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From the WitOut Archives: Preaching to the Choir with Chip Chantry

Twice a month, WitOut digs through its virtual piles of old columns to repost something great you may have missed.

This post was written by Chip Chantry, as part of his short-lived WitOut series “Preaching to the Choir.” Chip is a feature comedian at Helium Comedy Club, a writer and member of sketch group The Specific Jawns, and the 2012 winner of the WitOut Award for Best Stand-up Comedian.

This Week: HAVE FUN.

That’s it. Those two words. That’s what you’ll hear me say to you just before you take the stage, if we are ever hanging out in the green room, or the back of the bar, or, let’s face it, seven feet from the area that the assistant manager at Applebee’s cleared out next to the servers’ station for that new 6pm Sunday open mic that we are dropping by. HAVE FUN.

That’s been my mantra for as long as I can remember. It’s unclear when I started saying it to other comics before their sets. Most likely it came after someone said it to me one night. It’s clear, concise; it’s a positive message. Moreover, it gets right to the very spirit of why Jonas Salk invented standup comedy over 15 years ago. Having fun is what it’s all about.

The unfortunate thing is, I often don’t take my own advice.

I’m tired. I’m angry. I’m insecure. (Which makes me no different from any other comedian I know.) I walk into a showroom and I immediately size up the crowd. This generally involves me scanning the room for bachelorette parties, boyfriends with something to prove, hipsters who are trying to pretend that they don’t want to be there, and women on their cell phones. Then I get angrier, tireder, and insecurererer. And as soon as that chip is placed square on my shoulder, I saunter onstage and spin delightful tales about my dead grandmother.

Being onstage is a blur; it’s forgettable.

Once offstage, I review my jokes, determine which jokes worked, which didn’t, and which jokes I SHOULDA told. I give myself a seven out of ten for the night, and then I enjoy a ginger ale.

But wait—why was it only a seven? Was the crowd too tired, chatty, or just too stupid to appreciate my highbrow comedy stylings? Or maybe I picked the wrong jokes, or I stumbled over a couple of lines. Maybe I went too edgy too soon. Maybe the sound system needed more high end.

But the one factor that I too often neglect to account for is just that: the X-Factor. My charisma, my connection with the crowd—let’s face it—I just wasn’t that FUN to be around tonight. I look back on many shows where I could have easily bumped that seven up to a nine (or in many cases a five up to a seven) just by relaxing, being in the moment, and having FUN on stage. If I was looser, I could have delivered my material more effectively. But most importantly, the paying customers would have seen a grown man having a grand ole time. And that grand ole time is staggeringly contagious. People pay good money to sit back, have some drinks, and, according to Mr. Joel, “forget about life for a while.” Like it or not, we are merchants of FUN.

One night, a room manager told me that “some comics make a living off of being likable.” He was not commending these comics for it; he was merely stating fact. My family dog never served any practical purpose. But why did we keep him around? Because we LIKED HIM. He was fun! There are a great deal of comics out there that would have been taken to the puppy dog farm years ago if audiences judged them solely on the integrity and originality of their material. But to this day, some of them are selling out arenas and sleeping at the foot of the bed every night.

I am certainly not advocating the notion that you should forget your brilliant material and go out there and dance. But much too often, I get on my writer’s high horse, and think that my material will stand on its own. And I am always proven wrong. Then there are those nights; those sets—the ones that hit on all cylinders. Everything is going well, you do spontaneous crowd work, you write a tagline onstage. You are completely IN THE MOMENT. You’re HAVING FUN. And so is the crowd. That’s no coincidence. There is a true electricity in the room. That’s when your seven becomes a nine. It’s the same material, the same room. But you were loose, in the moment, and having a great time.

Especially in the age of cell phones, twitter, and sexting, it’s hard for people to drop their entire lives for 90 consecutive minutes and focus on a show. But if you can walk out on stage, connect with a crowd, and have some real time authentic FUN together, the cell phones will go quiet. That boyfriend won’t be on edge, and those bachelorettes will forget about their blinking plastic genitalia. And you can take your silly little jokes and turn them into brilliant performance pieces.

Superbowl week—whenever a wide receiver is asked what he is going to do during the big game, he always says, “We’re just gonna try to have some fun out there.” I am no physician or psychologist, but I would bet good money that the teams who have the most fun are generally the ones that come out on top. Maybe it’s the endorphins, or maybe I’ve seen too many of the Mighty Ducks films. But it seems to be true. Successful business people often remark that they treat their business like a game, and they have fun trying to win. As comics, it’s pretty hilarious to think that we often lose sight of the FUN side of our business.

So next time you step foot on stage, take a deep breath. Smile. Remember to appreciate every goddamn minute you have out there. Don’t just glaze over; connect with the crowd. And I’ll bet your performance will be just a little bit better because of it. And the crowd will certainly, yet subconsciously, know it. And perhaps, just maybe, you’ll have fun.

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