Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Crickets

A few weeks ago I had a one act play I wrote and directed that was staged at the Whitefire Theatre in Studio City as part of their HOLLYWOOD SHORTS evening of one acts. I was blessed with a great cast – Liz Bliss and Paul Pape. And the response was tremendous. Big laughs every performance. I even got laughs on straight lines. That’s when you know they’re lovin’ it.

And then one night – death.

From the very start – silence. Jokes that usually got howls got a few titters. And those were charitable. As we comedy writers say – it was so quiet you could hear crickets. I fully expected to see tumbleweeds blow by during the scene.

It just so happened we were videotaping that night. I said to the cameraman it’s like he captured the Zapruder film.

So what happened? The actors gave their same sterling performance. There was no air conditioning problem or technical malfunction.

It was just a terrible audience. The cast of the WALKING DEAD. You needed a mirror to see if they were still breathing.

Needless to say, it was tough to sit through. My heart especially went out to the actors. Within the first two minutes they knew they were in trouble. And still they plowed forward – dragging a dead horse across the finish line to shoot it. We couldn’t get to the neighborhood bar fast enough.

But here’s the reality: It’s going to happen. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think there’s a successful stand-up comedian in the world who hasn’t absolutely bombed – probably multiple times.

It happens frequently on multi-camera sitcoms – even with a warm up man. You just get a dull audience. When Jay Tarses, a showrunner for MTM during the glory years, used to handle the warm up duties on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, if he got a bad house he turned on them. He’d say things like “Hey, your hearse is waiting.”

The thing to do is just shake it off. A bad audience is completely out of your control. You can try to analyze it. They were too old, the acoustics were bad, the show started late and they were tired, the weather was inclement, Mercury was in retrograde, one of the actors said Macbeth in the theater, etc. But it’s all bullshit. Just like parking tickets and common colds, you’re going to experience them once in awhile. No sense beating yourself up over it.

Obviously this is different from a performance that works in some places but not in others. Then it’s up to the creative team to make whatever changes are necessary to fix the problems. But when you’ve heard the material kill week after week and suddenly it just lays an egg, there’s nothing you can do other than shrug and have another Moscow Mule.

Truly, the hardest part is having friends lie and tell you the show was wonderful when it wasn’t. When you hear things like “Very enjoyable” “Really good work” and “We love you anyway” you know. When the theatre employees tell you that no one left in intermission – as if that means it’s a smash – again, you know.

But it’s all part of the beauty of live theater, which is a phrase only used by theater people when things are going badly. The trick is to just keep going. You’re not alone. I guarantee you there were performances where the great Shakespeare himself said, “I wonder if I can get into the plumbers’ union.”

Just keep going. Next week will be better. Or they can start lining up those Moscow Mules right now.

By the way, the following week -- HUGE laughs.   Thank God.  

29 comments:

Scott Cason said...

I thought your actress in the pictures was Connie Britton for a second.

Bill Avena said...

My favorite flop-Shakespeare chestnut:
"Don't boo me, I didn't write this shit!"

Carol said...

I've noticed sometimes you get an audience where no one wants to be the first person to laugh, so then nobody laughs, then people say after, 'oh, I loved it! It was so funny!' and we're all left thinking, 'huh?'

One of the directors at my theatre sometimes says in her curtain speech 'remember, we can't hear smiles!'

A or B?, by the way, is officially cast as of yesterday, and rehearsals start in January. Mark your calendars folks! The show goes live in April!

Gerry said...

Reminds me of George Carlin's " audiences have nerves" routine: "Remember, you represent YOUR ROW!"

Applesauce said...

Did the audience know that the show was being recorded? Maybe they thought they weren't SUPPOSED to make any noise or they'd ruin it?

Rock Golf said...

Ken: Was it by any chance the same day as the San Bernardino shooting?

Jeremiah Avery said...

John Cleese had talked about a similar incident back when the Pythons were doing their touring early on in their careers. They had performed material that got raucous laughter and then one show they were met with silence. It threw him and had him start questioning things, wondering what went wrong, etc. Later shows had a better audience reaction and that calmed him but it had made it more clear to him how "brittle" comedy can be and how no matter how much you think your material is great, there will be times where it falls flat. Take it and move forward.

Covarr said...

I was in a local production of Sweeney Todd recently, and one of our shows had an audience like this. I didn't really worry about it too much, since I knew full well our performance nearly identical to the previous night's show, but it was definitely interesting to see just how different one audience is to the next.

Mark Fearing said...

I clearly remember the differences between audiences when I performed. It's odd how one night it works the next there's - NOTHING! Yikes those are tough nights.

kent said...

No one left at intermission would seem a particularly dubious comfort at a one act play.

Ed Dempsey said...

Sure it wasn't a group of International tourists with limited knowledge of the language?

Glenn said...

I just finished a show that ran for 14 performances. For 13 of them, the audience howled with laughter every night. On night 14, the audience barely chuckled. It turns out that most of the audience were people who had already seen the show before and were back for a second viewing. Since they knew what was coming, they just smiled and nodded politely, but for whatever reason, would not laugh again. Thanks, I think?

ScottyB said...

It's kind of like when you get a rejection letter/e-mail from a job interview praising your professionalism and wonderfulness and blahblahblahblah. You just *know* it's bullshit.

You can't help but beat yourself up over it at least a little bit. The only thing you can do is drain that vodka bottle, let the raging hangover the next morning beat *you* up, pick yourself up off the bathroom floor and muddle on.

This country wasn't built by quitters, goddammit. That would be some other country.

Diane D. said...

Carol is absolutely right about audiences where no one wants to be the first to laugh. I've commented on it before on this
blog--you have to have a few laugh-leaders in any audience, and I see nothing wrong with recruiting family and friends for the task.

Thank you, Carol, for the update on A or B?. I hope to see the play in April, and there are probably others on the east side of the country who couldn't go to the production in California, who are happy for the opportunity to see it.

Greg Thompson said...

Any plans to post the video? I'd be curious to see if the actors could REALLY shake off the audience's apathy, or if it subtly began to undermine them.

Unknown said...

My wife is one of those big loud laughers (and sneezers). Years ago in a theatre watching "What about Mary" she found some scenes uproariously funny. More so than it deserved. But that got the crowd going, and I noticed the laughter increased and increased. She was like the laughter seed. A LN (laughter nuclei).
You should find people like that, and plant them in the audience. It breaks the ice.

Jeff C in DC said...

I’d worked in movie theaters for six years of my life, and audiences are - definitely - extremely - variable. Comedies, dramas, romances, some nights nothing much gets through.

I was an usher during the first run of Star Wars in 1977, and now & then even that would get quiet. Twice somebody actually left the movie saying how terrible it was (one old crank, and one young mother).

Never know. Audiences are like the weather and analyzing the weather is best left to, thankfully, somebody else.

blogward said...

I confess to being one of those people who doesn't get why people so often manage to laugh out loud, even at live performances - though I did used to watch most 'Frasier' with a grin on my face, and I have been known to belly-laugh with the best of them, honest(eg John Mahoney in 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' in London in 20--). Just not often. It might be because I have an inflated opinion of my own jokes, and maybe you had an audience full of me. Sorry.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Concerts are like that too.
You'll get a group of people who don't want to participate. Want to sit still, listen, and probably go for refreshments 10 times a show.

As an audience member you also have a responsibility to pull the Actor/Comedian/Singer through.

I remember seeing the Eagles a few years ago, and I think the band was far younger than everyone in the arena.

Loosehead said...

Lazarus Long said "Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get; never argue with the weather". Very profound, even though I'm not sure I understand it fully.

Canda said...

Be grateful it wasn't a preview, with a week in-between. You would have been rewriting like mad.

Cap'n Bob said...

Wouldn't Shakespeare join a guild?

cd1515 said...

Seinfeld has said for years----re standup comics bombing and blaming the crowd----"it's never them, it's always you."

Anonymous said...

Ken, did it occur to you that the audience may have been Japanese tourists who didn't understand what was being said?

James said...

So what happens when it's the first (possibly only) performance instead of a proven success? How do you know whether the show or the audience is at fault?

There's the story about the Mary Tyler Moore Show pilot. They put it on and it was Death. Ten reasons why things went badly. The producers made one tweak and the next performance it, it was great. The tweak gets the credit, but I've always wondered whether they just had a bad audience that night.

Andrew said...

Maybe the audience had all just seen a rerun of AfterMash.

cadavra said...

Audiences are nothing if not inconsistent. At one screening of one of my films, one sight gag got such a scream that the audience laughed over the next four lines of dialogue. About a month later, it was met with utter silence. The work is always the same, and I won't let only one sample make me second-guess myself.

Aaron Hazouri said...

Rickles always says to an audience that isn't giving him what he wants, "hey, I know this stuff is funny. I did it up in my hotel room and I laughed my ass off!" It really does depend a lot on the audience. One crappy bus ride to the studio or theater and suddenly everyone's a sourpuss.

SharoneRosen said...

How did I miss his post? this play? And how the hell did I miss hearing about a Moscow Mule?

Hope you mount the play again, locally. I'm always a ready shill.