Inside the Improv Green Room: Michael Winslow

July 26, 2010

Have you ever noticed how most people only talk about themselves when things are going great.  “I won $14,000 in Vegas” or “I just got promoted at work.”  Very rarely do people ever own up to the things that don’t turn out so well.  So here it goes:

I pretty much sucked the entire weekend I spent opening for Michael Winslow.

If you’ve read some of my recent Facebook posts, comedy seemed like it was all candy and roses and free foot massages.  I was on two great shows with Billy Gardell in the middle of the week and then I got called in to host the Improv for the weekend.  Things were looking up.  This was the slump-buster that I had been looking for.  But I got ahead of myself.

I was running with a lot of confidence going into the weekend.  I had a new 10-12 minutes of farm fresh material that had been doing really well at recent shows.  But that wasn’t good enough for me.  I got greedy.  I made the rookie mistake of trying out new material during my paid gigs at the Improv.

It started as a way to relate to the audience.  I just riffed on the River’s Casino for a small amount of time.  In my hyper-inflated head, I thought I could turn the subject matter into a solid 4-5 minute bit.  But it really bombed when I tried it on Friday night and again on Saturday.

Dom, the sound guy at the Improv gave me a good kick in the pants.  “Is this stuff just not funny?”  I asked him.

“The premise is funny, but it just sounds too new,” he said.  “There’s no polish.  It sounds like you’re not even really sure what you’re going to say.  The audience can tell.”

This is no exaggeration.  As a comedian, there can be no flaws in the way you deliver your jokes.   You can’t stutter; you can’t stammer; you can’t go back and redo a sentence.  Those little interruptions are like putting pennies on train tracks.  A little blip can take the entire audience out of the show.

Luckily, I adapted and by Sunday night I had forged an (almost) solid bit.  It still needs some tweaking but it’s a million times better than it was when it started.

70% of the blame for the bad sets land on me.  But honestly, the crowds weren’t really helping me too much.  Here’s a tip for everyone heading to a comedy show: be prepared to have a good time.  I felt like the audiences on Friday and Saturday came into the Improv either completely bewildered or with a very judgmental attitude.

Friday night, I was on stage for 30 seconds just trying to get to know a few people in the front.  I asked one guy where he liked to go out on the weekend.  He looked at me with terror in his eyes like I had just barked out his execution orders in Russian.

"So what do you do for a living?"

Saturday night, they refused to clap for anything.  Even as Dom was making his announcements before the show started from the sound booth:

“Who’s ready to have a good time tonight?”  Silence.

“We’ve got Michael Winslow in the building.  Let him hear it!”  No sounds.

“Your host and MC for tonight.  Let’s give a big round of applause for Jeff Konkle!”  Dark, terrifying, nothingness.

I grabbed the microphone hoping to cut the tension, “This is going to be really awkward if you guys are going to be like this all night.”

Crickets clicking.  In the silence, ticking.

I knew that I’d be ice skating uphill with this audience, so I bailed on all my new material and went to the time tested stuff.  No problem.  That stuff worked on every audience I had performed for, right?

They were impervious to laughter.  I felt like I was doing comedy in outer space.  No sound traveling at all.  I sweat through my 12 minute set and closed with “You’ve been an extraordinarily mediocre audience,” and left the stage in a huff.


Michael Winslow’s act was really more like a magic act than stand-up comedy.  It sort of went: set-up, small joke, more set-up, most insanely accurate noise impression I’ve ever heard in my life, small joke.

His whole act is based on the noises he can make, so sound quality is really important in his show.  He did a 4 hour sound check on Thursday before we started the weekend just to make sure everything was just right.

The last 20 minutes of his set is non-stop craziness.  He does a ridiculous Robert Plant impression, followed by a 4 minute segment where he shows a clip from Star Wars with all the sound effects and dialogue removed.  Then he personally re-adds them (I obviously enjoyed that part).  Michael finishes the show with a Jimi Hendricks (and his guitar) impression that gave me chills.

I’m glad I got the weekend over with and done.  I’m disappointed that I wasn’t a little wiser in my approach to comedy this weekend.  However, I got lots of repetition and a new 4-5 minute bit out of it, albeit through a painful, agonizing silence which even the great noises of Michael Winslow couldn’t fill.

One comment

  1. anon · March 17, 2013

    INteresting…just leeting you know someone on earth read this post

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