By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com
I think it’s safe to assume most people have heard of ‘Murphy’s Law’ – that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case for everybody, but I’m living proof old Murphy was on to something. I have had my share of problems in life and then some.
One thing I have learned after spending a lifetime in standup comedy is that no matter what the situation should happen to be at any time – it will ALWAYS pop up again in the future without a doubt. It may take years, but it will happen again. This is a word to the wise for future reference.
Whenever you happen to encounter an oddball scenario of any kind – and you absolutely will – file it away in your head and know that at some point you will relive this same scenario at some point in the future. That’s what the term ‘experience’ is all about. It takes a lifetime to learn it.
The question is, what does one do with that knowledge? Johnny Carson was known as a world class ad libber. He could pull out the perfect line for a specific moment like few others. He had a razor sharp wit, and knew how to use it. But not everything he said was made up from scratch.
I read an article about him once that said he would file away lines in his head, and knew when to pull them out of the archives at exactly the right time. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t the writer of every line, what mattered was that he knew how to use them and more importantly – when.
There are certain scenarios that are absolutely sure to happen to every live speaker of any kind. Being prepared with a line – even a mediocre one – at the right time can make you look like one of the ‘wittiest’ minds of all time. I’ve seen it happen countless times, and it always amazes me.
There are lines that have been used for decades and probably centuries that continue to work as long as they’re used in the correct context. Here’s an example: someone comes in a few minutes after the show starts and distracts everyone’s attention. It happens all the time, and will continue to happen as long as there are humans inhabiting planet Earth. It’s safe to say you’ll encounter it.
The line (or any variation thereof) “Hey, glad you could make it! Can I get you anything…like a WATCH?” is a common comeback. I’ve heard this line literally thousands of times, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it not get a laugh. Is it original? Not anymore, but it’s still very effective. It doesn’t matter if it’s original in that scenario. The audience doesn’t know it – but you do. Use it.
Another common situation is someone coming from or going to the bathroom smack dab in the middle of your set. That’s another all timer that will never ever go away. Sometime, somewhere, you will have to deal with this one too. What do you say? Again, it doesn’t have to be brilliant or ground breaking. It just has to be quick and make the point. Here’s an example for someone that gets up to leave during your set. It’s quick and to the point. “We know where YOU’RE going.”
Is that necessarily a funny line? Not at all. There’s no joke there – it’s just a statement. It isn’t off color or mean spirited, and depending on the person delivering it there is a possibility of that line being milked for more than one laugh just by using pauses and/or goofy facial expressions.
Lines like that used at the right time can get powerhouse laughs over and over again. It’s up to you to file away a list of those lines, but if you take the time to do it you will never be sorry. I’ve never regretted having an archive of ready to use lines in my head. They always come in handy.
Build Your Arsenal
My mentor C. Cardell Willis was a master at using lines like this. One night I was on stage at a show he was hosting, and someone got up to use the bathroom. I’d never had that happen before when I was on stage, and it rattled me. My timing was thrown off, and all I could think of to say in my confusion was the line I’d heard Cardell use so often – “We know where YOU’RE going.”
It got a big laugh, and I was able to continue with my bumbling set. I was a very new act then, and didn’t have much in the tank at that point. The bathroom line quite possibly could have been the biggest laugh I got all night, and when I got off stage I went to apologize to Cardell for using ‘his line’. Before I could apologize, Cardell congratulated me for using it to manufacture a laugh.
I’ll never forget that night, as Cardell’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. He was proud of how I knew when to use a line like that, and told me so. His words of wisdom were passed on to me, so now I’m passing them on to you. He said “There are all kinds of lines that a comedian can use to get laughs that aren’t jokes. Be good to those lines your whole life, and they’ll be good to you.”
Boy, have they ever. Time after time, year after year, situations come up again and again and it feels great to have lines ready to go that I know will make me look brilliant when in fact I’m not even close. Audiences don’t know these tricks, but I do. Every time I use them, they work again.
Know now that there will be all kinds of situations that arise unexpectedly, and pay attention to whenever they do. Maybe you won’t know what to do the first time they happen, but that’s not a big deal. Nobody will care at the time, but you can be sure that same situation will happen again.
It may be years later, but eventually you’ll be in the same scene and if you’re smart you’ll have a killer line to pull out of what seems like nowhere and it will blow the room away. That’s what being a professional entertainer is all about. It’s knowing what to do and when you need to do it.
There are all kinds of situations in your future that you will have NO idea are going to occur as you start out on the comedy trail. Had I known I’d have to deal with so many unforeseen hassles, I may not have continued. It makes me wonder how I made it this far but I did – and you will too.
As my gift to you, here is a partial list of situations that will undoubtedly arise on your journey. There will be others, but for now this is a great starter list. See if you can plan ahead and think of what you’d say if you were in that situation. Be good to those lines, and they’ll be good to you.
A Partial List of Scenarios That Can (And Will) Happen When You’re on Stage
These are all actual situations that have either happened to me personally or somebody I know. Some, most or all will eventually happen to you, so try and store up some lines to use when those moments occur. They don’t have to be the most brilliant lines in the world, but if you’re prepared it will make you look like a genius. Nobody has to know you saw it coming. Be smart. Be ready!
-The show will start much later than expected
-There will be an audience much smaller than expected
-Someone will arrive late
-Someone will go to the bathroom
-Someone will come back from the bathroom
-Someone will be texting during the show
-Someone’s cell phone will ring, even though they were told to turn them off
-There will be problems with the sound system
-There will be little or no stage lighting
-There will be a bar in the room, and blender drinks will be made
-There will be food served while you are on stage
-An inexperienced server will walk in front of you and/or talk loudly during the show
-A server will drop a full tray during the show
-There will be a television on within eye and earshot of your performance
-There will be a police/fire/ambulance siren in the middle of your show
-Someone will have a coughing or sneezing fit
-One or more wheelchairs will be right in the front row
-Someone will have a seeing eye dog
-Someone will have a medical emergency, and the show will have to be stopped
-There will be a baby, child or children in the audience – usually in the very back
-There will be someone extremely old in the audience – usually right up front
-Someone (or group) will be from another country and not understand a word you say
-You will be in front of a group who are completely of a different ethnicity than you
-You will be in front of a group who are radically different in age than you
-You will be performing outdoors, and there will be many unforeseen distractions
-You will be in front of an audience who is not there to see comedy (charity events, etc.)
-You will be performing in front of a window when the sun is still up
-The room will be way too hot
-The room will be way too cold
-The room will be next to a room where loud music is being played
-The act on before you will be absolutely horrific
-The act on before you will be absolutely terrific
-A celebrity other than a comedian will be on right before you
-Someone will announce a death or tragedy right before bringing you on stage
-Someone will mangle your introduction and badly mispronounce your name
-You will be asked to cut your performance time drastically on very short notice
-You will be asked to stretch your time indefinitely because the next act is not there yet
-Someone will buy you a drink, and it will be brought to the stage during your show
-Someone from the audience will try to come on stage when you didn’t ask them to
-A fight (verbal or physical) will break out in the room at some point in the evening
Again, this is in no way a complete list of all the things that can happen during a comedy show. That list doesn’t exist, as there are always new and wacked out scenarios happening all the time. It’s part of what keeps things interesting I suppose, but it’s also the source of unbelievably high stress – especially for the new performer. Hopefully this will give you a head start on everything.
Try to put yourself in each of these scenarios and imagine what you’d do if it really happened. It wouldn’t hurt to write a few lines for when it does, because you just never know. Also, be very observant when watching other shows, as any of this could and will happen to somebody else out of the blue and you can learn from that too. Always be on the lookout for things to learn. You are never past this stage, and I still learn things myself. I wish I had this list when I was starting out.