What It's Like To Be...

A Stand-Up Comedian

February 13, 2024 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 12
What It's Like To Be...
A Stand-Up Comedian
Show Notes Transcript

Crafting jokes that kill, hustling to find gigs, and improvising based on the audience's reaction with Chris Grace, a stand-up comedian. What's the worst he's ever bombed? And what is a "bringer" show?

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Dan Heath:
Hey folks, just a quick heads up, in this episode, there's an R-rated joke gasp, so probably not great for kids, but if you're not a kid, stay tuned. It's a really good joke. Every stand-up comedian has a story about bombing on stage. Here's Chris Grace.

Chris Grace:
I think still to this day, the worst I ever bombed was my first paid gig. It was at a gay bar next to the Brooklyn Pride march, and it was a mixed bill of stand-up comics, folk singer songwriters, and spoken word poets, already a bad mix. I don't think an audience is necessarily ready to shift tones that often in a show from one person to the next.

Dan Heath:
So Chris went on after the folk singer and then he told a joke that had worked for him in the past, but this time when he told it, silence was so bad. Somebody in the crowd actually asked him a clarifying question about the joke. It's like a Q&A.

Chris Grace:
Yeah, I had no response. Yeah, every joke I told had a little talkback afterward, so it was about, I would say about 10 minutes of just pure silence. And here's the impact that it had on me, I quit Stand-up for about four years after that.

Dan Heath:
Oh, wow.

Chris Grace:
I just didn't do stand-up for a long time after that.

Dan Heath:
I'm Dan Heath and this is What It's Like To Be. In every episode, we walk in the shoes of someone from a different profession, a hairstylist, a forensic accountant, a professional Santa Claus. We want to know what they do all day at work. Today, we ask Chris Grace what it's like to be a stand-up comedian. He's been doing Stand-up for more than 10 years, and he played Jerry in the NBC sitcom Superstore. We'll find out how he comes up with new jokes, what he does when things aren't going well on stage and why new stand-up comedians lose more money than they make stay with us.

So how do you get a comedy booking? Do they arrive to you or do you have to chase them and try to get a spot or how does it work?

Chris Grace:
You would be surprised at the... Even at I'd say mid to upper tier levels, how much of it has to be chased by the comic. The amount of small business acumen that a comic has to have these days in terms of just being a solo entrepreneur on top of creating material and learning how to perform it and becoming a good performer, there's this whole other side of it that literally comes down to do you have a spreadsheet with a list of emails and the contact names at these clubs all over the country?

Dan Heath:
I mean, you literally just have to reach out to such and such booking agent at the club in Kansas City and ask, "Can I get on the bill sometime soon?"

Chris Grace:
Yeah. Some of it is you send them an email and it's like, "Here's a clip. Here's some other clubs I've worked recently. Here's a gig I did," or maybe I had a TV appearance or something like that. But almost like any other business, it comes a lot down to relationships in terms of, "Hey, I was at this festival and I met you and we hung out, or I've been recommended by this other comic who you know and trust."

Dan Heath:
Most of these gigs are paid at some scale, right?

Chris Grace:
Yeah. I'm lucky enough now that yes, these are all paid, which sounds ridiculous, but there is a long period of any comedian's career where a significant number of the things you do are not paid. In fact, there's even levels that I was at even up to very recently where you're still kind of paying to perform at the beginning levels. You do open mics, open mics commonly these days have a drink minimum or an item minimum or even just have a $5 fee. There's another level called the Bringer Show where then people are happy to have you do bringer shows because what that means is, Dan, you can come to stand up at my show. I'll give you 10 minutes. I think you're a great comic. I've seen your stuff. I love your stuff. All you need to do is you need to bring 10 of your friends to come see the show. And if you don't bring the 10 friends, at the box office, if they don't say, "I'm here to see Dan Heath," you won't get to perform.

Dan Heath:
Oh, my gosh, really? That's a thing?

Chris Grace:
Yeah, so good luck with that.

Dan Heath:
It's almost like a multi-level marketing scheme or something.

Chris Grace:
Yes, it is. But even beyond that, you start applying to festivals. Festivals cost money to apply. I mean, there's a big chunk of time where you are putting out more money than you're bringing in.

Dan Heath:
I'm just fascinated that there's a profession of stand-up comedy, and then there are a number of adjacent professions that prey on aspiring stand-up comedians.

Chris Grace:
Oh, yes. Not unlike most other, I guess, arts careers.

Dan Heath:
So I'm sure what everybody wants to know from you is how do you come up with your material? What's your process for that?

Chris Grace:
I am trying to become a notebook person, which is something I'm always intimidated by other comics who I go to shows and they have... I'm not kidding, just full notebooks, like almost the movie Seven serial killer type notebooks full of musings, and then they open up those pages and they go in there and they just find gold. Whereas I'll accumulate in my phone, little notes of like, if something happens to me, I'll think about, oh, maybe I'll talk about that. And then-

Dan Heath:
Wait, but literally are you using the notes' app? Are you doing voice memos or what's your MO?

Chris Grace:
I use Obsidian just like any good old tech-obsessed dork does today, which is just like a text note-keeping app that has the promise of, if I just know how to use this one program, I'll just be so free and creative and then the system itself becomes more trouble than it's worth.

Dan Heath:
You have just described my life as well. Yeah. So if you don't mind me asking, what were the last couple of things that you logged in your Obsidian app?

Chris Grace:
Oh, wait, let me bring it up. Let's see. While I do that, I'll talk a little bit more about where it goes from there. So I will put stuff into Obsidian and then the next time I have some stage time, I'll kind of look into that file and there's literally six different files in my Obsidian that say joke ideas, no organization whatsoever. Literally I'm looking at a screen that says joke ideas, and then another one that says more jokes. Why the separate categories? Who knows? And then if I have some stage time, I'll try to talk about... I have two approaches. One is sometimes I will just get up and talk about it, which is a great luxury that I think you get more as you get more established, which is you have better access to stage time so you can use some of your stage time to work out ideas. That's not really a thing that beginners have very easily. So I love that process because there are things that I'll just say off the cuff that will be things I keep. I'm also audio recording shows.

Dan Heath:
So you're just kind of playing around with ideas live. Like you haven't scripted out jokes and you're memorizing them. It's more like you have some riffs and you're just... Are you just improvising?

Chris Grace:
So that's what I sort of mean when I say I have two approaches. So one, and this is the more common one recently, is that I do sort of just have, okay, I have this thought, let me try to work it out on stage. And a great deal of it is improv. And then I have this other approach that I have used in the past that is not as common lately that I actually feel like I want to get back to a little bit, which is a little more sitting down and writing stuff, at least taking a shot at trying to construct the language around the joke in whatever I think is best. Inevitably, it always changes, but I have sort of swung between these two poles over the last four or five years, and actually as of this recording, I feel like I want to swing a little bit more towards the writing a little more concretely before I get on stage.

Dan Heath:
How come?

Chris Grace:
I feel like I spent the last year or two becoming a lot looser in my performance and I feel like I'm in a place that I really like where I want every night's show to be very much like happening that night. I don't want you to see me two nights in a row and feel like I did the exact same 45 minutes. But I have also recognized in the work of other comics that I've done shows with, the value of having a chunk of just machine gun, like well constructed tight jokes that have a great utility when... For example, if the audience isn't there to see me specifically or basically to give me a little bit more... This is the wrong word, but power in the situation.

Where it's like, oh, you don't need to worry. I've got jokes. Here's seven minutes of very well-crafted jokes and punchlines. After that I'm going to riff. And so that is the thing that I have, some jokes I would put in that category, but I would like to have more just building up the library of like, okay, they're a little low energy or they're not really with me. Let me just go into the bank and just hit them with a whole bunch of punchlines.

Dan Heath:
That's one thing I wanted to ask you about is if you just sense that the audience is not with you or things are falling flat, what are the tools that you reach for in those moments? Is it the sure thing joke or something else?

Chris Grace:
Well, that's why I'd love to have more of the sure thing jokes, but my main tool belt is that I never pretend that it's not going the way it's going. And I think this is a pretty common standup tactic, which is just to call out exactly what is happening in the room. I think the skill level here is how aligned you can be with the exact energy of you plus the audience. So if there is a certain tone happening or if there is a vibe, the closest you can get to accurately naming that vibe and building from there, it can help you unify the room sometimes.

Dan Heath:
Give me an example, like some recent gig where you kind of pulled that lever.

Chris Grace:
Yeah, so the skit I did in New Orleans where I told... I'll just tell you the joke and you do whatever. I grew up in Houston. I'm gay. A lot of the guys I like are what we call bears. Because I grew up in Houston, a lot of them happened to be big white bears, guys who were flannel or camo, guys who drive pickup trucks, guys that you're not sure where they were on January 6th. That's my type. And the thing is, it can be a little trepidatious when you hit on a guy like that because the way they look, you're not sure how they're going to react. But I have to say, it is kind of titillating when you hit on someone not knowing if the night's going to end in a hookup or a hate crime. And if I'm lucky, it's both. Either way, I'm going to end up getting choked.

And so I told that in New Orleans and I would say by a third of the group really liked it. And then the third of the group there was just a weird vibe and I was just like, "Oh, too dark for you guys. You don't like the image of me getting choked?" That's weird. I have about 20 more minutes of jokes about just me getting choked out. Should I skip that chunk? And that's a very simple example of it, but just feeling that energy from the back half of the room that they were not with me on that joke and being willing to call it out in a way that still maintains my power over the dynamic.

Dan Heath:
Yeah, that's interesting about that, right? Because sort of like, on one hand you're showing empathy with them, but then you also risk, like if you're acknowledging a failure. Does that become a doom loop? Just say more about how you kind of use that as a tool of power.

Chris Grace:
I think it depends on how you do it. So I think it's totally fine to acknowledge when jokes don't work. Johnny Carson made a whole career off of this, but you can't ever emanate the thought that you care what they think. And obviously you do care. So it's like all a magic trick basically. It's literally a confidence trick of you want to portray this person that is there to say things, and in terms of the power dynamic, they are there to hear from you. And so if they want to get on board with you, great. If not, we got more stuff we can say and it doesn't phase you at all.

Of course afterwards you're like, "Oh, my God, I can't believe that happened or whatever." But this is something I see in comics that I admire, that I think are more skilled than me, where they will pick up on something not only faster than I would, but also more granular I might say like, "Oh, y'all weren't with me on that joke or whatever," someone more experienced might even be able to figure out the four people in that side of the room that weren't with it, and in a more specific way, label that moment.

And it just gives them that much more currency to build the next moment off of. Because there is this whole thing where comedians, we want to be these philosopher kings where we're like, we're really speaking truth to power. And I know it's cringey and corny sometimes, but I say most comedians are presenting themselves as truth-tellers. So you get more currency, the more truth you can tell, and some of that is just the truth that's happening in the room.

Dan Heath:
Hey there, Dan here. This episode is dropping just before Valentine's Day, so we just wanted to send some love your way. Thank you for listening. We love our listeners, we love the comments you send us. We love your episode suggestions, we love your recommendations for guests. So much love. And as always, you can share your thoughts with me anytime at Dan@whatitslike.com. Now back to the show.

So would you rather have the person that comes on before you bomb or kill? What's better for you, selfishly?

Chris Grace:
I think do well. My friend Will Loden featured for me recently when I headlined in Houston, and I did have a moment during his set where I thought, oh, he's too good. I'll never have him go before me again, which is not true. But for a moment I did think like, oh, no, he's doing really well in a way that it is going to be challenging. But no, I don't want them to do badly. I think one, it puts everybody in a bad mood, I think, especially if they don't handle it well. And also with all candidness, I'm trying to be a person that wishes other people to have success. I don't know if I am that person, but at least for the purposes of a recorded interview, I'd like to say that I want everyone to do well. Just the

Dan Heath:
Aspirational, Chris. Yeah, no.

Chris Grace:
I mean, this is a challenge for me in general, and actually when we talk about how do you write jokes, here's a concept that I have is in a very nascent stage that I don't know how to talk about it on stage in a way that's funny. But this is a thing that's in one of my notebooks, which is I want to just ask the audience, how do you guys feel happy for others' success? Because I don't know how to do it and this is a thing that I want to figure out how to talk about it in a way that's fun. And I don't have that right now, right? But it's a thing that does feel true to me and I want to bring onto stage things that I think are true and maybe are not completely expressed, articulated. Or maybe if I articulate them, somebody will go like, "Oh, I feel that too."

Dan Heath:
But I feel like that's part of what's so fun about comedy is... I mean, you could get on the internet and find a hundred funny, well-constructed jokes, but I feel like the best comedy is about unearthing something that you feel but never really had expressed or called to the surface before, like your insight that maybe all of us are secretly kind of gritting our teeth at the success of the people around us.

Chris Grace:
Yeah, I feel like I'm trying to put a pin on ever more specific observations about myself in the world, and I'll just give you another example. A recent thing I noticed is that... And again, this is a thing that would be in my notebook for me to work on. I've said this a couple of times on stage and it doesn't have a really fleshed out form yet, but I have noticed recently that when I sit down for a play or musical or movie or any fun experience at something that I have been looking forward to and turns out to be good, there is still a part of me as soon as I sit down that I want it to be over and I want to go home.

And I don't know what to do with this feeling because it's like, oh, we're at this concert that I bought tickets for nine months ago. I've been waiting the whole year, and as soon as it starts, I'm like, "I can't wait to go home." I sat down to watch Oppenheimer. A movie I loved, thought was a great movie. As soon as Oppenheimer started, I was like, "I cannot wait for this to finish and for me to be able to tell people that I saw Oppenheimer."

Dan Heath:
So it's really about the pleasure of sharing the experience rather than the experience itself.

Chris Grace:
Maybe, I mean-

Dan Heath:
You know, you could just read the reviews online and then bluff and then maybe get the best of both worlds.

Chris Grace:
Yes, I could open up letterbox and just bluff my way through it, but there's a little tendril of that thought, and this is one of the non fleshed out parts, which is... Like I think there is a way for comedians to think about what is our current accepted wisdom in the world, and is that true? Is it true that it's better to have experiences over material goods? That is a very common thing that life hacking product people will tell you these days, which is you should go and collect memories and experiences. And so this thought that I have is what if we are approaching the acquisition of experiences and memories the same way that we were buying stuff on Amazon. And so now there's a part of me that's like, "Oh, I just want to be the person that saw Oppenheimer." I don't want to actually do it. I just want to have that experience under my belt, and so I'm commodifying.

Dan Heath:
I just want to be seen as the kind of person who sees and cherishes Oppenheimer.

Chris Grace:
Yeah.

Dan Heath:
It's like identity credentials.

Chris Grace:
It's almost like I want to have credibility for having the opinion. I want to be like, "Oh, yeah, yeah, I saw it and this is what I think," and now you have to listen to what I think. But that's a thing that I feel might be true. And so, one thing that happens is then you go and say these things in front of people and sometimes you do hit a thing of like, oh, yeah, okay, that resonated because even now when those two ideas are not super funny, I could still say them on stage and see people nodding, basically acknowledging that yes, they're on board for that part of it. There's a thing I could talk about that's very classical standup joke structure, which is that the beginning of the joke typically, whether you call it the setup or the premise of the joke is the part where you don't necessarily need to get a laugh from somebody, but you kind of need them to be on board with you and not making their head right at the beginning.

So if somebody's talking about raising kids and they're just saying such a very vanilla premise, but raising kids is difficult because you never get enough sleep. If you say that and immediately the audience is like, "That's not true," then it's going to be very hard to tell the rest of your joke. And so sometimes I'm feeling out whether even these premises make sense, does it make sense to other people that you go to something and you want to immediately leave? Or does it make sense to people that your friend has success and you have trouble feeling happy for them? And if I feel like that is something that's not just true of me but of more people, then I'll probably try to figure out how to talk about it in a way that actually makes you laugh instead of sad.

Dan Heath:
That is so interesting. It's almost like there's a therapeutic aspect to all of this. You're kind of talking aloud on stage. I guess it's more group therapy maybe than individual, but you're trying to see, are you struggling with the same things I'm struggling with?

Chris Grace:
Yeah, I think that from my perspective, it's more for the audience than for me. I talk about these things because interested in them, and I am willing as a professional to talk about anything and be vulnerable with the audience in a way that I think they would probably not be comfortable with. I don't know if I'm truly vulnerable to the audience when I talk about things like this, but I'm willing to be the sacrificial goat to talk about this thing so that you can connect with it and you can connect with it sitting in a chair in the dark, not showing your face while I'm on stage with a bright light on me and a microphone, I'll be the person in the front with the flashlight and hopefully we'll find something interesting.

Dan Heath:
What's the material that you're proudest of, that you felt like you were really speaking truth that mattered?

Chris Grace:
I do talk a lot about being gay and being Chinese American, and I feel like I don't think I'm going to stop talking about those things because I'm sort of continuously surprised by relating ideas that I think are not even that groundbreaking or new, but they are true to me and surprised by how many audience members are still kind of like, "Oh, I've never thought of it that way." I have a joke about racism in the dating world in gay culture, they're still a fair amount of racism if you're not white. And a thing that I've heard a lot in my life is that I'm not attracted to Asian guys. And so I just have a joke basically about how this is a thing that people do where they see one Asian person, they're not attracted to them, and then they assume that they're not attracted to all Asian people.

And I just sort of explain very simply that if you're not attracted to me, that's your opinion, that's totally... I mean, I can't force everyone to be attracted to me, but if you see me and then another Asian person approaches you and you're like, "Well, I wasn't attracted to Chris, so I'm not going to be attracted to this other one," that's racism because you're saying that we all look the same, right? That seems like a very basic idea. The number of people in audiences when I explicate this out like this, go like, "Oh," or they nod as if they've never heard it before. I feel like I'm going to keep telling these jokes until I hit an audience where they're just like, "Yeah, yeah, we know." And I haven't yet.

Dan Heath:
That's really interesting. So Chris, we always end our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions. Here it goes. What's a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know? And what does it mean?

Chris Grace:
I have a word for you that has two meanings. It's the word bump. So when you are scheduled to be on a show and a more famous comedian shows up and they want to do time and they're not planned, but because they're famous, they get to go onto the show, sometimes you get taken off of the show and that means that they bumped you off of the show. But also in comedy writing, and I love this term, it's a very useful term. If you write a sketch and we read it out loud or you tell me a joke you're going to do and there's something in it that is not necessarily something I don't think is funny, but there's a part of it that I think the premise of it doesn't make sense or logically I have an issue with. I'll say that like what bumps me about that part. So in your premise, I bump on the idea that this, X, Y or Z, and it's just a way of saying that little moment took me out of it, and I think we could write something better for that moment.

Dan Heath:
Okay, next question. What phrase or sentence strikes fear in the heart of a comedian?

Chris Grace:
The phrase I really don't like is the audience is a little light tonight.

Dan Heath:
Does that mean there aren't many people?

Chris Grace:
Yes. This is like my main fear. Actually, you have very little fear these days about being on stage. I have mostly fear about if I'm producing a show, getting people to show up to see it if I'm in a show hoping that people come see the show because I'm in it. And if I'm headlining a show, drawing an audience at that city's comedy club so that the club sees me as a viable person that can attract human beings to come to their club and buy food and buy drinks and all that stuff. And so this is my main fear these days leading up to any show is how are the ticket sales going?

Dan Heath:
Because I mean, I imagine there's a certain density of audience where if it dips below a certain crucial threshold, it doesn't matter how fun you are.

Chris Grace:
Yeah. And it's a percentage of the room. So if you are in a room that only has 50 seats and you sell 45 tickets, that's going to be a great show. It's going to have energy, it's going to feel sold out, it's going to be wonderful. If I'm in a venue that seats 500 and I sell 150 tickets, which is obviously better than selling 45 tickets in terms of I got this many people to come see the show, that show's going to feel bad. 150 people in a 500 seat theater, it's going to be really hard to get the energy needed.

Dan Heath:
Okay, I got one more question for you here. What has been different about the profession than you anticipated when you started decades ago?

Chris Grace:
I'm actually shocked pleasantly by how congenial stand-ups are, and I guess I shouldn't be shocked by this now. I've had enough experience with it, but I think from the outside, and even at some of the early years of doing it, there's this perception that it's an extremely cutthroat business and it has not felt that way, to be honest. I have met lots of really pleasant, affable, hardworking, professional people, and maybe it's because we're all boring and we're not doing drugs and getting drunk and all that stuff. Maybe I'm hanging out with too many of the good people, but I have been helped by so many other comedians and I have tried to help other ones with setting them up with gigs and stuff like that. And it doesn't seem to be like the exception to the rule. I feel like there's a strong ethos in the standup world. It almost feels like it's a little bit like us against all of you. And so we're sort of in our own little military trench against this vague shadowy audience and that we need all the help we can get against the indifference of the populace.

Dan Heath:
Chris Grace is a standup comedian and actor. He's touring his solo show, "Chris Grace as Scarlett Johansson" around the country this year, and he'll be bringing a new show called "Sardines: A comedy about death" to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. You can find out more at his website, chrisgrace.com. Chris is the best. And by the way, not only is Chris a super thoughtful guy, he's also an old friend of mine. We go back to the sixth grade. Turns out we shared a love of procrastinating on class projects and playing video games instead, and the rest was history. My favorite part of the interview was him talking about the craft of standup. And what's so striking about the work is just the naked intensity of the feedback cycle involved. There are lots of professions in the world that depend on customer feedback. There are entrepreneurs all over the place right now with ideas that they're formulating, and teams are creating versions of those ideas, which are then rolled out to customers for testing, and they take surveys or conduct focus groups, and they boil down the results, distill them, and process them.
And then another cycle can begin. With standup though, it's just Chris, standing alone in front of an audience of people gawking at him, and he lobs out some idea that he thought might be funny, and he knows instantly whether it worked or not. No filter, no survey results. The feedback is pumped directly into his nervous system as he stands exposed on stage. And that's the terror of it, but also the fun of it and what makes it addictive. And folks, that's what it's like to be a stand-up comedian. This episode was produced by Matt Purdy. Thanks for listening.