Headline vs. Feature

For the past several years I’ve been categorized as a feature act.  Typically, I’m responsible for about a third of a given comedy show, 20-25 minutes.  In the hierarchy of comedy shows, the feature act is a secondary attraction to the show sandwiched in between the Opener and the Headliner.  I’ve paid my dues at the opener spot for several years prior and found that the opener spot is a more difficult one than any other on the show.  People are still finishing conversations, their attention isn’t focused yet, and chicken wings are still being ordered.  So when I finally got promoted to the feature act, it was like getting the cushy office job after working on the factory floor.  I had finally reached middle-management.

As a feature, you have the audience on their way up.  They’ve settled in, they’ve got a drink in front of them and they’ve already processed and hopefully laughed at a few jokes.  Plus with 25 minutes of time to fill, the audience has just enough time to get to know you, meaning you can branch out into some personal stories and viewpoints.

Just recently though, I’ve started to become restless.  So I have been branching out into Headliner territory, dipping my toe in that very cold, very dark pool.  I have grown accustomed to featuring.  It’s a very comfortable spot for me at this point.  I feel like I can break out a solid 20-25 minutes if asked.  However, after this past Saturday night, I know that I’ve still got a lot of work to do before I can be considered anything more than a good feature.

The show on Saturday was at a local union hall.  The cavernous venue sat about 500 people and was easily one of the top 5 shows I’ve ever done in terms of audience members.  Not only that, but I was slated to do 45 minutes.  45 freaking minutes of just me, up there, all alone, in front of several hundred blue-collar working men, most of whom had hands like bear paws.  Then there’s little old me, with my medium T-shirt on.

The overall show went well.  The other comedians on the show Jason Henson and Linda Duty did  fantastic jobs.  My buddy T-Robe was on before me and I was going to close the show.  T-Robe proceeded to have one of the most amazing sets I had ever seen.  People were literally pounding tables, doubled over they were laughing so hard.  The audience was hot.

There’s a way of thinking that permeates the performance arts.  The thought is basically, “I don’t want the person in front of me to do well, because then by comparison, I might not shine as bright.”  I’ve always thought this was a bad way to approach a set.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  The harder the audience laughs at the previous set, the better the following comedian will do as well.  It’s inertia baby.

So in other words, I wish I had an excuse.  The other comedians had the audience rolling.  I followed that had a mediocre set.  I’d rate it a C+.  For whatever reason, I just didn’t connect with them as I would have liked.  And after the show I realized that being a headliner is more than just having 45 minutes worth of jokes.  As a headliner, you need to be able to capture the audience’s attention, even after the guy before you laid waste to the room.  You need to be able to re-focus their energy when people get up to go to the bathroom (90 minutes of drinking and sitting still will have that effect).  You need to be so polished and unflappable that even as that crowd’s collective blood-alcohol ratio starts climbing, they still would rather listen to you than their own raging inner monologue (“Man, I could use some Fritos right now.”)

I’ll still love being the middle act, but now that I’ve gotten a taste of the challenge of headlining, I want to swim in that pool.  I just might need to hold onto the side for a little bit longer.

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