You think youíve had tough gigs?
Ever performed for the Hells Angels? Told jokes between the strippers at an Army party? Been the entertainment at a gangsterís wedding?
I dream about those sort of gigs now.
Thatís because for the last few years Iíve been performing in high schools.
In the clip at the foot of this article you can see me performing a show Iíve been developing in Australian high schools for the last few years, which Iíve filmed as a special. The show gets great laughs now, but developing it nearly killed me.
When I started doing shows in high schools and I was getting heckled by some kid in short pants, or facing a wall of stony silence from teens too cool to laugh, Iíd start to fondly remember that gig I did when the junkie got stabbed.
I decided to create a comedy show for high schools after recalling back when I was a pupil and we were always having talks by motivational speakers, musicians, and a seemingly endless parade of ex-footballers. Surely I could be more entertaining than them!
I remember wondering; 'Why donít other comedians do this?' Then I started doing them and quickly discovered why.
These are the main pitfalls:
Too cool to laugh
When you perform in a comedy club the audience has come to have a laugh. They want you to do well.
When you perform in a high school the audience hasnít come to have a laugh. Theyíve just been pulled out of maths class and herded into the auditorium.
They donít care about you or the show. Since theyíre teenagers, usually their main concern is looking cool in front of their friends.
A great way to do that is to make you look like an idiot.
At school shows students often donít want to laugh, or they want to disrupt the show to impress their friends.
Teens have a herd mentality (even more than adults), and if the toughest or most popular kids arenít laughing at my stuff the others wonít either. If itís a very tough school, the students wonít want to laugh as itís a sign of weakness.
Often thereíll be students who want to wreck the show to impress the others. They heckle, throw things, laugh sarcastically during set ups, whisper jokes, etc.
Some schools are worse than others. I once arrived at a school to do a show just as the police were arriving to deal with a stabbing.
Iíve also found itís impossible to know what a schools gonna be like before Iíve performed there. I always thought poor schools would be tough and rich schools would be easy, but Iíve had hellish gigs for snooty grammar schools and delightful crowds at schools in slums.
When I started performing in schools I had no idea what to do. How could I get them to laugh? How could I get them to pay attention?
After some terrible performances I worked it out. In every school thereís one or two cool kids at the top of the pecking order, the key is to win them over Ė fast. To get the crowd to laugh I realised I needed to show them that I posed no challenge to their position as coolest person in the room. So I start the show making some self deprecating jokes about my appearance. Basically, I put myself down before they get a chance.
The top kid invariably enjoys laughing at othersí misfortune (you probably remember this from your own high school days), and once they start laughing the others see itís OK and they follow suit.
This usually stops the heckling and other disruptions as well. Once the top kid gets into the show, his flunkies see heís into it and so they pay attention too.
When I started performing in schools I figured that the students would be up for anything in the way of material, it was the teachers whoíd be worried about what I was going to say.
Turns out I was right, but I had no idea of the minefield of hot button topics teachers would want me to avoid.
As a comedian I always work pretty clean, so I thought Iíd be fine. When I started writing my show for high schools I left out obvious things like swearing, jokes about sex, drugs and rock Ďní roll, etc.
I soon found out though teachers have a whole list of topics they want you to stay away from. Some of them are quite bizarre. For example, I used to have a joke about a guy who ended up living under a bridge because he didnít study at school. It was pretty silly, and involved him getting a career as a troll.
Two teachers from two different schools said I shouldnít do it in case it inspire some students to start living under a bridge (and possibly becoming trolls).
This is an extreme example but Iíve also been asked to not make jokes about mugging (it might encourage them to try it), or cheating on tests (same reason), etc. even though the jokes clearly condemned these negative behaviours.
Iíve never found working clean to be much of a challenge, but writing a show for high schools was really tough. I was constantly walking a tightrope between what the students found funny and what the teachers would allow.
I can understand why teachers are like this. Theyíre probably surrounded by parents and government officials whoíll get them fired the second a student hears the word Ďevolutioní.
In the end, theyíre the ones paying me and so I kept editing until Iíd developed a show that students found funny and no teacher could possibly object to.
Gotta be educational
Unlike at a comedy club itís not enough that the show is funny, the students have to be learning stuff too. This is fairly obvious but Iíve been surprised about how demanding schools are on this point.
Before I began performing in high schools I assumed that I could just subtly weave in an educational message. Itís basically what I do in my festival shows; present an hour of jokes with a subtle current of Ďracism is badí (or whatever the message is), and leave it up to the audience to work out.
Schools, however, really want your message to be front and centre of your talk. Again, itís difficult to find a balance between entertainment (which the students want) and education (which the school wants).
Essentially youíre performing for two different audiences, with slightly different demands, at the same time.
Iíve lost count of the times Iíve been booked to perform at a school, and theyíve expected me to perform in the gym.
No lights, no PA, they just shove me in a room and say: ĎOK. Be funny now.í
Iíve performed in sweltering portable classrooms, in school gyms, cafeterias, and every other unsuitable venue you can think of. I remember once doing a show while the principal constantly interrupted by making announcements over the PA system.
Performing in schools means performing in some very tricky environments.
I now have a portable PA and light that I carry around in my car so that if the schoolís facilities are terrible I can do something to improve them.
Still, itís never as good as performing in a real comedy club.
Performing in high schools is one of the toughest things Iíve ever done as a comedian, and this comedy special Iíve just filmed is one of my proudest achievements.
Now that Iíve developed the show performing at the schools is really rewarding, but getting there was really tough.
If youíre a comedian considering touring schools, my advice is have a good long think about it.
If you love working with young people or imparting a message it can be really rewarding. If you just want to expand your options of where you can perform, youíll get more money and better crowds in just about any other field.
- Class Comedian, Michael Connellís high school comedy special, can be viewed for free here.