SMOKE: How To Crash And Burn

Originally published: 15 October 2004

I wrote the other day about missing theatre and performing in front of an audience and touched briefly on how you can read the mood and atmosphere of a live crowd with the greatest of ease.

An audience is a living, breathing, shifting thing, and as a performer you need to know how to control it.

Stand-up comedy in particular is the most frightening live stage performance you can do. The success of your performance is entirely dependant on making your crowd laugh and if they don't get your humour or don't like your style you can get flipped in a very short space of time.

There's nothing worse than having a whole build-up to a supposedly great punchline, only for nobody to get it. Or worse still - they get it, but they don't find it particularly amusing.

Crash and burn, baby. No hole is big enough to swallow your shame and embarrassment.

I saw the worst case of crash and burn ever when I went to a stand-up comedy evening at some loft in Long Street, Cape Town. It must have been 12 years ago now, and I went with a bunch of other drama students to support one of our own, who was performing that night.

The place was packed to the rafters and not being a big venue it was hot, stuffy and impossible to move. We were one of the first to arrive and we went straight to the back (note: if you ever attend a stand-up comedy gig never - under any circumstances - sit anywhere in reach of the performer. He will target you at some stage of the act, and you will want to die a thousand deaths. If he's worth his salt, of course.)

Once we were at the back we couldn't leave the room, as there was absolutely no way through all the tables which had been pushed together.

Our mate came on and although he was a bit crap we cheered and hooted and most people seemed to enjoy it. Another guy performed as well, and then came the final act of the evening.

A thin, lanky fellow stood up on stage and started off with a couple of cryptic jokes, which received a smattering of chuckles - naturally we thought he was building up to something bigger. So we sat, agog with excitement.

Then he started narrating a funny story and we started getting into the swing of things - it was pretty damn funny. Soon he had folks laughing as the story went on, but there came a point when there was a collective uncertainty that started to creep into the audience.

There was just something a little too good about the material - it didn't seem attached to the guy at all, and some words and phrases sounded startlingly familiar.

Then someone near the back - in a pause - called out: "Hey mate - is that your material?" To which the comic replied aggressively: "Of course it's my material".

The guy at the back shouted out that no - it wasn't his material. He, in fact, had the very video in which Eddie Murphy originally performed it, and had watched it not a few days previously.

There was naturally a stunned silence - nobody would have had a problem with it if the guy had simply said he was performing Eddie Murphy material, but the fact that he had lied - so blatantly and stupidly - set everyone quite aback.

The spell was broken, and things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Someone at the back opened a window as the room had suddenly heated up a notch, and the stand-up comic yelled derisively across the room: "Yeah, go on - jump, you fucker. Get out. There are plenty more of us in here. We don't need you."

I suppose the first rule of stand-up comedy would be not to plagiarise someone else's material, but the second rule would most definitely be "read your audience".

I've been in audiences before in which the comic has absolutely trashed people - saying far worse things than the above - only causing us to laugh even harder.

But you don't go on the attack against a hostile room, just after being exposed as a fraud and a liar. It's the worst possible thing you could do.

All semblance of it being a show was now firmly out the window, and what it was was a medieval scenario with a trapped victim - lashing out desperately - in front of a madding crowd baying for blood.

He may have been able to extract himself from the mess if he'd apologised and explained why he stole the material of only one of the most famous comedians of all time, but once he attacked the audience member the rest rallied around one of their own, and unified as one.

Once a crowd senses its own righteousness it becomes an ugly thing, with everyone wanting to get their spear into the back of the wounded bull.

People started heckling - really laying into him - and instead of simply leaving the stage and walking away from it he stayed and tried to fight his way out.

He was vicious in his assault on anyone who challenged him, and when the first person got up to leave he yelled abuse at her. She raised her middle finger at him as she walked out and the whole room erupted in applause and laughter, and then the floodgates opened and everyone started leaving at once.

The guy on stage was still yelling at them down the microphone but eventually he changed from abuse to pleading, which was the worst part of all.

There were just a few of us still trickling out when I turned back to look at him, and there he stood - underneath the spotlight, in front of a darkened, near-empty room - and with his shoulders slumped forward and his head hanging in defeat he managed to croak out one final message to anyone who might still be listening:

"Guys - I'm sorry. Please don't tell anyone about this - please. My career..."

And then we were gone. The entire audience left. Except for one.

I can't tell you her name as she's well-known in South Africa, but at the time she was a year ahead of me in drama school. Let's call her Julie.

This chick was a mountain of a woman - she'd fit right in on the Florida highways and byways, trucking it in a man's world. She was huge on women's rights, a member of any number of women's groups, and every show she ever did had female issues at its core.

She never wore makeup, she didn't believe in Gillette, and she had a patient yet persistent demeanour - much like a bulldog. She didn't take shit from anyone.

I don't know if I've managed to paint a stark enough image, but believe me this: you didn't want to mess with Jules. Nobody did. I used to avoid that chick like the plague, which wasn't really necessary - she looked right through men as though they weren't there.

When I turned to look for the final time - as I exited that Hall of Shame - I saw Julie sitting in the front row staring up at the guy on stage with a curious expression on her face. It wasn't anger, it wasn't indignation, and it wasn't even horror - just a quiet bemusement to go with a half-smile which suggested anything but humour.

She didn't say a word. She was just sitting there, staring up at him. As we exited the room she called out - without even turning her head - for us to please close the door on our way out. We did.

And that was that. We never heard anything more about it.

I've looked out for that comic on occasions down the years, but I've never seen him again. And I've never been able to figure out whether it was the shame that killed him, or that very, very angry woman we left him in there with.

He crashed. And boy - did he burn.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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