Phyllis Diller was a funny comedian who worked hard at her craft and learned her lessons as she gained experience. Writing for her for many years and getting to know her well was, for me, like getting a Ph.D. in comedy. One thing I recall from Phyllis’s conversations was that she didn’t like comedians to waste time on stage.
If you visit comedy clubs or even watch some of the young comedians on television, you’ll often hear a comedian begin by saying, “Hey, how ‘ya doin’? Is everybody having a good time tonight? Are you ready to have a good time? Would you like to get started?” There are no laughs in this exchange, yet it takes time.
Comics always fight for stage time. It’s precious to them. They attend Open Mike Nights and wait patiently, often times, not getting on stage at all. They’ll do performances for little or no pay all for the privilege of getting time at the microphone. It’s almost like a currency to them. Isn’t it ironic then that when they do get to the microphone, they waste much of that precious stage time with nondescript chatter?
Phyllis Diller believed when you get on stage you should get laughs. That’s the basic reason why comedy performers are there. This was the reason why Phyllis Diller began wearing wildly bizarre, insane outfits. Her reasoning was that as soon as she made her appearance before the audience, her dress got laughs. Then she would do a line based on her outlandish costume. She’d say, “You think this is too much? This is only my slip.”
The audience is having fun and laughing. They know this is a comedian on stage. Her appearance and her opening line produced results. Asking a series of inane questions accomplishes nothing.
If you’re a comedy performer – and most ventriloquist acts are – you want to establish that fact quickly. Let the audience know that you’re there to produce laughs and that they’re going to have fun while you’re on stage. Open with a laugh.
There are several ways that a performer can do this. Let me give you a couple of quick examples:
I knew one comedian, Max Alexander, who was a large man. It was obvious when he came on the stage that if belonged to “Weight Watchers,” he hadn’t been to the meetings in some time. He would take the stage to applause, grab the microphone from the stand and place the stand towards the back of the stage. As he was doing this he would say to the audience, “I’ll move this back here. You’ll be able to see me better.” Big laugh. Now that audience was ready for more of the same.
Dean Martin’s name was announced in Las Vegas, he would come on stage holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He would acknowledge the applause for quite some time. As the applause died down he would amble over to the piano, lean over, and say to his accompanist, “How long have I been on?” The audience roared and realized they were in for a good time with a talented singer who also had a great sense of humor.
My suggestion to ventriloquists who are building a solid comedy act would be to follow Phyllis Diller’s advice and the examples of Max Alexander and Dean Martin. Open with a solid gag. Get the laughs started right from the opening.
You could accomplish this with a sight gag. It might be possible to dress your figure in some sort of laugh provoking getup and then explain it quickly with a solid line or two. Or you could devote some time to a solid opening line. For example:
VENT AND FIGURE AT THE MICROPHONE.
VENT: Isn’t this a wonderful crowd?
FIGURE SPENDS SOME TIME LOOKING THE CROWD OVER. AS IF TO SAY HE’S NOT SURE ABOUT THAT.
FIGURE: This is the sorriest looking audience I’ve seen in a long time.
VENT IS SHOCKED.
VENT: That’s terrible to say that. Tell this audience you’re sorry.
FIGURE: I’m sorry you’re the sorriest looking audience I’ve seen in a long time.
VENT: That’s not what I meant. Now just apologize.
VENT: In your own words. You don’t need me to say it for you.
FIGURE: If I didn’t need you to say things for me, you would have been out of job months ago.
You start with a few laughs and then you can go on to any other routines you’ve got prepared.
Now you might say, “That’s not very funny,” or “That doesn’t fit my style.” That’s fine, not every idea will work. Nevertheless, it is important enough that you should work on a strong laugh-getting opening for your act.
Write several. Try them out. Eventually, you’ll hit on those you can depend on. It should get your act off to a powerful start and eliminate wasted time at the microphone.
Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter. Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store. Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines. Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com. You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.
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