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Evolve or Die

I got a chance many years ago to work with one of my favorite political comedians, Barry Crimmins. It was an honor. I had gotten ahold of his comedy tape, Don’t Shoot the Messenger (you heard me, I said tape) and damn near wore it out. Wore it out I tell you. The pleasure of working with him was compounded by the fact that he was a nice guy who didn’t mind talking to a comedy neophyte. We were having a lovely conversation until I innocently asked that if he’d started in comedy clubs, why didn’t he play there more now?

And that’s when Barry looked at me; really looked at me. And it was as if he was seeing me my and uber obvious naiveté for the first time. I was young enough in the business to think that the voice, insight, and humor of a comedian of his caliber was exactly what comedy clubs were looking for. He knew it was not.

He got quiet for a minute, gathering his thoughts. He seemed to be trying to find a way to honestly answer my question without crushing my spirit. He patiently explained that comedy clubs were no longer the place where political comedians were grown, encouraged, or nurtured (if indeed they ever were). His style had become more suited to a theater audience. That made sense, since we were in fact, having this conversation back stage at a theater. In short, he had grown and evolved out and away from the comedy clubs.

I didn’t understand it fully then, but I think I do now. I was booked to perform at a college recently and was surprised to find that I was a bit apprehensive about it. (I don’t really get stage fright anymore. I’ve learned to channel my nervous energy, pressing it into service and focusing instead on my breathing, awareness of the room, my path to the stage, my posture and how I walk, strut to, and take the mic. I know that my nervous energy, when I do have it, is a gift not to be wasted.) I was apprehensive because I know, for the most part, I’ve evolved out of the college market. Strange feeling that especially since the early part of my career was built almost exclusively on performing at colleges. I spent several years on tour doing comedy shows at schools all across the county.

And then something strange started happening. The students seemed to be getting younger. It became increasingly difficult for me to choke down a dinner of chicken fingers and cheese sticks in the Rathskeller. “Any chance at a real meal?” I’d ask, hoping for food that came with cloth napkins and metal cutlery. “Oh, sure!” they say. “We have a sandwich bar.” Yea.

Eventually, my worry became not about having enough material, but about having enough material that a college audience could relate to. I believe that initially, a comedian builds credibility and trust with an audience by joking about shared experiences. And if you can get the audience laughing about things you have in common, they’ll generally then let you take them anywhere. As my life continued to expand beyond college, this became more challenging to do. Not impossible. Just challenging. In short, I had to come to grips with the fact that I was Scooby Doo and the students were Barney. I had evolved out. That said, I can and still do perform at colleges. Why not? The money is good and it keeps me off the pole. But they are clearly no longer the majority of the dates on my calendar. And that’s okay. I’ve replaced it with other things.

Now, when new comics ask me questions I too attempt to answer honestly without crushing their spirit. There will be plenty of time for that and other people willing and eager to do it. For the newbies who are truly listening, know that if you have the stamina to stick it out, you and your career will change many times. That is the path of the artist. The trick is to be aware of it, roll with it, and thrive beyond it. In short, evolve or die.

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