“Are there any questions or anything out there?” Comedian J Russ asks the apathetic crowd. He looks to the wings of the stage and shrugs. There’s no going back now. I’m closing the show. Headlining, if you can call it that. As J Russ puts the mic back into the stand and gives a goodbye wave, I stare into the yawning chasm of the next 30-35 minutes.
T-Robe is hosting this show at Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in the panhandle of West Virginia. It’s the kind of place that springs up on you. The long and windy farm roads were dense with trees. Only small clearings for natural gas wells dotted the scenery. The college itself nearly sprung out of the ground. In an instant, it was there. In another instant it could be gone.
T-Robe swings back out to the stage and deals with a heckler before attempting to bring me up. Nothing unusual. But the heckler is vocal and T-Robe won’t have that. He calls the anonymous voice up on stage. “You think this is easy?” he asks. “You try it.” He hands the mic over to a young athletic college student.
This is a risky manuever in the hosting world. If the heckler stinks, it’s just embarrassing and makes for an awkward remainder of the show. But if the heckler is good, there’s a chance that he might show up the “professionals”, thus shattering the crucial patina of self-importance that all comedians need to function properly.
The heckler takes the mic and already he looks extremely comfortable. Trouble. Most normal people will mess their pants if given a microphone and asked to talk to a group of strangers. But these aren’t strangers. These are his classmates, and teammates and bunkmates. He might as well be holding court at the lunch table.
The heckler does pretty good. He tells some jokes about the school, makes a few inside references that get some laughs. He says T-Robe looks like Luther Vandross and gives the microphone back. I watch the rightful host seething in the wings of the stage opposite me. His mind racing. All manner of insults and barbs and put downs gleaming in his eyes like rubies in the desert. T-robe takes the mic back.
Wham! You’re ugly. Wham! You’re ashy. Wham! You ain’t shit.
Here’s Jeff Konkle.
The crowd remains lethargic and distracted throughout that exchange so I try to adjust my energy level to the room. This is something I had always thought was the correct thing to do. If the audience is low energy, keep you’re energy on par with them. If they’re frenetic and crazy, match it. You don’t want to seem like you’re trying too hard.
I can’t imagine that I have anything in my act to relate to these Freshman and Sophomore’s. I’m almost 30. The time I spent binge drinking and not washing my bedsheets for months at a time seems a distant memory. I look at my set list and shake my head. Bits about HGTV, references to Teddy Ruxpin, all point to one path: Bombsville.
I immediately make several self-deprecating jokes about how bad the show was going. I proceed to follow that with roughly 25 minutes of lack luster humor. I’m phoning it in. They respond with appropriate silence, a few faces in the auditorium lighting up with i-phone glow. They’re checking messages, posting on facebook and Twitter. #yawncomedy. This, my friends, is bombing.
But I realize that I had been thinking about my set all wrong. I shouldn’t be living up to the audience’s lousy responses or piss poor expectations. I should be the one that says, “Hey, I’m giving it my all up here. Anyone wanna join me?” I need to be the whirling dervish of energy that sucks a few passersby into the comedy vortex. If you’re not into it, then you get into it. I had learned that rule a while back. But as always, I don’t follow my own advice.
I think about this as I drive through the creepy “Silent Hill”-type roads that lead us away from Bethany College and back into Pittsburgh. Pockets a little fuller. Mind a little wiser.