“Awkward Moments” is a monthly column that asks comedians, “What do you do when…” In this installment we talk about how performance is affected by who’s in the crowd.
Do you tell your parents the same stories you tell your friends? Would you describe to your boss the intimate but hilarious details of your last sexual encounter? How would you feel if someone you admired watched you bomb on stage?
We all tailor our social interactions to the particular people we’re talking to, but performers usually can’t control who comes out to see them do their thing. Comedy often includes, and sometimes depends on, material that is personal, embarrassing, or way dirtier than anything you’d find yourself discussing around the family dinner table. So when that family shows up to support the comedian in their lives, how does it affect the person on stage?
In some cases, perhaps it doesn’t. Pat House, beloved Philadelphia stand-up, answered the question “What do you do when your family’s in the audience?” this way:
“Simply put: the same jokes I do any other night.
In the last eight years, I’ve had several conversations with non-comedian friends regarding ‘You say THAT in front of your parents?!’ Well, yes. I think a more important question would be ‘Why SHOULD I change my act if family are in the audience?’ While my act isn’t squeaky clean, it’s not a mess of filth either. I work really hard honing my act and I’m proud of what I do on stage. Cursing and ‘swear words’ have never been prolific in my stand-up; for me, it’s mostly a question of subject matter, as I am in awe of comics that can take something dark and make it likable.
My (extremely supportive) parents have been to countless shows, along with a multitude of other relatives including aunts, uncles, cousins, close family friends and even my 93-year-old grandmother. No matter who comes to see me, my act isn’t changing. I guess that can be viewed as more of a ‘Enter at your own Risk’ kind of thing, but it’s true. Be yourself. You can’t please everyone (and why would you want to??).”
Preparing your special guests for what they’re about to see can be very important. I can still remember having to say the word “orgy” in a production of Bye Bye Birdie when I was in middle school, and dreading the moment it would have to pass my lips with my folks in the crowd. Over many years of acting in plays, my family became accustomed to increasingly embarrassing scenarios that I reminded them to steel themselves for. This probably came to its peak when I played a lesbian biker (my first stage kiss!) in a collegiate production of Bug featuring full male nudity. I didn’t invite my grandmother to that one.
But performers can’t always know what’s in store for their audience, as in the case of improv. Molly Scullion is a member of indie team Malone and the new duo Gaper Delay with Meredith Weir. She’s also seventeen years old. She says:
“When your family is in the audience… eat the banana as modestly as possible. I was a part of PHIT’s Myths & Monsters in the Fringe Festival. We used a couple props here and there, one of them being a Bananagrams banana. In one scene, I was dealt the task of taking a bite of this banana. The blue humor was not at all lost on the crowd. I remember hearing that command come out of my scene partner’s mouth and I immediately thought of the six or seven family members watching in the audience. I could not let it stop me, but I also did not want my family to see it. I remember catching another player’s eye who knew I was 16 [at the time] and had family in the audience. They had no idea what to do, and neither did I. So, I tried as best as I could to take the smallest and daintiest bite I could. It didn’t really work, but I did the best I could. It was most definitely the most awkward moment of my improv career.”
So how does Molly deal with being a young improviser with all us pervs and weirdos around? She continues:
“In general, I have been pretty lucky as far as awkward moments go. I think my teammates subconsciously remember they are playing with a 17-year-old. At the same time, we don’t avoid blue humor or uncomfortable scenes because of that. When they do come up, my mind automatically goes to my family in the audience. I try my best to just keep going even though in the back of my head I’m saying, ‘Please don’t ground me for this, Mom. I promise I am just pretending!’
The most awkward part of it all is the “walk of shame” to see my family after the show. It usually ends up being a forced avoidance of whatever inappropriate thing happened. It’s as if your parents overheard a conversation or saw something you would never want them to hear or see. Because of that, they just don’t bring it up, but you totally know that they know and they definitely know that you know that they know (that was easy to follow, right?). Overall, these awkward after-show interactions that happen because of these pretend situations are actually great practice for coping with the uncomfortableness in the real situations!”
Big props to Molly for navigating all that while also being in high school. Many improvisers have felt her pain, albeit in more extreme ways (as we’ll see later). Many of us also struggle with the additional pressure that special guests can put on a performance, especially with a form like improv where self-doubt and second-guessing can be so damaging. Max Sittenfield, of PHIT house team Davenger, says he’s asked family members to show up unannounced rather than tell him they’re coming. He adds:
“I actively try to forget that anyone I know is in the audience. Luckily, since this obviously doesn’t work, as soon as I actually get on stage, my mind turns essentially blank. To be successful in improv, you really can’t censor yourself. As soon as you start to overthink your reactions and responses, you are out of the moment and won’t be any good. That’s among the reasons why I never tell anyone at work about my shows. With family, I might embarrass myself, but at least they’ll always love me; you can’t count on the same from people at work.”
Jessica Ross, who’s involved with too many comedy projects to list, a couple of which include Asteroid! and The Flat Earth, agrees that censorship is bad mojo, but says the audience is an important component of the show:
“I don’t believe in censoring yourself ever, but I also don’t believe in ignoring your audience. If a special group of people is there, like a charity or children’s group, the show is about them and not you. I want to do my best to make it special for them, so I go into it with that in mind. It’s great to be able to think, ‘What would the kid version of me think is funny?’ I never want to forget who is in the crowd, because I think they really are a part of the show. They influence so much—the content of the show, what scenes come back, when scenes get edited—all by their reactions to things and their energy.
I think it’s also good to keep in mind that funny is funny. You can’t always predict what an audience will like or how they will react, so you have to just keep striving to do good work and follow what is fun to you. One time at a corporate event with a bunch of fancy health care people, doctors, and lawyers, part of me assumed that they’d want “high brow” humor, but when we did a silly scene about an old man going under a limbo stick in his wheelchair it killed.”
So has Jess ever had an awkward moment on stage? Has she ever:
“There is one time I can think of when censoring myself probably wouldn’t have been the worst thing. One time when Iron Lung used to host a show at Tabu, I showed up just to watch the show so I had some drinks. Andy Moskowitz came up to me halfway through and said wouldn’t it be fun if we did a Jessica Tandy set. And I drunkenly laughed and was like ‘Yeah, sure’ and he said, ‘Oh good ’cause I signed us up.’ And I was like, ‘Oh…ok, but I want you to know I’m a little drunk.’ So a couple more drinks later I did my first and only drunk show. We did this scene with two little kids talking about liking each other and Andy was so innocent wanting to just hold my hand, so my drunken mind thought let’s do the opposite, and in a sweet child’s voice I started talking about him going down on me and lots of graphic details about my vagina. It seemed to go over well with the crowd, but it was the raunchiest I’d ever been. After the show someone came up to me and was like, ‘Kevin Pettit’s mom was in the audience’ and I brushed it off like, ‘Oh who cares, I’ll never see her again anyway.’ This of course was before we were dating, so now whenever Jessica Tandy gets brought up with Kevin’s parents I can’t help but think about that scene.”
So spill the beans, readers. What was your most awkward comedy moment in front of someone special? And how do you prepare yourself for a show with a VIP section?
Hilary Kissinger is a writer and improviser splitting time between New York and Philadelphia. She performs with Philly Improv Theater House Team Davenger and writes about movies for FilmMisery.com. Chat with her on Twitter @HilaryKissinger.
What Awkward Moment in comedy would you like to see Philly’s comedians tackle? Ask “what do you do when…” by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.