I don’t know too many comics who didn’t start out their careers doing shows in bars. I don’t know what makes this particular form of performance art go with the bar scene, but whenever you are looking to do comedy people just gravitate to the bar. It may be because jokes are something that are slung around a lot in bars, or it may be that someone a long time ago said that alcohol needs to go with comedy, or it may just be that bars have a stage or an empty area and a hustler thought it was a great idea to do a show with a dart board as you backdrop. Whatever the case, comedy is done in bars all across America and as such those shows have there own set of rules.
One of the biggest things to remember is that doing a show in a bar is a lot like playing a sport and it’s an away game. What that means is that this bar is probably frequented by an established clientele and anything out of the ordinary is going to be met with hostility. I remember when I first started doing comedy and I was doing a show in Great Falls Montana. This bar didn’t have a stage they just put a plank on top of some crates and we were good. When we announced that there was a comedy show being had in about 15 minutes everyone in the bar looked at us like we just told them we were coming for their guns. See, the thing about a lot of bar patrons is that if comedy is a newish thing there they won’t know. They are not paying attention to the flyers in the bar most of the time. Hell, they may be to drunk to remember that they were told about the comedy night. When you are in this situation you have to remember that attacking the crowd isn’t going to be a good idea. They already don’t want you there. They can’t talk to their buddies about the asshole at work now, so even if they wanted to they can’t hear over the seething rage that is going on in their heads. I have see a lot of people sit there and ridicule the customers and I have only seen a positive result once. What I do is I just go up strong. Nice and loud so I drown out their talking (a lot of bars won’t have someone go around and tell them to hush up) and I talk about something local or recent. Not like a stabbing or a kidnapping, but like fishing or sports or something. That’s what people go to the bar to talk about anyway. Then I go into my set unless I am rocking it with random sports stuff or they love hearing about how horrible of a fisherman I am.
Another thing that separates a bar show from a show in a traditional comedy club is that a lot of these people have not been to a live comedy show. They are in a bar and they may be a little tipsy so you have to take into account that they may yell things at the comic or not be able to control their inside voice. I have seen some comics literally shutdown when they are getting to much feedback from the audience. That will happen if you are new to this. I have had it happen to me and my brain, which is usually working overtime during a show, is just blank and left me there to die a horrible death. That is why having some strong stuff up front is going to help you survive. If you tend to go up and just spend 30-45 seconds asking everyone how their day is going they could turn. Go up firing!
Comedy clubs have what a show is down to a science. You have the MC that will do 5-15. He is usually there to establish the rules for the night (you know, turn your phones off no heckling). The feature that will do from 20-30 and the headliner that will do 50-60. A show is usually an hour and a half and everyone is happy. In a bar you may not have the luxury of a MC to get the crowd going and to iron out the rowdy table or the people still playing pool in the back. If you are the feature (the first guy up) you are the hybrid MC/feature for tonight and you have to work as such. Your first 10-15 may not even register with the crowd so you have to work through that and not get flustered. You have to tell them about their cell phones and talking ahead of time so that when your headliner is getting up he doesn’t have to wade through that mess. When you are working in this role you might want to start off light with pleasantries and the like. Personally I hate doing this role because I like to tell my jokes. Not babysit, but I am also not the best MC so that may explain that.
I have been the headliner of bar shows and they can be awesome or they can be terrible depending on how the other guy did. If he didn’t do his job, or just wasn’t funny, it’s almost like you never had an opener to begin with. If the room is just rowdy, most headliners can power through that with material that will please a rowdy crowd that is craving dick jokes. I have an entire set devoted to just such a room. Do I like to do it? Not really, but you have to remember that there are not talent scouts in a bar in Bozeman Montana so that stuff that you plan on doing for Letterman may not fly with this group. I was told that you could also do street jokes (jokes that are told by a lot of people where the author of the joke is not known), but honestly I have enough material that I just stick to my thing and leave that alone. Bar shows will make you work sometimes. You will be sweaty and tired, but the audience will love it and you may get to come back to do it again under more favorable conditions. The best thing about bar shows is that it is a great to iron out what jokes are really lame and should be let go. You will be able to work through anything so when you get to a comedy club you look that much more awesome because you are used to trying to get and maintain their attention throughout your show. It can get you into bad habits like more cursing or more material that is of a sexual nature that works great for bars, but might be too much for the wine room.
Before I stop typing I really hope this blog helps people and also entertains. I am not Jerry Seinfeld. I do not have 30 years of experience under my belt. I will not be able to tell you how to get a show or book out Madison Square Garden. All I can write about is what it is like for a struggling comic to get by on comedy and his charm. I have stuff on YouTube under Harry J. Riley and I am on the usual assortment of social media sites. Thanks for reading!