Two's a crowd?

Linus Lee on his smallest audience so far

Last weekend I played to the smallest audience I’ve ever experienced: two people. Playing to single-digit groups is a fairly common experience for many open-mic comics, but here’s what was surprising -- that couple were actually a pretty good audience.

Every comedian has their nightmare audience stories. Like battle scars, we love to share and compare them with one another. Classic trauma-bonding. For me, there are two gigs that stand out from the rest.

The first was very early on in my hometown of Brisbane. This night was at an Irish-theme pub where, in the spirit of the faux-shamrock decor, the pub had a sponsored a local Gaelic football club. Picture three Gaelic football teams having a post-match drink when, unannounced, a free comedy open mic begins in one corner of the pub.

Never before has indifference manifested itself so audibly. Not only did no one care about the comedy trying to take place, but the sound of the crowd’s idle chit-chat drowned out the acts, even with amplification.

I recall trying to talk to the table closest to the stage, as they seemed the only group remotely capable of hearing me, to no avail. One of the following acts took his frustration out on the crowd, singling people out to inform them in graphic detail how he had ravished their respective mothers, all to not a single eyelash batted. Eventually the throng grew bored of the irritating sounds coming from the PA and retired to the beer garden, with just a handful of acts left to talk to the four remaining punters.

The second horror gig took place at the Hob in Forest Hill on a Monday new act night. I opened that night with the worst set I have ever done. Properly died. five minutes of cold, mirthless glares.

Other acts had better, but still cold, responses. Nathaniel Metcalfe did what would have been a wonderful set given a different audience. It wasn’t until the last section that it all came together; an act came on (I don’t remember her name) and thanked her work colleagues for coming to see her. She was addressing 90 per cent of the small audience. This group of middle- aged women were all teachers who worked with special needs children. For workmates, they were not particularly supportive of their colleague.

The saving grace of the night came when Dan Wright got on stage. He stormed it, and largely focused his set on his experience as a substitute teacher. Dan was able to read the audience and tailor his material accordingly, something I failed to do.

Stare indifferently at me once, shame on you. Stare indifferently at me twice, shame on me. In the first instance there were limited options when faced with an atmosphere so inhospitable to comedy. Many factors can reduce the audience’s receptiveness from bad lighting, to noisy kitchen staff, to the majority of the audience being unaware that a comedy gig is about to take place.

On the other hand, it’s no easy task to read an audience, especially when you’re opening, but it is a vital skill for comedians to learn. This is what I failed to do in the second instance, and why I felt disappointed with my own performance, no matter the external circumstances. Though I’m sure plenty of stage-death learning opportunities remain in the future, this is something I hope I am improving at with time.

Conversely, sometimes an audience will surprise you. It’s easy to prejudge a room because the audience is too small, too old, too drunk, etc., but things can turn out better than you thought. I was initially disappointed to see an audience of two this weekend, but they were much more receptive than some audiences I’ve played to ten times that size. They even bought the comics a round of drinks after the show! Certainly that’s an important part of why we do this in the first place: to entertain and connect with people on a personal level.

I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss any audience completely out of hand. Plus, with Edinburgh just around the corner, learning to deal with audiences of all sizes can only be good prep work. To flog a dead double entendre, it’s not the size that counts, it’s what you do with it.

Published: 27 Jul 2010

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