Game Experience

By Dobie

   Any craft that requires skill requires repetition to maintain and improve said skill. There isn’t a single exception to this rule, even though a surprisingly high percentage of beginners mistakenly like to think the rule doesn’t apply to them. This is as wrong as feeding chili to a newborn baby.

It’s fine to read articles and have in depth discussions – even take classes, but until one actually goes out and DOES something it’s all meaningless. The learning comes by doing, and there’s no way around it. It’s great to be prepared, but preparation alone is never enough. Action is needed.

I’ve forever heard pro football people say that NFL quarterback is the most difficult position to play in sports. There are a lot of subtleties to it, and the only way to learn them is by actual game experience. It’s a painstaking process of trial and error but it’s the only way to become seasoned.

Standup comedy is the same way. I believe it’s the most difficult of all entertainment positions, and like quarterbacking there are many subtleties involved. It’s not just a matter of spitting jokes out night after night like a robot. There’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a very complex process.

Circumstances change constantly, and adjustments need to be made. As in football, sometimes a last second audible at the line of scrimmage is necessary. The only way to know what is needed requires experience, and there’s only one way to get it – making mistakes. It’s part of the game.

If there’s one subject I’m qualified to speak on, it’s making mistakes. I’ve made more than my share – more than a dozen people’s shares – but I’ve learned from them all. I’ll still screw up on occasion, but I am able to hide it and recover because I have finally figured out what I’m doing.

Having game experience opens up all kinds of new doors, and makes being on stage even more fun than it was before – and it was intoxicating before. The rush of being on stage is like nothing I have ever experienced, and I have pursued it for a lifetime. It’s the most exciting buzz there is.

I had no idea how to control it when I started, but I knew I loved it. I wanted to be on stage any and all chances I had to do it, even if only for a few minutes. That’s all anyone gets, but that’s all anyone can handle at first. Five minutes can be a LONG time – especially when it’s going badly.

Now, I can do a solid hour without thinking about it and still have plenty of material left over – and that’s a rock solid polished hour, not “Where ya from?” or “What do you do?” Crowd work doesn’t count, even though that’s a skill of its own. I’m talking about an act. It takes a lifetime.

A lot of nasty lumps were taken in that lifetime, and I can’t honestly say if I knew what it was going to entail and had to do it all again if I would. The experience I have came with a very high price, but I chose to pay it and now it’s mine. What can I do with it? Other than continuing to do shows, hopefully writing about my journey (and many mistakes) will help others on the way up.

My perspective now is very different than it was at the start. I still love being on that stage, but growth never ends. No creative artist or performer is ever a finished product. There’s always the next lesson to learn. Game experience gives me confidence, but also helps to keep me humble.

A Hugh-mongous Heart

   By Dobie Maxwell –

   One of the cruelest aspects of human life is that all too often those that have the most intensely focused desire to attain or achieve something are the ones that are never able to have it. I’ve seen it time and time again – including in my own life. There’s a cruel irony to it I can’t understand.

I wanted to be a professional baseball player from as early as one can comprehend what that is. I was a pitcher – and left handed at that. That is THE most desirable position to be if one intends to realize that dream, yet I still couldn’t manage to pull it off. It disappoints me to this very day.

Most of my childhood was spent throwing a baseball whenever and however I could. I had no preference if it was to another human or against a brick wall, I just wanted to pitch. I read books on pitching, watched live games and even obsessed as far as to keep my left arm out of the cold.

I knew for sure there was going to be a bust of me in Cooperstown at some point, but the only part that came true was ‘bust’. I didn’t make it, even though I did have a tryout for one day with the Kansas City Royals. They used to have a baseball academy, and would travel around to visit the other Major League cities and scout for talent right under the noses of all their competition.

I was 19ish, and cocksure of myself when I went to that tryout. I knew I had put in my years of preparation, and knew how to pitch. Unfortunately, that’s not what the Kansas City Royals were looking for – nor was any other professional team. They were looking for physical specimens to mold into the position they thought was best, and that’s something someone is born with or isn’t.

We all get standard and deluxe equipment with our packages in life, and not everyone likes all they get. Some of us get special talents and attributes included that we never expected, while the rest have to make do with what they get. Many more than don’t ever get what they really want.

I did happen to get a few tools in my box, and throwing with my left hand was one of them. I’d gotten that gift, but I couldn’t throw the ball as fast as a Major Leaguer needs to to stand out in a crowd. 80 miles and hour is not 90, and it sure isn’t 100. That’s what the scouts are looking for.

That’s why those that have it get paid so much, as it’s just plain not that common. Bull Durham is one of my favorite baseball movies because it shows exactly how random things are in life and in baseball. Kevin Costner’s character is intelligent and diligent and by all accounts should be the one with the big career. That’s not how it worked out. Tim Robbins’ character got the big break.

It’s not fair, but that’s the last thing life ever is. There are countless stories in every career field where natural talent or innate ability is required. Standup comedy is surely no exception, and it’s loaded with fiercely loyal aspirants who try as hard as I did in baseball but will never make it out of the low minor leagues if at all. Try as they might, they just don’t have it. It’s not in the cards.

I’ve seen this sad story play out from coast to coast since I started doing comedy, and I see it in my comedy classes regularly as well. It shreds my heart into confetti when I see someone with an unfaltering desire to succeed get out there and slug it out for years and not make progress. I wish I could make things even a little bit fair, but nobody has that ability. That’s not how life works.

One of the saddest examples of this theory was Hugh Neary. As I write this I’ve been teaching comedy classes for eighteen years, and have had more than 2000 students come through my class that has been taught at various locations. That’s a lot of people, and I have studied and observed all of them. Some of them ‘have it’, and others totally don’t. No matter what they do, it’s useless.

It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, and it doesn’t mean they’re failures in life or entertainment or anything else. All it means is that as far as standup comedy goes, they weren’t given that extra scoop of potatoes it takes to put them over the top. Like with baseball, it has to be a natural gift.

Tom Clark is an example of someone that had it. Tom was in the very first class I taught, and it was obvious to both me and the rest of the students that he had that extra scoop. He needed to be seasoned as we all do, but the natural flair was there. Hannibal Burress was another one that was easy to spot. He never took my class, but I saw him shoot up the ranks in Chicago like a rocket.

He’s doing really well for himself now, and I’m not surprised. He’s just like the Tim Robbins character in Bull Durham, except he’s a lot smarter. That kid not only has it, he’s LOADED with it. I don’t know if I have ever seen anyone else with a scoop as big as his. He’s a rare exception.

Unfortunately, Hugh Neary was not. He was just the opposite. He had about as tiny of a scoop of potatoes as I’ve ever seen, and no matter what he did it wasn’t going to change. He was given what he was given, and that was it. No amount of practice or dedication would ever change that.

That small tidbit wasn’t going to stop Hugh though. He must have taken my entire class at least half a dozen times all the way through. He could have taught the damn thing after a while, but he absolutely loved being around comedy and comedians. He loved the creative process, and he had an amazing appreciation for anyone that did have natural ability. He was a student of the game.

Hugh was without question THE most dedicated student I have ever taught. It’s not even close. He would show up early, and sit through everyone’s act and make dead on observations. He had an outstanding eye for what others were doing, but when he got on stage himself it was different. He had a hard time keeping his composure, and no matter what he tried he never put it together.

That didn’t matter to me, because I could see the lion’s heart that beat inside him. Hugh wasn’t going to give up, and after the first couple of times through the class I let him show up for free. It wasn’t hurting anybody by having him there, and he totally added to the class. His passion for all that standup comedy entails dripped off of him like the flop sweat he had when he was on stage.

Hugh Neary was born on October 14th, 1975. He passed away from a blood clot on November 20th, 2005, and I’m still fighting back tears as I think about it. I went to his funeral, and saw him lying in his coffin holding a microphone. His mother and sister were standing next to it and they didn’t know who I was. When I told them, they lit up and said how much Hugh loved my class.

There aren’t many in any field with the passion of a Hugh Neary. I will honor his memory with an award called “The Hughie” for my future students that show the most passion for comedy and all that it involves. They won’t be able to match Hugh though. Nobody can. He is the undisputed champion of all time. His heart was the biggest I’ve ever seen. Wherever he is, I hope life is fair.

NOBODY has ever had more passion for standup comedy than Hugh Neary - 10/14/75 - 11/20/05

NOBODY has ever had more passion for standup comedy than Hugh Neary – 10/14/75 – 11/20/05

“Honey…Is This Funny?”

By Dobie Maxwell –

    One of my current students reminded me today of an age old problem that needs to be brought up and discussed. It’s gone on for ages, and I’m sure it will never fully stop – even though it sure needs to immediately. The lesson to learn is that you don’t have to fall prey to this giant mistake.

   What I am referring to is the natural but highly mistaken desire to consult someone in your life you are close to for comedy advice. This could include anyone from spouse, lover, friend, parent, sibling, neighbor, coworker to third cousin’s brother in law’s uncle twice removed by marriage.

   Do NOT ask these people to help you with your comedy. The absolute worst thing any newbie can do is keep asking “Honey…is this funny?” I totally see why this happens regularly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a mistake. It is, and it will stunt your comedic growth far more than help it.

   The fact is the people closest to you know you far too well to offer any useful advice. First off, odds are extremely low any of them have ever been on a stage before doing anything much less standup comedy. They have no idea what the process is, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

   It’s exactly like some blithering buffoon on a barstool, bus bench or at a bowling alley blurting out ‘expert’ medical advice or ‘secrets’ how the local sports teams can win a championship with no problem if they’ll just ‘make the right moves’. Would you listen to that halfwit? I’d hope not.

They Just Don’t Know

   No matter how well their intention, someone who has known you for a long time can’t offer an accurate opinion or useful advice to be used in front of an audience of strangers. If anyone wants to pursue a career of any length, he or she needs to learn early to depend on their own instincts.

   That can be extremely difficult at first, and I get that. What’s funny? Who can say, other than a live audience? Since there isn’t one readily available, the next best alternative is to ask somebody close by what they think of a particular line or concept. This is a great way to develop bad habits.

   Other than maybe once, that person is never going to be in your audience. They wouldn’t know how an audience thinks, and they might not know the basics of what funny is. What if you asked if something was funny and they said no? You wouldn’t have asked if you didn’t think there was some funny in it somewhere, so chances are your instincts told you to try it. GO with that hunch.

   You might guess wrong, but that’s totally ok. You’ll guess again and again, and again after that until you learn what works for you. This is a crucial part of the comedy process, and one that can never be rushed or faked. It absolutely has to be earned, and no spouse alive unless he or she has been through the actual process can ever offer anything of real value. It might be good to develop relationships more closely, but when it comes to comedy – keep a distance. “Honey” can come to your show, but if so let he or she be surprised by your jokes like everyone else in the audience.

It’s ALL a Guess

   I once had the chance to work with Jackie Mason, and it was an unbelievable education. At that time he was celebrating fifty years in the entertainment business, and we were talking about what he’d learned. What stood out for me was that he said every joke he ever writes is always a guess.

   Even after fifty years of practice, he said he was still never 100% sure an audience would buy a particular joke. He said he might think they would, and he’s got fifty years of shows as a point of reference, but in the end the audience is always the final judge. They call the shots completely.

   I would agree from my own experience. Over the years I have had audiences remember certain lines or pieces of material and come up to me after shows and recite them. They wouldn’t be the lines or bits I would necessarily choose to be representative of what I do, but I’m not in charge.

   The same will happen to you. After a while, you will see what audiences will accept from you and laugh at and what they won’t. Every audience is different of course, but with time you’ll see specific and well defined patterns develop. This is what will shape you into the act you will be.

   The sooner you can learn to start listening to what your audience tells you, the farther you will progress. Unfortunately, it takes time for this process to play out, and the only way to play it out is on stage. Asking your sweetie pie if they think your latest fart joke is funny will not help a bit.

But I Just Can’t Wait

   Countless hordes of aspiring comedians have made this mistake, and I’m sure there will be that many more that do it in the future. That doesn’t mean you have to fall into that common trap, and I sincerely hope you avoid it. A smart student will rely on the comedic instinct they’re born with – not the half baked ill informed suggestions of some clueless mope they work with at a day job.

   I realize these are harsh words, but I can’t think of any other way to get the message across. It’s hard to be a comedian, but even harder when bad habits are developed before one even goes on a stage for the first time. I know it can be difficult, but resisting the urge to ask friends is correct.

   What’s funny to YOU? Chances are if you think something is funny, there’s a reason for it. If a joke or idea seems funny to you, my suggestion is to get on stage and TRY IT. It just may reward you with a face full of stinging silence – but at least it is accurate feedback. You can adjust later.

   Standup comedy is very much a lone wolf pursuit. You’re up there alone, and live and die from what comes out of YOUR mouth and yours only. The audience has a part in the process, but you are the one leading the dance. If this frightens you, standup comedy may not be your true calling.

   Acting or improvising may be more suited to your needs, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Everyone is different and has different needs. I happen to love standup comedy and all that goes with it, and that’s always going to be my focal point. I have spent a lifetime observing everything about it, and I form opinions only after much thought. That being said – keep “Honey” out of it.

Keeping A Diary

By Dobie Maxwell –

   Another one of far too many things I now wish I’d done differently on my comedy journey is to have kept a detailed diary from the very start. I have done a thorough job in more recent years, and in fact have kept a daily journal since March 14th of 2006 that can be found on my website.

   It’s much easier to keep track of things now with the advent of technology, but when I started it was not an option. Still, with a little effort I could have had an outstanding chronicle of a lifetime journey which took me all over North America and allowed me to meet some legendary names in the comedy business. I didn’t realize how important it was then, and I think that’s true with most.

   I was fortunate enough to come along at an amazing time in history that will never ever happen again. The stars and planets all aligned and the boom of the ‘80s exploded with America jumping on board the standup comedy bandwagon. It was red hot, and I got to be a part of the explosion.

   None of us knew it, but we were in the right place at the right time and rode a wave that spread across the entire nation. There was no internet to distract anyone, and people came out in droves to experience standup comedy live. We were the flavor of the time, and that time lasted a while.

Big Names Weren’t Always Big

   I was just a beginner when the boom hit, so I missed out on the big money by a smidgeon. Had I had the solid polished act then I have now, I’d have been hauling in some serious bank. Still, it allowed me to make a livable wage while learning my craft and touring all over the continent.

   Not only that, I got to work with and become friends with talented people from every corner of North America – quite a few of them on their way to bigger and better things. Every week was a brand new adventure, and we never knew who fate would match us up with at any given time.

   Names I distinctly remember from those early days are some you may have heard of including Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Robert Schimmel, Drew Carey, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Jimmy Fallon, Rosie O’Donnell, Steve Harvey, Richard Jeni, Frank Caliendo and Andrew “Dice” Clay.

   And that’s just off the top of my head. Other legendary names I crossed paths with at one time or another include George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and my very favorite comedian of all time Rodney Dangerfield. I was very lucky to come around at the time that I did.

   In addition to the big names, I also got to work with some wonderfully talented people who are no longer here including George Miller, Ron Shock, Ed Fiala, Zack and Mack, Shirley Hemphill, Dennis Wolfberg and my early career mentors C. Cardell Willis, Jimmy Miller and Gary Kern.

   All of these people touched me in some way, and almost all of it was good. I learned how to be a professional entertainer by interacting with all of these names and I wish I’d kept better track.

Change Is Constant

   Another part of the journey most everyone neglects is the actual venues where we perform. For example, the first place I ever did standup comedy was a jazz club called “Sardino’s on Farwell” in Milwaukee. It’s also where singer Al Jarreau began his career, but it’s since been torn down.

   The first place I ever got paid to do standup comedy was just a few blocks down the street also on Farwell Avenue called “Teddy’s”. It was a rock club that would eventually become a comedy club a few years later called “The Funny Bone” where I would end up cutting my early chops.

   There were also plenty of local dives, toilets and hell holes I worked along the way that are not around anymore – and probably shouldn’t have been around when they were. Looking back, they were all part of the journey and it wouldn’t have taken much to snap a photograph of all of them.

   One of my very first road bookings was at a nightmarish old hotel in Iowa, and my cousin rode along to keep me company in the car. It was filthy and rickety, and the room they tried to put me in had stains I was afraid to try to identify. My cousin and I still joke about it all these years later, but how hard would it have been to take a few pictures? I would truly love to possess those now.

Record Your Journey. If Not For You – For Others

   In painful retrospect, I wish I would have recorded every single place I ever worked, and every single comic I worked with – good or bad. I wish I had pictures of the slimy booking agents who chiseled us for anything they could, and the tiny radio stations I drove to at 6am to go on and try to promote my show between farm reports. It was all part of the trip – and it was all fascinating.

   There was only one comic I ever remember doing it correctly, and his name was Chip Chinery out of Cincinnati. Chip always took pictures of the comics he worked with, and then would send us one in the mail a few weeks later. I always thought that was neat. He was way ahead of us all.

   Today’s world is completely different. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but the opportunity to record the journey of life is not difficult at all. I highly suggest anyone embarking on the epic life long journey that is standup comedy start keeping detailed records and keeping them early.

   Anyone who is in the entertainment business for any amount of time will experience the same things we all do. There will be people of all kinds who come in and out of the game, and some of them will rise to great heights. Others will die unexpectedly, and still others will quit or vanish.

   Memories will evolve or get fuzzy over time, but having the picture to refer to will bring things back into accurate perspective. Good and bad events will all morph into good in time, and having the record will be a wonderful souvenir of a life spent chasing a dream. I speak from experience.

   If you drive through a blizzard or stay in a crappy hotel – take a picture and file it away. You’ll relive it later and laugh. I know I sound like an old fart – and I am. I have a lot of great memories of a life doing what I always dreamed of, but I could have easily kept a better trip log. Do better.

What To Do?

   Had I to do all over again, I’d have put my complete heart and soul into cataloging my journey. I put my heart and soul into taking it, so why not record it for the future? It’s like taking a doggie bag home from a fine restaurant. You’re full at the time you leave the restaurant, but later on it’s an unbelievable treat to sample a few more bites of that delicious food. This is the same thing.

   How many people get the chance to chase their life’s dream? Maybe that’s the wrong question. How many people actually DO it? I did, and I don’t regret one second. Even the stupid mistakes I made along the way were an education, and I’d rather do that than suffer at a miserable day job.

   When I started, I was a naïve punk kid who thought he was bullet proof. Now I’m the war torn grizzled old cuss I never thought I’d become. I’m a seasoned veteran of many missions, and I put everything I had into learning my craft. I lived what most people only dream of, and it would be a tremendous treat if I could look back over it now from this perspective – but I blew my chance.

   While it was all happening, I was too busy dealing with whatever was going on at the time. My eyes were always looking forward to the next thing, when in fact I should have been enjoying the events one at a time as they happened. I had a lot of fun adventures that are only a memory now.

   It wouldn’t have taken all that much to keep better records, and I’ve proven that with the diary I have kept every single day that’s now in its eighth year. I’ve got over 3000 pages packed with detailed stories of my life on the road and on stage, and it has become habit like taking a shower or brushing my teeth. I may fall behind a day or two, but I always catch up. I’ve been consistent.

Record It ALL!

   My advice to anyone and everyone would be to make a point to record everything about one’s journey from the earliest point possible. If you can have your first time on stage recorded – do it! I’d love to have a recording of my first time on stage, but it’s gone forever. That ship has sailed.

   I also missed out on taking a picture of the venues where I started, and most of the comedians I started with. When I started to travel, I wish I’d have recorded the places I worked, the less than ideal places I stayed, the rattletrap cars I used to crisscross the country and everything else I did.

   I should have kept track of all the out of the way restaurants where I had delicious meals of the highest order, all the sights I saw, the people I met and more. I stopped at every oddball museum, tourist trap and roadside attraction I saw, and I should have it all chronicled – but I totally don’t.

   I also made remarkable progress on my act. I could easily have monitored what material I used where, and what I may have ad libbed that later became a part of the show. That happened often. I also vanquished an endless string of hecklers, and it would have been fun to keep track of those as well. I’ve had some legendary stories I wish I’d be able to examine from my perspective now.

  You have a chance to do better. I highly recommend you take this opportunity and keep track of your personal journey as it unfolds. You won’t even notice after a while as you’re doing it, but at some point in your future you’ll enjoy looking back and seeing what a fantastic voyage you took!


By Dobie Maxwell –

   There are so many aspects of the entertainment business that have nothing to do with the actual act itself, yet end up having lasting impact on one’s career as a whole. They’re often very simple details which by all accounts should be classified as ‘common sense’- but that’s rarely common.

   A very important detail that needs to be discussed is time. I am not referring to tim-ING – as in comedic timing – as that’s a whole other topic in itself. We’ll dig deeply into that sandbox in the future, but for now I’m talking about plain old time as in the clock on the wall or a wrist watch.

   The reason I’m bringing it up at all is that as I write this I had an example pop up last night at a comedy contest I was a part of. I’m not fond of comedy contests as a whole and never have been, but again that’s another topic for another day. Something happened at the contest that I have seen happen countless times before, and it immediately let me know I needed to bring it to the table.

   It’s the simple matter of showing up on time. This can be a major issue with certain people, but there’s no reason it ever has to be. Part of being a professional entertainer is to know not only the time the show starts, but also what time you are expected to be there. I have heard actors refer to it as ‘call time’, and that’s fine. Whatever title you want to give it, you need to show up on time.

Punctuality is Peace of Mind

   The situation last night was rather typical of ones I have seen happen over and over again. The show was scheduled for an 8:30pm start, but contestants were told repeatedly to be there by 7:30 at the very latest for a group meeting with the show’s producers to go over details of the event.

   There were a lot of things to go over like how the judging would take place and where the light to signal one minute remaining was. It wasn’t complicated and the whole thing only lasted about ten minutes, but it was important for us to know as contestants and I see why they had us come.

    I can recall three separate times when I was informed of the 7:30 meeting during the last week. I had both a call and a text message from the club manager, and also an email from the producers of the event. Not only that, it was clearly listed on the event’s website. There were no surprises.

   Wouldn’t you know it, there was one contestant who wasn’t there for the meeting. He ended up getting to the club about 7:50 – just a few minutes after the meeting had ended. He had some sad story cooked up about how he had to drive in from all the way across town and that traffic was a nightmare but he needed to stop and drop his mother off at her heart doctor and blah, blah, blah.

   The show’s main producer and he went into a back room and before long we all heard shouting and then the door opened. The contestant came out first and stormed off, and the producer calmly informed us that there would be one less contestant for the show. Not one of the rest of us was in any way upset in the least, and the show went on fine without him. Actually, I happened to win.

It’s Not That Difficult

   The point I’m trying to make here is the only one who was even the least bit upset was the guy who got booted. The producer wasn’t angry in the least. He told everyone to be there at the time he named, and we all knew it – even the guy who wasn’t there. He missed it, and it’s all on him.

   Could the producer have cut him a break and let him slide? Sure. The ‘meeting’ was really just a brief run through, and only took a few minutes. It wouldn’t have been a big deal for somebody to walk the late guy through and move on. But they didn’t. And he was out. And nobody cared.

   I happened to win the contest this particular time. Could the other guy have beaten me? Maybe he could have, but we’ll never know because he wasn’t there to even have a chance. This kind of thing happens all the time, and I’m sure the guy thinks he got screwed over. He screwed himself.

   Bert Haas is the booker of Zanies Comedy Clubs in Chicago. He has a ‘Rising Star Showcase’ a couple of times a month on Monday nights so he can see up and coming acts in person. Before those 8:30pm showcases, he has a 7:30 meeting with everyone going up to tell them exactly what he is looking for as far as time, content and the like. I can think of no other booker who does this.

   That being said, once every two or three showcases someone shows up a few minutes late. Bert is never angry, but he politely tells the comic he’s off the show for the evening and continues his presentation. Even if it’s 7:31, the comic is out of luck. I’ve seen it happen with zero exceptions.

   I have often been the host of those showcases, and had the comic who was booted complain to me about how ‘cruel and unfair’ Bert was in doing this. I can feel a bit for the comic at times, as I have been in situations where sometimes being a few minutes late is unavoidable. But again, if a booker or club owner or anyone else running a show makes a deadline – it’s their prerogative.

   I’ve talked with Bert Haas about this at length, and his reasoning is simple. ”Hey, I’m trying to find acts I can depend on. If they can’t be at work by 7:30 at night, there’s a problem. How could I know they’re going to show up at an actual show if they can’t make it on time for a showcase?”

   I can’t find any holes in Bert’s argument, but even if I could he’s the one in charge and he has the right to do things as he pleases. Everyone else does too. If they want the acts there at 6am for calisthenics and a yoga session, they can do what they want. It doesn’t matter what the reason is.

   I’m sure there are aspiring comics in Chicago that blame Bert Haas for ‘ruining their career’ or ‘keeping them down’. I wouldn’t doubt the guy from last night who was shown the door is still a bit salty about it today and blames the producer. This is insane, but I’ve seen it over and over for years and years. I know it will never end, but it doesn’t have to be you. Let someone else blow it.

   Another thing to talk about is reputation. If you build a reputation as being reliable, you’ll earn some leeway when an emergency actually does happen – and they do. If you’re known and liked, people tend to let things slide. Be smart, develop good habits. Punctuality is a worthy aspiration.

Respect Your Stage Time

   Another crucial part of proper time management is being aware and accurate with your time on stage. This is another potential career killer that doesn’t have to be an issue but unfortunately has to be brought up because a certain percentage of idiots fail to get it. They think they’re special.

   Sorry, NONE of us are special – at least not starting out. Everyone needs to learn to stick to the exact amount of stage time allotted, no more and no less. That’s another part of being a pro that’s not going away any time soon. The sooner you ace stage time management, the better you’ll be.

   Most comics starting out get five minutes. That’s about all anyone can handle at the start – even if he or she thinks they have “hours of material”. Sure. And I can “make love all night”. Let’s get real and stay there. It’s ok to make things up for your show, but for business there are no jokes.

   You need to DO YOUR TIME – whatever that is. If you’re slotted for five minutes, make sure you know how long that is. Also, make sure you know how a particular venue might signal time to performers. Most places have a ‘light’ of some sort, but you need to know exactly where it is.

   I was on a national TV show recording once, and nobody told us where the time warning light was located. We were instructed to do six minute sets, but the first act up went way long because he had no idea how long he was up there and didn’t see any lights. He ended up going way over, and that made it difficult for everyone else. There was no excuse, so learn to keep time yourself.

The Unpardonable Sin

The best way to infuriate as many people in the shortest amount of time is to be what I refer to as a ‘time bandit’. Other people have other names for it, but none of them are complimentary. What I’m referring to is the loathsome practice of going short when the audience is bad and going long when they’re good. This is a great way to torch your reputation in a hurry, so think before doing.

   It’s not so much an issue at the very start, but it does happen. Five minutes isn’t very long, so it doesn’t make a big difference if one goes a bit short or a bit long. It takes a while to master stage timing , and we’ve all made mistakes. That’s acceptable, but those who are abusers tend to make themselves known early in the game. Don’t change time depending on the crowd. Be consistent.

   If there’s ever a doubt as to when to leave stage, 99.999% of the time you’ll never go wrong by erring on the side of going short. On rare occasions, there will be times you’re asked to go longer because an act is en route and has been delayed, but that won’t happen until later when you have more experience. Most newbies would never be put in a position to go longer than five minutes.

   But as one rises up the ranks, time constraints can be an issue. Comedians are impatient when a fellow performer goes long, and I can’t say I blame them. Stage time is hard enough to get, and it isn’t polite to go over yours and into someone else’s. Trust me, it’s way better to go a bit short on time and do just ok than it is to go way long and kill. This is comedy etiquette you need to know.

Maxwell’s Law

By Dobie Maxwell –

   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.

Start Simple

   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.

How To Handle Hecklers (Part 1)

By Dobie Maxwell –

   By far and away and without a doubt, the two most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten over and over since I started teaching standup comedy are: “When will I need a manager?” and “What do I do about hecklers?” I laugh every time I hear either question, but they get asked constantly.

   Nothing could be less important in one’s first year of comedy than these two questions, but I’m going to deal with the heckler issue now only because so many people feel they need to know the ‘secret’ when it comes to ‘defeating’ this perceived peril that will be an issue during every show.

   In a word, RELAX. There are no secrets, and there is no peril. It’s all a myth – just like the one that says women like men with a sense of humor best but that’s another topic for another day. I’ll focus my energy on stomping out this fire before attempting anything else. This needs attention.

   First off, there are far more important things to think about when learning this insanely difficult craft. Getting heckled should not even begin to be part of the conversation until much later. Does it happen? I’m not going to lie, of course it happens. Every standup comic eventually has to deal with this issue to one degree or another, but in one’s early stages of development it’s a non issue.

   Let’s compare it to learning how to drive a car. Do multivehicle spectacular flaming accidents involving violent bloody injuries or even fatalities happen? They absolutely do, but can you ever recall one happening in a Driver Education car? Maybe it did – but it was a very rare exception.

First Things First

   My point is, if you’re reading this there’s an overwhelming chance you’re a beginner. There’s nothing wrong with it, and in fact every single entertainer who has ever stepped on a stage was a beginner at some point. You’re in first grade right now, so let’s worry about first grade lessons.

   There are plenty of lessons that need learning before you have to deal with any heckling in the next little while. It will happen soon enough, so let’s not rush it. Dealing with it on a professional level can absolutely be learned, but it’s like calculus or physics. A first grader isn’t ready for it.

   First graders need to learn the very simplest of the basic fundamentals of everything. They will have enough to deal with learning their ABCs. After that, then they can start to work up to bigger challenges. Nobody expects a first grader to know how to dissect an isosceles triangle, and that’s equally true with a newbie comic. Audiences won’t expect a greenhorn to have to deal with that.

   What kind of lowlife slime would heckle a new comedian anyway? I hate to admit I’ve seen it done on rare occasion, but the audience will always support the comic. Most people have an idea that comedy isn’t easy, and seeing a rookie get heckled would be like seeing a child get attacked. Most decent people wouldn’t stand for it, and the same is true in this situation. All a new act has to say is something like “I’m very new at this. I hope you feel like a big person attacking me.”

   That alone usually takes care of it more than effectively, but I’ve also seen comics get frazzled and leave the stage prematurely. That’s their choice, and I respect it. Usually, the person hosting the show has some experience, and can deal with a heckler accordingly on a more even platform.

Why Does It Happen?

   Why anyone would want to come to a live show and purposely try to disrupt it always has been and still is a befuddling mystery. I would never dream of doing anything like that, but I’m a huge fan of live entertainment in general. I know from years of experience how difficult it is to put on a live show of any kind. I have respect for all performers, and want to show all the support I can.

   Unfortunately, this is not true with a frighteningly large percentage of the public. I’ll remember a quote my grandfather told me when I was about ten years old. He said “The masses are asses.” I didn’t know what it meant then, but I’ve since learned to embrace it in my journey through life.

   I thought Gramps had come up with that himself, but it was actually a quote from a gentleman named Alexander Hamilton. Does that name ring a bell? He’s the guy pictured on a US $10 bill. He said it in 1790, so that tells me a lot about the human race. We were stupid then, and still are. All those ‘asses’ from 1790 bred and we’ve perpetuated generation after generation of imbeciles.

   My grandmother grew up on a farm in a small town in Central Wisconsin. She wasn’t much on mincing words, and usually got straight to the point on any topic. When it came to her opinion of the masses she said “The cattle on the farm I grew up on knew how to behave better than most of the American public.” I hate to admit Grandma was right, but she was – and it’s getting worse.

   For whatever reason, there are idiots who walk the planet freely that seem to think they’re why the rest of us are here and it’s our job to cater to their every whim, urge or impulse. That must be why they have no qualms whatsoever about yelling out incoherent gibberish during a live show.

   I will say from experience that alcohol often contributes to this scenario, but not always. I have seen more than my share of sober simpletons start babbling idiocy without the aid of intoxicants. It never ceases to amaze me how often people feel a need to contribute to the collective dynamic.

Three Basic Types

   I’ve had a lifetime of experience with hecklers, and I can’t think of anyone who can speak with more authority than me when it comes to this topic. I’ve gotten things thrown at me, started a riot or two and been escorted to my car by security on several occasions. I’ve played this game often, and have a rich backlog of experience on which to draw from. I know well of what I’m speaking.

   I’ve thought it through at length, and my conclusion is there are three basic types of heckler:

         The Bully/Coward

         The Intoxicated/Idiot

         The Contributor/Helper                           

   There can be subtle variations on all these themes, but they basically boil down to one of them in the end. I’ve dealt with all three extensively, and here is my advice from the front lines so you can hopefully get a head start for when this will be part of your world – and it will. Don’t rush it, it will get here soon enough. There’s nothing to worry about though, as you can win every time!

   Let’s examine the three types:

   ‘The Bully/Coward’ – this is the type from which the stereotype heckler is drawn. He (rarely if ever she) is a mean jerk type who allegedly brings the bag of rotten fruit to throw at the stage. I must say I have never seen that in all my years, but I have had other objects hurled stageward.

   This type of heckler is almost always a frustrated performer who lacks the guts to get on stage or is too lazy to put in the massive effort it takes to become a professional entertainer. It’s easier to just sit in the crowd and toss out caustic remarks. I absolutely love these types, as I’ve learned to verbally squash them like the cockroaches they are. I’ve laid out countless bullies in my day.

    Part of the reason I can deal with this so easily is that my father was a bully. Quite often in my early years I’d go after these kinds of hecklers so badly the audience would actually sympathize with heckler after a while. In my mind, I wasn’t just squelching the heckler. I was getting back at my father, and I’m not going to lie – it felt REALLY good! I have since softened my demeanor.

   ‘The Intoxicated/Idiot’ – Steve Allen said decades ago that sooner or later everyone who does live entertainment will get sick of entertaining drunks. Amen, Brother Steve! I reached that point years ago, but it continues to go on. I don’t judge people, and just because I’m not a drinker I am not crusading against all those who choose to enjoy a cocktail or two. Being a drunk is different.

   Dealing with a bully requires one method of defense, and this requires another. Bullies are very aware of what’s going on, and they want to outsmart the comedian on stage. Drunks don’t know they’re being out of line, and depending on how far gone they are can be a difficult challenge to keep control of the show. Many venues won’t bounce them, and it’s up to you to work through it.

    Other times, alcohol isn’t the reason and they’re just plain DUMB. Sometimes it goes further than that and it’s just plain old mental illness. That can be extra difficult, and requires a delicate and experienced hand. I will go into much more depth in the future on all of this, but not now.

   ‘The Contributor/Helper’ this has always been the most baffling type of heckler. Once in a while someone will say something out loud during a show, but it’s not a heckle at all. In fact, it’s a major compliment to the performer. The audience member relates to something the comic said and says something in response like an actual conversation. This is usually not a problem at all.

   Then there’s the weirdo who for some reason thinks the comedian needs ‘help’ and decides to volunteer his (and too many times her) ‘services’ as a verbal punching bag throughout the night. They’re the first ones to come up afterward and look for kudos on their ‘performance’. This has never made sense to me, but it does occur with alarming frequency. Run from these crackpots.

Embrace The Situation

   It may sound crazy, but part of me really enjoys dealing with hecklers. The main reason is that I know before any situation ever starts that I’m going to win no matter what happens, and that’s a position of power. It’s like being a seventh degree black belt. I’m not afraid to walk home alone.

   But just like with the black belt, that power and knowledge is never to be used to hurt anybody. It’s not like I look to go around making fun of random strangers just because I know what to say. I’m just saying I know how to defend myself in heckler situations, and I’m not afraid to exercise my combat muscles when necessary. I don’t ever start it, but should another do so I will finish.

   Every comedian has a different opinion. George Carlin talked about his preferential method of vanquishing hecklers. He said “Some comedians like to have a stockpile of witty lines stored to use when they need them. I always prefer to use a verbal sledge hammer to the base of the skull.”

   And that was his right. Jerry Seinfeld chooses to deal with it in a totally different way. He just stops the whole show and says something like “Are you alright? You seem upset. Can I help you in some way?” This is a great way to disarm almost any situation, and you can choose to use it as well if you like. Personally, I would never do this. I enjoy the challenge of barbecuing the idiot.

   But that’s me. Not everyone is as warped and twisted as I am when it comes to enjoying such a frightening scenario. It’s like someone walking through a bad neighborhood looking for conflict. Maybe they get off on the excitement, I don’t know. For me, I have no problem going toe to toe.

What Should I Say To A Heckler?

  Students constantly ask me what to say in heckler situations. Like I said earlier, it won’t be your concern at least in the very beginning. Focus on your comedy first. My friend Bill Gorgo has one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. When someone asks him what to do about hecklers, he’ll say “Simple! Don’t get heckled.” Then he’ll wait a few seconds as his wisdom penetrates a skull.

   Most students don’t get it, but Bill is 100% correct. What he means is, have a well constructed funny act and get the audience laughing soon and often. If they’re doing that, nobody will have a chance to heckle. The whole idea of standup comedy is to get laughs from the crowd, not insults.

   Again, does heckling happen in standup comedy? Definitely yes. Does a bear defecate rurally? Is Seven Up? It will always be a part of comedy just as accidents will always be a part of driving, but that doesn’t mean you have to worry about it every time you get behind the wheel. If you are careful and focus on DRIVING, 99.999% of your trips will be trouble free. Comedy is the same.

   If you focus on your act and getting laughs, hecklers won’t have time to interrupt you as there won’t be the opportunity. The audience will be enjoying your show, and their laughter will act as insulation so one lone nut’s comments will have no way to penetrate that force field. I’ll leave it alone for now, but I still have a lot more to say on this subject. Next time I’ll share combat tips.