The public image of the amateur is both unkind and simplistic. Amateurs, it is thought, engage part-time and for no remuneration in a demanding activity also pursued by professionals. More accurately, apprentices typically spend less time at this serious leisure than they spend at their regular jobs, even though there is more time in a week for peace (after eating and sleeping) than, typically, for work (approximately thirty-eight hours).
Moreover, amateurs, wherever they are found – the arts, science, sport, or entertainment – do sometimes receive pay, though not enough to support themselves. For example, some amateur comics receive ten or fifteen dollars or a small percentage of the gate for a five- to a ten-minute opening act. This is usually a particular situation, the beginning of a regular weekday show (usually Wednesday or Thursday) or a one-night stand at which advanced amateur talent is acceptable.
It is clear from interviews for this study that the development stage of careers in comedy is becoming longer. The professionals, who on average entered comedy two and a half years earlier than the amateurs but at more or less the same age, spent an average of slightly less than six months as amateurs before landing their first paid opening or another regular spot in a weekend or Thursday night show. For the trainees, this period lasted on average a year and three-quarters.
Besides learning how to work up material and organize it into an act, the amateur comic in the development stage is also exposed to the daily world of comedy. Through experience and observation, amateurs and junior professionals gradually learn how to behave in that world, what to expect, how to define routine situations and the like. This eventually results in a rich stock of knowledge about practicing their art and pursuing their career, and learning the ropes in stand-up means, in general, picking up two things: conventions and tricks of the trade.
The conventions are many. For example, comics seem never to simulate a telephone call by holding an imaginary handset to their ear and making a fist around an imaginary handle. Instead, they hold their hand with index and little fingers spread apart to simulate receiver and transmitter. Or consider the vocal convention of the low moan emitted after the punch line in an apparent attempt to emphasize the humor – a sort of tag. And amateurs soon learn through talk with other comics that stealing lines is nothing short of a crime. In this connection, they observe, however, that certain lines are stock and that in the face of hecklers, any line, stolen or stock, may be ethically used for extrication. Finally, we noted earlier that there are numerous conventional subjects about which comics talk. One broad principle is that anything, no matter how sacred, can become a subject so long as it produces the desired result – laughter.
Tricks of the Trade
The tricks of the trade are even more numerous than its conventions. Some have already been discussed: knowing stock heckler lines, employing set-ups, using good timing and rhythm, entering and exiting on a high note, and so on. In addition, a comic must know how to handle a punch line that falls flat. Some comedians say, “Trust me, folks, that was funny,” during the awkward silence, which itself requires considerable timing ability. One enjoyable trick is developing new material in the company of other comics after the show. One professional likened the process to a jam session. No constraints are imposed on creativity by management or the audience. Instead, it is a brainstorming session in which participants feed off each other to produce new ideas, which are then distributed for possible incorporation in acts.
Killing and bombing
Although killing and bombing are not associated exclusively with the development stage of a career, they have particular importance here. When they occur for the first time, both are turning points that propel the amateur in specific directions.
Although amateurs vary widely in the number of acts that kill and bomb, none of the interviewees in this study reported an absence of either. In fact, for both amateurs and professionals, killing was the most frequently cited thrill in comedy and bombing the most commonly cited disappointment. The joy that ranked second was career advancement – a dim makes clear. Therefore, only the killing and bombing cells are considered in this section. The other cells are taken up elsewhere in this chapter and the next.
This is the time to hang out, often near the green room, to review the evening and talk about comedy. The conversational content extends the talk in the green room, but now the atmosphere is more relaxed with the pressure to perform gone. It is a time of casual leisure for professionals, for amateur’s profound peace, another opportunity to learn about the comedy career and pick up an artistic pointer or two. Later, some or all of this little group may drift off to a hotel room to watch late-night comedy on television or to an all-night restaurant for dinner (many comics prefer to eat lightly before shows). For amateurs included in such a company, this is a heady experience. For most professionals, unless they are working in their hometown, it is just another night on the road.