Comedy clubs are in crisis because they pander to drunken idiots and are afraid of a comedian showing any sign of imperfection in their act.
That’s the view of American comedian Colin Quinn, as he delivered the keynote address at the ComedyPro industry conference at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival.
He also urged comedians not to be afraid to ‘sell’ their material with animated performances, rather than hiding behind a deadpan persona; not to indulge in lazy shock comedy; and not be shy of working with industry figures just because it makes them uncomfortable.
And for TV executive and club bookers, he urged them to put more faith in proven comedians to know what is funny. Even the Just For Laughs festival asked him to submit the text of speech in advance, he revealed.. although he didn’t comply arguing: ‘Do you not know comedians?’
Quinn admits he has had an ‘up and down’ career, with successes and failures on US TV, and said: ‘Sometimes it’s because the networks aren’t the brightest people in the world, and sometimes you sabotage yourself.’
And he said TV executives should not pretend to have all the answers – as they demonstrably don’t: ‘For networks, following the plan that failed 90 per cent of the time for the last 70 years I guess it’s something to do…
‘There’s nothing worse than sitting in a meeting doing what we do all this year and being told “our audience…” FIrst of all, we play your audience every night you stupid motherfuckers. We play audience’s that’s what we do.
‘If those guys had a 50 per cent success rate, I’d go, “Yeh, they know something…’
And turning to one broadcaster in particular, he said: ‘There’s a lot of great shows on Comedy Central – but stop test marketing on 14-year-olds. Adults are supposed to influence kids, it’s not meant to be the other way round.’
Similarly he warned stand-ups not to expect TV to find them a vehicle. ‘Maybe once in a while you get aLouis CK, but for most people it’s not going to be that way.
‘Just think: Patrice [O’Neal], [Greg] Giraldo, they never found shows for those large personalities. Norm McDonald has the most eclectic, renaissance, mad mind – and [Comedy Central] had him hosting a goddam sports show. You’re taking one of the most brilliant minds and putting it in a fucking sports show. He doesn’t even like sports.’
Turning to books and owners of comedy clubs, he said: ‘If you’re booking a comedy show, stop trying to craft a TV set. Your shows are uneven anyway… Why are we responsible for crafting our sets, meaning there’s no fat left, no flavour?
‘It’s like having a meatball that’s been cooking in sauce for four hours then you take the meatball out and say “you don’t need that sauce…” No! That’s what makes it!
‘Part of what makes every comedian here funny is not always the streamlined fat-free versions of themselves, so you’re destroying yourselves.
‘Club owners, you can’t keep hiring crowd-pleasing hacks. Don’t get panicked looks on your faces when somebody’s doing a new bit for three minutes that doesn’t kill every night and go, “I think there’s a problem..” There’s no problem, it’s part of the process. You’re architects of your own destruction.
‘You hire hacks to make sure the five people that are heckling are taken care of – not the 150 people who are horrified at these five people are ruining the show so they can’t hear the fucking comedian.That’s a way to build a long-term business.
‘It’s been bugging me for a long time. You’re chasing people out of your clubs every time you let these fucking idiots.’
On managers and agents, he said: ‘Telling people they need more Twitter followers is not management advice. But the truth is we know we need you, we can’t function without you. We’re not very functional people’ we’re not the easiest people. But you seduce us when you meet us, makes us feel we’re the only one, then push us aside when someone else comes along.
And more globally, he said: ‘Anybody who is in the industry and judges a person on one set you see at this festival, you’re not in the industry, you’re just another person in the audience going “I thought that guy bombed’. Stop judging by audience response. One weird set, you can’t be judging a guy for the rest of his career on that.’
Yet he said comedy fans and talent-spotters should avoid trying to find the next genius. ‘Nobody is a genius,’ he said. ‘If we ever found a real genius, we would have heard about them by now. There are no geniuses in the whole business. Even Woody Allen tuns out 40 per cent of the time, and he has the best batting average around.’
But much of his advice was aimed at comedians, starting with the newcomers.
‘Open mic-ers: You stink but you think you’re great,’ he said. ‘But that’s OK. That’s how you’re supposed to be. That’s what keeps you in the business, it’s part of the make-up of being a stand-up. It takes five years.
‘People doing it five years, it takes ten years. I was lying when I said five years.’
‘Another note to performers. So many people are standing their ironically, not moving. Move around! You’re going for your life here. The only one who can pull that off without boring people for more than ten minutes is Todd Barry. Everybody else needs to fucking move around and sell it a little bit. It’s not hack to sell this stuff you’ve been writing and slaving over.
‘I stood there in monotone for ten years; the comedians thought I was amusing, but I was dying every night.’
And he urged comedians not to ‘get locked into one thing’ and think outside of the creative niche they carve for their persona.
‘And if you’re preaching, preach something funny,’ he said. If you’re getting more applause breaks than laughs you’re a pandering fucking populist, OK? And in danger of becoming a hack.’
Likewise, on the controversy over rape jokes, he told comics: ‘Don’t be fucking lazy and write the most shocking thing you can because shock could easily become the new hack.’
He also said that fear of failure had often stopped him taking on jobs that weren’t entirely in his control – which he regrets now. ‘Fear, ego and control are the three things,’ he explained. ‘When you’re doing sand-up, you’re doing the one thing the whole world is scared to do, but then when you’re put into a situation when you don’t control the room, when you don’t have a mic, or an audience, suddenly people get a little bit scared.
‘I was uncomfortable around [industry[ people because they have the power to give me what I want. Im not telling you to kiss ass and sell out, but if you’re trying to get what you want, you are going to have to ask someone at one point if they have the power and money. You don’t have to sell out but you do have to go to meetings.
‘The responsibility for us is to write all the time, listen to our sets, but also to be around the industry, you can’t just step out of it. Comedians fear that.
‘But what they should fear is becoming a pompous ass, becoming a cheap headliner, becoming a hack or a thief.’
Here is the full audio: