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August 25, 2011 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Seeking the hive mind's advice on best practices for running a comedy open mic. Or, maybe I should call it a Mostly Open Mic.

Hi AskMe! I've got a problem that, as problems go, isn't such a bad one to have, and I'm wondering if any of you might have some insight or experience that might be of help to me here.

I host and help run a weekly open mic for comedians in a town with no comedy clubs. This summer, our event really started getting some traction. What began as just some comedian friends and I playing a largely empty room every week has caught on in a big way, consistently drawing a standing-room-only crowd and more performers than I can run on any given week. It's been exciting, drawing comics I don't personally know and work with outside of the show and we've had some unbelievably funny people up on our stage on account of it.

But there's some drawbacks to the show growing to this size and since I've never done anything like this, I'm kind of figuring it all out as I go. When we started, I could give anyone who came as much stage time as they could stand because there wasn't much at stake. But now the show is making me and the venue a little bit of money and I've got some concerns about show quality and overall show health. Basically, the situations where I feel like my inner Egalitarian Artist is running up against my inner Ruthless Impresario are growing more numerous. And there's a dramatic example of this tension taking place right now that I would appreciate the hivemind's help with - especially if there's a MeFite out there who has figured out how to keep their open mic relatively open while also putting on a high quality show.

As I said, we're drawing in comics - I don't have to hustle to recruit anymore. The good news: lotsa funny people. The bad news: other people who the crowd hates. In early July, we were joined by a guy (let's call him Jay) who claims he's been doing standup for more than twenty years. And I had a feeling he might've been trouble when he started hounding me while I put together the list for the night, insisting that he should headline, he should definitely be the one that headlines, oh hey I'm ready to headline soon as you say so and oh yeah, I can do thirty minutes tonight easy, so how bout I headline and do thirty minutes? Fucking christ almighty.

I don't put anyone in the headliner spot when I've never seen them, so I sent Jay up at around the halfway point, where I usually try to have someone strong. I thought Jay's experience would have made this a safe call.

And I was wrong. What unfolded was a lot of angry drunk barking without any punchlines. He walked at least a third of the crowd. He shit on our town (without making it funny). He shit on the other comics (without making it funny). He shit on the crowd that had the courtesy to stay through his set but couldn't bring themselves to laugh at what were allegedly his jokes. It was fucking horrendous. I gave him the light and he complained about that onstage.

He came back for three of the next four shows. He never brings audience. He's a little drunker every time. I gave him two more shots, hoping he had just been off the last time (a policy that USUALLY pays off) but nope, the angry, barely intelligible, drunken hollering is just his thing. That, and compelling a huge chunk of the crowd to leave every time he goes up. It's not great having him in the audience either, as he always comes alone, sidles into conversations and closetalks creepy things that no one wants to hear. He's said creepy shit about our female performers that turns my stomach. And again, none of this has been funny. In general, he's awful and horrible to have around for the show and I've fielded many, many, many complaints about him.

At this week's show the bill filled up fast, before Jay could get on it. I will admit that this did not break my heart. However, this did lead to him hounding me again, asking and asking if someone had maybe not shown up and if I could squeeze him in here or there, I"m ready, put me in, put me in, put me in. He tried to go over my head and get the bartender to put him on the list. He eventually settled on trying to do his terrible angry bits out on the sidewalk when people went out to smoke and scrupulously avoid eye contact with him. (I didn't find this out until after the show).

As I said, I'm somewhat conflicted here - I realize not every performer at an open mic is gonna be strong, or perhaps aren't strong yet. My Egalitarian Artist instinct hates to turn anyone away or deprive them of the chance to get better. And I think that openness is part of why this show has become reliably successful from week to week. But when confronted with a guy like Jay, my Ruthless Impresario instinct says that after twenty plus years of doing what he calls comedy, he's as strong as he's gonna get and if I keep letting him up on my stage he's gonna keep scaring off the crowd who the venue and I need to stick around and order drinks while they have fun at the show. Jay does not make for a fun show. If I send him up, I'm essentially giving the loudest, creepiest guy in the bar a microphone with which to send paying customers out the door.

I'd really rather not have to tell someone "please don't come back, you're terrible at this" but I really wish he'd stop coming back because he's terrible at this. And terrible for our show, open mic though it may be. How would you handle this situation, AskMe? Have any of you ever run an open mic that you started to wonder maybe needed to be selectively closed?

Being blunt with him might be the best course, perhaps even the only course, but on the other hand this is a guy I can see badmouthing our show if we excluded him or making a scene in the bar when I tell him the news. Do you have any experience with how regular comedy clubs cope with comics that are consistently and crowd-killingly awful? I can't imagine this is a problem that no one's had before.

To say I hate the shit out of confrontation is a fair observation, especially when I'm not sure how appropriately the confrontee is going to react. Given Jay's conduct to date, I'm pessimistic about the level of professionalism he is likely to display if I overtly close this open mic to him. I invite everyone I know in town to this show every week and I can't in good conscience say I'm inviting them to a high quality show if enduring Jay both as a performer and as a lurker in the crowd is part of it. Bottom line, he makes the whole affair less fun and less profitable for everyone and I'd like that to stop.

What is the best way to balance openness and quality at an open mic and is there any point where it's fair to say enough is enough from performer X or Y? At this point, any stage time I give Jay is stage time I'm taking away from a performer that our regular crowd doesn't actively loathe and retreat from. How would you phrase it you gave Jay the bad news? How do you give someone news like this when you're almost sure they'll take it poorly?
posted by EatTheWeek to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to be cushy, tell him that thanks to the very successful past shows that he's contributed to, you are getting a lot of new people in the mix, and as the organizer you are still trying to figure out how to book as much new talent as possible, and if he gets at all hurt or snippy just remind him that he's had his turn and it's time to let someone else get theirs.

But in this one case, I think you need to be honest. "You have had some great opportunities here to try out your act on a live audience, but I don't think it's there yet. Please keep up the good work." As the organizer, your opinion really, really matters, so please feel entitled to (considerately) offer it.
posted by hermitosis at 7:16 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, don't worry about the badmouthing. People will smell the sour grapes a long way off, and anyhow, If he didn't bring much of an audience to your show, what makes you think that he has much of one elsewhere? If you're worried about a scene, have someone who works at the bar (bartender, manager, etc.) standing by ready to bounce him. Also, it's they, and not you, who are responsible for making sure he's not harassing people outside on the sidewalk. If anyone complains to you about him during the show, have them complain directly to management instead.
posted by hermitosis at 7:20 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jay needs to be told that his comedy isn't very good where it's at. Consider videoing it and sharing it with him so that he can watch it in the cold light of day.

As your event grows, you might want to split your event into two events - an invitational, and an open mic. In order to keep the popularity of the open mic part, you could 'recruit' some of the more established/popular comedians to do 'impromptu' sets.
posted by entropone at 7:25 AM on August 25, 2011

Jay needs to be told that his comedy isn't very good where it's at.

Isn't that what the audience is for?

Jay - here's the deal - this is a comedy club - people are expecting you to be funny - if you can't get a good laugh in the first three minutes - I'm gonna drag my finger across my throat like this - and you have two minutes left.
posted by three blind mice at 7:38 AM on August 25, 2011

Isn't that what the audience is for?

If he's not getting the message when 1/3rd of the audience leaves, I don't think he's going to understand anything short of the cold, honest truth. "You're not funny and you're scaring away the customers. I've given you 3 chances and you suck. I'm not going to put you on the list again no matter how often you ask, it would be best if you didn't come back". If the bar has bouncers, preferably have them with you when you tell him so they can eject him if he tries to make a scene.
posted by missmagenta at 7:45 AM on August 25, 2011

Guys like this drag your event down. If you put up with it, your name and your event will be connected with his scumbag behaviour and his unpleasant brand of humour.

Drum up some courage, put on your best assertive face and tell him he is no longer welcome either on the stage or in the venue. Don't be confrontational, don't be angry, and if you have access to professional security, have them hanging around when you do this. But preferably not staring over your shoulder.

You are unlikely to be the first person to have had this conversation with him.

If it happens again, it might be helpful to provide more guidance with your "second chance" - make it clear what kind of material you think doesn't fit in with your event's vibe, and that if half the audience consistently leaves during the set then there won't be a third chance.

Think of it this way: Presumably you want "Open Mic" to mean "Open and welcoming". This does not mean that you have to welcome people who make everyone else feel unwelcome. In the same way, "inclusive" does not have to mean inclusive of racists and "safe space" does not have to mean a safe space for axe murderers.
posted by emilyw at 8:39 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get a security guard to ask him to leave, and make it clear to the staff that he's not welcome in the venue. People like that drag down rooms they're in.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:43 PM on August 25, 2011

It's OK for people to not be good at an open mic. It's not OK for them to be jerks.

Maybe you need to set out some ground rules for the performers. Make it clear that you have the right to preclude people from performing in future if they display bad behavior.

Then ban the jerk.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:09 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Good news everyone! At last night's show, I found out the extent to which Jay tried to go over my head and, without going into too much detail, it takes this situation out of the grey area it was in and places it squarely in the "banned for life" category. So thank y'all so much for your responses, they helped me reach what I felt to be a fairly even-handed plan for handling him next time I had to, but now it's a moot point because he won't be part of the show again, done and done.

I've never swung a banhammer before. It's worryingly intoxicating.
posted by EatTheWeek at 9:06 AM on August 31, 2011

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