thing, though. Some people will tell you to do the same thing if just one or two people show up to your show. I’m here to tell you not to do that.

Now, listen, there are exceptions to every rule and if it’s the bar (or whatever kind of establishment) owner or manager asking you not to have a show because they don’t think the more-than-zero amount of people you have brought is enough of an audience, then by all means, play by their rules and live to draw another week (or month,) I’m not advocating that you bite the hand that pours whiskey. If, however, they are cool with it, I encourage you to do a show for even just one person. Why? Do it because they came to your show. They picked you to entertain them. To take them out of their own minds. They are your audience. They came to pay attention to you. They came to make you special.

I had a conversation about this exact thing the other day with one great guy about another great guy. I was talking to the wonderful Matt Drufke about everybody’s favorite, Mike Sheehan. Actually it was less of a conversation than an agreement about how one of the things that makes Sheehan so special, is that the smaller the crowd is, the harder he works to entertain them. And this is not just in the way that it is harder for most of us to perform for a truly small crowd than for a large one and so the work is harder. To me, what it seems like is he’s trying to make it so that there’s more of him in the room, so that the people in the small crowd don’t feel the isolation of the empty room. I hope everyone that wants to or does do comedy in Chicago gets to see it at least once. Mike Sheehan does yeoman work for a small crowd. We should all be so lucky to have that kind of attitude.

In the last year I’ve done two especially memorable shows for very small crowds. One was at the now defunct Gladys’ Comedy Room in Des Plaines. It was my first time headlining there and I did 25 minutes for one guy. One. He had come to eat dinner, and since we didn’t kick him out when it was show time, he stayed to watch. I did about 5 minutes of prepared material, 10 minutes of completely random riffing and 10 minutes of Dave work. Normally it’s crowd work, but that night it was just Dave. I did it because I wanted to say I had headlined. I did it because I was friends with the guys that ran the room and I wasn’t going to back out on them. Mostly I did it because once Dave stayed, I decided I liked him and I wanted to make him laugh.

The second memorable set I did was at a particularly light night at Wonder Bar, we had a five person
audience at the start of the night. Two of the people were my best friend and my sister, so to me it was kind of like a three person audience and two people tolerating me yelling the same things at them for the 500th time. (If you have friends and family that support you this much, never stop appreciating or thanking them.) One of the other three people was a guy that came down because the music hadn’t started upstairs yet. He left before my set started. The other two members of the audience, or to me, more or less, the entire audience, was comprised of a pair of women who were mother and daughter. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. It was the mom’s birthday so she had come to visit her daughter who lives in Chicago attending Med School. Mom was a hippy. The daughter was wearing whatever you call a pant suit with a skirt instead of pants. She had a 1995 Janet Reno haircut. She did not seem excited when her mom admitted enjoying the use of marijuana in a vaporizer. She seemed even less excited when I started asking her mom about masturbation and she replied openly and (one can only assume) honestly, but she was a good sport. It was her mom’s birthday, so she grinned and bore it. 

 It was cringe humor at its finest. It was just plain humor at its finest. Personal and intimate. Human. And I don’t really know if it could have played out like that if there was much more of a crowd. Many times what is basically heckling in front of a larger crowd, is a welcome interaction with a very small crowd. Audience members that might feel humiliated in a big crowd, might genuinely open up in front of a small one. And performers who are still learning, like I am, might just chug through their material in front of a big crowd hoping to get big laughs. They might not stop to listen. To engage completely with their audience. To learn how to be more present. To connect more personally. In front of a big crowd I might feel too special to make a connection that intimate. That human. I’m glad it was just two people that came to my comedy show that night. And I’m glad that we did one. I encourage you to take the opportunity to do the same.

Contributing Writer
Nick Sierra

Nick is a local Chicago comedian and co-producer of the WONDERBAR COMEDY show in the River North neighborhood of downtown Chicago.