Premature Headlinulation

As you may be aware, I was recently given the opportunity to headline a show in Fredericton. Of course, I have headlined smaller shows here and there … mostly booking myself. This, however, was my first time headlining a bigger show. $15-20 tickets with my name and face on the poster. As a relatively new comedian, this was a big opportunity for me. While I appreciated that opportunity and definitely didn’t regret doing it … it didn’t go very well. There are always ups and downs in comedy. Here is my experience with it.

Several months ago, the guy who runs these shows posted in the New Brunswick Stand Up group on Facebook asking us for suggestions for headliners. My (mostly) joke response was “Jon Forward”.  To my surprise, he took me up on the offer. “T” has always been very supportive for as long as I’ve known him. I had been doing comedy at music open mics for a while, but one of my first comedy shows to an audience who came to a comedy show on purpose was in January 2014 at the Wilser’s Room in Fredericton. This was T’s first show performing. Since then, he has done my No Jokes Barred shows many times and he has also put me on several of his shows since he started promoting. He said he was glad to see me “grasping for the ring” and wanted to help me take that next step. He was very excited to “break my headliner cherry”. I was too.

This was a great confidence boost and, admittedly, fed my ego a bit. During this time, I was having a conversation with “S”, another promoter in Saint John. He was discussing how much he pays for headliners on his shows. I suggested that it might be worth considering saving some money by using some local headliners every now and then … maybe me for example. He gave me a pretty strong “no” on that suggestion saying that he needs his audience to know he puts on a “quality show”. I interpreted that response to mean that he would never use a local opener, because none of us are capable of putting on a quality show. S doesn’t always have much tact, so I took this comment with a grain of salt.

The next time I appeared on a local comedy podcast, this conversation came up in relation to Yuk Yuks coming to Saint John. S didn’t like what I said and he sent me some very insulting messages on Facebook. He thought I was butt hurt that he wouldn’t put me up as headliner. I was a little upset that he had not booked me at all for a long time, even as an opener, and was mostly upset about his “quality show” comment because I felt it was insulting to the local comics as a collective. T thought I was good enough to headline, but I was more upset at S for thinking none of us were than I was about myself. This sparked a bit of a comedy beef that I don’t need to get into since it has since calmed down. He has another local headlining a show this summer and I’m booked as an opener on a show soon, so the point is moot.

T and I had a few conversations over the next couple of months trying to put the show together. We both wanted to create a good lineup so that the show could be as good as possible. He wanted to choose openers who would be a “good fit” with my style. He wanted to good “low key” comics to round it out. I made a few suggestions for people I felt would be a good fit. Of the people I suggested, they were either unavailable on that date, had already been on T’s show too recently, or he just didn’t like their acts. One person he approached to open was offended to be even asked. This comedian is “bigger” than I am and the response wasn’t a huge surprise, but it’s hard not to take something like that personally. Eventually, the lineup came together. All of them are great comics, but they all have very different styles than I do. Not ideal, but laughs are laughs and I didn’t doubt any of these guys could get them.

After being shit on by the aforementioned S for a while in Act One of the great NB Comedy Beef Wars of 2016, my confidence was shaken a little. When I was putting together my set for the big headline show, I was torn between sticking to my “softer” material for the sake of pleasing the audience or giving them the full Jon Forward experience. T said I should do whatever I want. He mentioned another headliner he brought in that he advertised as “X-Rated … adult … may be offended … etc” and it was no problem. It is all about setting up the audience expectations. I suggested a riff on the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster below.

Around the same time, I was reading Judd Apatow’s book and he mentioned a piece of advice he was given early on from Gary Shandling. “If you’re going to get that close to a bell, you might as well ring it”. This struck a chord with me and I decided to ring this bell.

The biggest “bell ringer” I have in my repertoire is my guts bit. It’s pretty gross and weird. It is my attempt to do the stand-up equivalent of a horror comedy (eg: Evil Dead). It generally makes people uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the point. I have fun doing it and a certain type of person really enjoys it. To help sell it, I like to have the spot light cut so I can shine a flashlight in my face as if I’m telling a scary campfire story. It was my show and I wanted to ring that fucking bell! I made sure I had plenty of solid material leading up to the gross out. I figured that would buy me enough good will to earn a few minutes of self-indulgence to anybody who wasn’t fully on board. I have a line at the end that always gets a laugh to pull us out of the hole I’ve dug.

I asked T if the lighting cue would be doable and he said it would be fine. T was also excited about his new projector and he said that maybe I could open my set with a video I made of me shooting myself in the head after being eliminated from regional comedy contest a few months back. I doubled down on the multimedia stuff for my set. I cut together an opening video that had a montage of me begging for online votes in the days leading up to the “suicide”. This was followed by the “It’s Alive!” clip from the 1931 Frankenstein. 

My plan was to walk out with a bandage wrapped around my head as if it was me being resurrected in the clip. I also added some music cues to the bits I had planned as a bit of a soundtrack to add some flavor to some of stories. I was feeling good about how the show was coming together … and then I saw the poster:

To say “Jon Forward & Friends” isn’t exactly what I had in mind would be a huge understatement. This is T’s show and I figured he knew what he was doing so I didn’t say anything. It’s his job to promote the show and it’s my job to perform. I knew he was taking a chance on me and I didn’t want to rock the boat. I kept my mouth shut, but I used my modest MS Paint skills to create my own poster to share on my own Facebook.

Two weeks before the show, T sent me a message saying “First 3 tickets sold!” I think it was meant to be encouraging, but was kind of alarming. I know he puts most of the push on during the week leading up to the show, so I tried not to worry. Leading up to the show, there were some posts I tried not to read to much into, but still gave me pause (“First 30 tickets will be sold for $10”, “tickets are going fast”, etc..). I don’t sell tickets for the two shows I run, so I don’t know the difference between marketing and desperation. It should also be noted that there was a sold out comedy show with Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson the night before mine. Most people don’t want to go to two different comedy shows in a row. If they have to choose between somebody famous and Saint John NB’s #2 comedian, well …. 

I finished planning out all my transitions and tech cues. When I sent the final list of cues to T a few days ahead of time, he said the 6 music cues were too much for him to handle while he’s already trying to keep an eye on the room to make sure things are running smoothly. In my head, I thought we had already had this conversation and that he was going to have a dedicated tech guy. I’m still not sure if that conversation actually happened or not. I scrolled up in our Facebook message and couldn’t find any record of it. A tech guy is not in the budget for the show. I offered to cut it all down and just have the intro video and the lights cut for the guts part, but T wanted me to do the show I had planned. We’d figure something out.

I asked my friend and fellow comedian, V, if he could help out. He knows my material and would be able to get the timing right. I told T that V didn’t ask for any money, but if he wanted to give him something, I would split it out of my end. He decided to use his tech guy (that I thought he didn’t have) because he knows the equipment. We agreed to split the cost.

The night before, I attended that Scott Thompson show. V was opening. We talked about my show and I vented a little of my paranoia to him. I was worried there would be nobody there. I was worried that I have made a huge mistake with a four minute long intro video. “If this goes badly, everybody will be joking about stupidly grinding the show to a halt with my dumb video”. He assured me that I’m just nervous and it’s all done. The only thing left to do is to show up and do the best I can. I figured in the worst case, I could just make a joke at my own expense about how good the openers were and maybe that four minute video was kind of a dumb move … very endearing, right? Fuck it! I’m all in.

The day of the show, I dropped my wife off at her mother’s, checked in to my room, got a haircut and practiced my set a few more times. Late afternoon, I went down to the show room to see it, pick out a fancy chair for the stage and to do a practice run with the tech guy. T said he had already sold enough tickets to at least break even and the tech rehearsal went great. I was feeling much better. I went back to my room to take a show and practice a bit more before the show started. I was all set to put on a great show to prove to myself I could. Part of me also wanted to prove it to S and any out of province comics saying things like “There are people headlining shows in NB that we’ve had on open mics here in Halifax and when we find out they are headlining we are kind of confused”.

I made my way downstairs as the audience and other comics were arriving. There was a good number of people there , but they were filling in the seats from the back to the front. This is typical. Audiences seem really worried about being picked on, so nobody wants to sit up front. They don’t seem to understand that the audience has a role to play at a comedy show. The better they do their job, the better we can do. Fortunately, the openers all did great regardless. And then when we were getting close to the Jon Forward part of the show, things started to fall apart.

I got out my trusty gauze roll to wrap up my head for my walk on and realized that I didn’t have as much as I had thought. It was long enough to wrap around my head twice, so it looked more like a head band than a bandaged gunshot wound. It was annoying, but not a huge deal. As the host was introducing me before the video was to start, I noticed my fancy chair had not been moved to the stage for me yet and T was nowhere in sight. I asked one of the openers to help me out and move it up to the stage for me. As he was doing so, the video started and there was no sound. The tech guy tried to crank the volume, but the sound had somehow switched from coming out of the PA to playing out of the tinny speaker built into the projector. It could be mostly heard, but we were not off to a great start. He cut the video off before the Frankenstein part and I awkwardly made my way to the stage. “So much for the tech rehearsal” followed by a few laughs. We were off to a great start.

I took a seat on my throne and started the first story. It went okay. I got laughs in all the right places, but they were small laughs and they felt soooo far away. My music open mic reflexes kind of kicked in and I powered through as if I was killing. I’m not sure if the openers were getting way bigger laughs or if I could just hear them better from the back of the room because of the dead zone in front of the stage. It was probably a little of both.

I had the writing and the timing down on my bits. They are all well worked pieces which usually get a really good reaction. The music cues worked really well and I think they were a good addition, but the highest peak I could reach at this show was “pretty ok”. That was before the guts part.

As I’ve already said, this one is tricky. If it has any chance of succeeding, the circumstances need to be ideal. Obviously, things weren’t going ideally. Unfortunately, we had another tech hiccup. The only cue that I absolutely needed was for the spotlight to get cut at the beginning of this part. I got there. The new music cue started, but T was gone again and I was stuck with the light. Maybe I should have kept going anyway, but I stopped. “Um … T? Can I get the light off?” Luckily V was standing right there and took care of it, but it was another fuck up that added to the amateur hour vibe that has already plagued my set so far. I’m already dealing with the “why am I paying $15 to see a guy from Saint John?” vibe. Maybe I was overcompensating with the additional multimedia extravaganza.

I still think if the show went as planned, it might have been able to trick people into thinking this was a pro show. My material was solid and the extra stuff was good … in theory … except maybe the video. Maybe I didn’t have anything to prove and nobody gave a shit where I was from. Who knows?

During the guts bit and through the final one at the end, there were about a dozen walk outs. I had one more full bit and then a short closing thing where I put up a picture of a sick kid and talk about how he wanted me to get a standing ovation. I guess my acting skills are a little too good, because it took way longer than it should have for most of the people to realize it was a joke. I got that reluctant, forced standing ovation though.

Afterwards, there was the requisite standing near the exit while everybody complimented the openers and avoided eye contact with me. That’s typical, but usually there is at least one weirdo who whispers in my ear that I was their favorite. Not this time. I was worried about disappointing T, but that didn’t seem to be the case. He wasn’t even hung up on the walk outs. He said the people who stayed are more important than the ones who left. He was also very apologetic about the technical stuff. He hasn’t lost faith in me, so I felt a little better. It might be awhile, but I think he’ll give me another shot sometime. Lessons were learned, and next time will be that much better.

The other comics, both on the show and just there to watch were kind about it. They either said nothing at all or found something to like. The writing and the delivery were good, it just didn’t hit. They all seemed to agree that the music cues were a good addition, so I will likely do that again.

I wasn’t really in the mood for going downtown to celebrate, so my wife and I spent $40 on a $13 bottle of wine at the bar and went back to the hotel room. We had some drinks and flipped between WWE Raw and The Expendables 2 on TV before going to sleep.

The next morning, some comic friends from home asked me how it went. I was kind of on the fence. It wasn’t a complete failure, but it definitely wasn’t the barn burner I had in mind. At the time, I gave it a 7/10, but that assessment would drop a bit over the next couple of days.

Before leaving town, we stopped in to visit my mother in law. She was at the show and her capsule review was “Well … everything is a learning experience”. That’s true, but I was hoping the lesson would be how great I am. Unfortunately, that was not the case. My comic friends at home encouraged me to buck up and just make up for it by killing it at my next show. Luckily, I had one coming up the following weekend. That was something to look forward to.

My excitement about that was a little diminished the next night. That show was being run by one of the opening acts on my headline show. The following night, he sent me a message asking me to trim my 20-25 min set down to 12-15 because he needed a “serious 100% A-game show”. Everybody else would be doing more time to fill in the gap. This wasn’t much help for my bruised ego. I sent a message to my comic friends I had been chatting with saying “More good reviews from the show last night! My set next weekend has been cut by 10 min.” They asked me what the guy said so I took a screen shot of the message and sent it to them. I meant to anyway. What I actually did was send the screen shot back to the original guy. I wasn’t really sure how to explain that, so I just left it. A few minutes later, he asked me if I meant to send him back his own message. “Oops, no.” He could tell I was upset and assured me that everybody else got the A-game speech too. They weren’t told to do less time in order to ensure that great show, but I was trying not to let it get to me. A small part of me wanted to just spiral out and say “If you don’t trust me not to fuck up your show, then find somebody else!” That wouldn’t accomplish anything thought, so I decided to just swallow my pride and do my best with what I’ve got. It turns out this had nothing to do with my headlining set anyway. It was just some last minute fine tuning.

I was still feeling a little down the next morning when I woke up. Seeing the following come up in my Facebook feed didn’t help:

My wife saw it too, but was hoping I wouldn’t see it. She assured me that everybody sitting around her was laughing and that woman was also complaining about the lack of hard liquor at the show. I took a look at the rest of her posts to make myself feel better and saw this gem too. “Side note: NEVER bring that last guy back, PLEASE!”

The guy running the upcoming show sent me a message the next morning asking “are we good?” He saw me post the screen shot of that person’s comments (which he “liked”). That was appreciated as most of the comics around here would just assume the worst and simmer on it. It’s nice to deal with somebody who can be an adult and have a conversation about something. I explained that I was in the middle of a shame spiral and getting my set time cut didn’t help. We had a good talk and I felt better.

I also gave T a heads up that I was planning on writing this post. I wanted to make sure that he knew how much I appreciated the opportunity even though I’m going to be posting about all the things I think went wrong. This isn’t meant to call anybody out or to place blame. It probably wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be, but this is an account of my own personal experience. My headliner cherry has been popped. There was some discomfort and it wasn’t as special as I thought it would be. It didn’t go as planned, but I would do it all over again … Maybe with a couple changes.

The happy ending to all this is that I went to that show the next weekend and did great for that 200 person crowd. It felt great! It was one of the best shows I've ever done. That was what I was hoping for on my own show, but I will take it when I can get it. Since then, I have received lots of praise and congrats. I didn’t even have to go on Facebook threatening to quit comedy for people to say nice things to me. I am very happy about how well I did and I’m thrilled to be working with a great group of comics who I know have my back. Of course, I’ll be back in the gutter the next time something bad happens, but that’s the nature of doing comedy. I have to trust that no matter how bad things seem to be, something awesome will be right around the corner. Maybe I’ll even get to headline again someday. Stay tuned for more information on The Jon Forward Massacre 2019.

Fundy Fringe Festival Wrap Up

If you are reading a blog post on JonForward.com, I assume you are aware that I was a part of the Fundy Fringe Festival last week (Aug 19-23rd 2015 for the historical record). It was a great experience, so I thought I would post some thoughts.

There we a lot of new experiences doing this run. Prior to this, I had only done sets longer than 10-15 minutes twice. The first time was for the Hoveland live show during the CBC Comedy Coup contest and the second time was at the first Epic Comedy show at the Pub Down Under this year. I have lots of material, but I didn’t have much experience transitioning between my bits. It was a big step to work out a 30 minute headline spot.

The way the local scene is currently not really set up for a set this long. Around here, it is mostly 7-15 minute spots for the vast majority of the local acts. Then there are the 60+ minute sets for headliners. Those spots usually go to out of town touring acts. From what I understand, in most markets, they have a “middle”. If those spots were available, that’s probably where I’d put myself on a show. There’s a host, maybe an opener doing a shorter set, a middle and then the headliner. I probably have at least an hour of material, but not all good stuff. The 30 minute set I did on this run was all pretty polished.

Aside from a couple of new lines here and there on my older bits, the newest thing was my “horror comedy” bit. That was fun to do, but it’s hard to tell how well it went over since there aren’t really supposed to be many big laughs. It was more about creating a mood. I am a pretty big horror fan and I wanted to write something along those lines. There are a lot of funny horror movies, but not many “scary” stand up jokes that I’ve heard … I guess I’m a trailblazer. I wanted to write the stand up equivalent of a horror comedy. It took me awhile to figure out what that would look like. I spend a week watching movies for inspiration …. Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, Dead Alive, Slither, The Thing. Fans of those movies can probably spot the ideas I lifted from them (or was “inspired by” or “paying homage to”). The master stroke was the idea of telling the story with the lights out and a flashlight pointed at my face from below … campfire story style. My wife helped me come up with that. It is a pretty gross story and the flashlight thing really helps create the tone and sells it. I’m not sure it would work out well without that bit of theatrics. The Fundy Fringe was a good place to try that as most comedy shows can’t really do lighting cues (thanks to our tech, Joe).

It took a couple of nights to figure out which jokes I had time for and to figure out how to get from one to the other. Five shows in five nights is a great way to work it out. Unfortunately, there isn’t a big enough market around here to do several shows every week. That’s a pretty important thing to be able to do if you want to get good. My best stuff is the jokes that I have done the most times. Each one gets better each time it is performed in front of a good audience. Even if I lost money on the Fringe Fest shows, it would have been worth it to get to work out a really solid half hour set … even if I might not get many opportunities to break it out. At least I have it in my back pocket should the opportunity arise.

Speaking of money, this was the first time I’ve put on a show that had my own money on the line. It cost money to apply to the Fringe, more once I got accepted and then a little bit on getting some nice posters printed. Fortunately, we made back the investment and then some. It wasn’t a huge payday or anything, but it was nice to be able to pay the other people on the show and keep a bit for myself. Given the amount of work we all put into planning, writing, promotion and performing … we probably made less than minimum wage, but we had a good time … priceless!

Adam and James from Hoveland (with a special appearance from Rick Gold) hosted the show. I always like working with those guys and they really made the show special. Having some sketch comedy stuff on the show was great. Funny is funny and I like mixing styles. I want people in Saint John to get a taste of all of their comedy options. No one particular comedian or whatever is going to be to everyone’s taste. The more variety we have in the comedy scene, the bigger the audience we will have. I was a little stressed out in the lead up to the show because it was all still coming together right up until the last minute. Given the strict timing I wanted for the show to have … I was worried that they would run long and that the lost time would come out of my set like during the No Jokes Barred anniversary show. It all worked out great and I am happy with how it turned out. They have a really funny webseries on YouTube. Everything is up on their website, so check out Hoveland.ca if you haven’t seen them before. Special thanks to Adam for also working on the poster and the promo video.

Trevor Muxworthy from Fredericton also did a set each night of the Festival. He is one of my favourite comedians to work with. As the fearless leader of the Fredericton United Comedy Collective (FUCC), he runs a monthly show at the Wilser’s Room in Fredericton the first Thursday every month. The first time I did one of those shows was January 2014 and it was a big step forward. Before then, I had mostly been doing stand up at music open mics. This was one of the first times I did a show for people who came to see comedy on purpose. Having to stop for laughter on a punch line is very different than my prior experiences. Trevor is a great comedian and has always been supportive. He was a hard act to follow and I was glad to have the added pressure to do a good job.

The Friday and Sunday shows during the Fringe were two of the best shows I have ever done. Every one of us on stage nailed it and the audiences were awesome. The other three shows were good too, but the audiences were hard to get big laughs from. During the first two shows, we were still working things out and it probably showed. As comedians, a sober audience is always tough to crack. Drunk people laugh more I guess. I’m not sure what happened on Saturday. It was still a good show and audience, but not a “great” one. It probably felt worse than it actually was just because it followed the amazing Friday night show. I wasn’t sure how the 5pm Sunday show would go, but it ended up being the best one of the run. Trevor in particular was on fire for that last one. It was the best I’ve ever seen him. He must get invigorated by strangers seeing him shirtless.

As good as it all went, I still kind of felt like we were the red-headed stepchild of the Festival. I’m not sure how it compared to other shows, but it felt like attendance from festival volunteers and other performers was pretty sparse. One other show, which shall remain nameless, made a big thing about being “by far, the most offensive show during the entire festival”. Not that it is a huge badge of honour or even the goal, but they didn’t come close to us. There were a lot of jokes about hilariousness of two men performing sexual acts together. I find the gay panic stuff offensive, but probably not in the way they intended. They conceded that it might have been a tie with another show (not ours). The other show was also less “offensive” than ours, but it was at least more maturely offensive. At the end of their show, they incorporated a bunch of other show names into it, but no No Jokes Barred. Maybe the 4 min tease we did on the Tuesday before the shows kicked off didn’t make enough of an impression.

To be honest, I didn’t really take the “Big Tease” very seriously. I didn’t have any full jokes I could do in 4 minutes, so I tossed off two of my few short ones … and flubbed my opening line. Next, I brought out the Hoveland boys. They argued a bit in character and had some funny answers to the Fringe Trivia question. It wasn’t terrible, but it might have sparked more interest if we had given more of a preview of the show instead of just telling people what they were in for. Show, don’t tell. Lesson learned.

The last three shows were filmed. Once it is edited, it will go up on the internet. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I am glad that I have these shows on tape. It was a really great show and I want people to see it. It will also be a great thing to send people if I am trying to get booked on a show. On the other hand ... I don't really like the idea of people who just didn't feel like coming out to the show having free access to it online. I'm getting pretty tired of hearing “No, I'm not going to the show, but do you have any videos online?” I don't care about losing their $10 at the door. Anybody who wanted to go, but genuinely could not afford it could have been let in for free. I care about that one extra empty seat they could have filled. That's one less person laughing. You like like it better in person! Come fill my void with your laughter! If watching online is really the only option you have, I am glad to bring some joy into your life ... watch and enjoy. If you could have come and just didn't feel like it ... you can watch it online too, but you should poke yourself with something sharp for the duration as penance. You could also send me a recording of your laughter so I can play it for myself when I'm sad ... cash works too.

What about next year? I don’t know if I should do another stand up show or something else. The one man show monologues seemed to do well. Maybe I could do one of those. I have stories about teaching I could probably put together. I still haven’t figured out how to make them work as stand up, but maybe it is more suited to this kind of a show. That could be a clean set for me … wowsers. Maybe the Fringe Fest could legitimize it enough that I could shop it around to the school districts to see if I can get some of that big money giving my talk to teachers on their professional development days.

That doesn’t seem like it would be as fun as yelling into a mic at some fancy theater people about slamming my possessed dick in a car door. We’ll see ….

Reflections on No Jokes Barred

One year of No Jokes Barred. Time flies when you are creating the best Stand Up comedy show in Saint John. My apologies for dispensing with the false humility. “Best” is subjective, so this is only my opinion. There are other shows that other fans and performers may prefer (Shane Ogden Presents, Ep!c Comedy at the Pub Down Under, James Mullinger’s Work in Progress shows). I love doing those shows and even going to see them when I can. However, No Jokes Barred is my favourite show to do and it would likely be my favourite show to attend as a fan of comedy in Saint John.

When I started this show, I had no idea how successful it would become. It was started out of frustration with experiences I’ve had in comedy up to that point. When started doing stand-up, I had no idea there was any kind of comedy scene going on in NB. I thought that I was the only one around here foolish enough to try. At the time I was working a Friday-Monday shift, so my days off were during the week. Cougar’s had an acoustic open mic on Tuesday nights and I had a few friends who also had odd schedules and it became a weekly event. Over that year (and a half?) I only wrote 4 jokes. Of course, each of my 4 jokes were 10-15 minutes long. The other people at the bar never gave a shit, and after a while, even my friends grew tired of listening to my same old shit … there were girls to talk to now. Nobody was there for a show. This was the only place to go drink on a Tuesday night that had more than 5 people in attendance. Mumford and Sons cover songs? Awesome background music that doesn’t require anybody’s full attention. Guy talking into a microphone? Shut up and play a song! It was dreadful, but I powered through. I am thankful for the stage time and those 4 jokes are still among my best (after some pairing down and the addition of actual punchlines).

On Sundays, Cougars also had an electric open mic (Pearl Jam covers instead of Mumford and Sons). This is where the trouble started. Whenever there was a holiday on a Monday, I would go to this one too. It was pretty well attended since people didn’t have to work the next day. The audience still wasn’t really there for a show … just a place to drink with some other stuff going on in the background. I did pretty well the few times I went up. By “pretty well”, I mean that 20% of the people there were into it and everybody else was talking as loudly as possible. One week, I asked the drummer for the house band for a spot (I would call him out if I knew his name). He said that “there were complaints to the owner” about the  last time I did set. For the record, that set was my cheeseburger bit. It has some swears and some brief yelling, but nothing controversial. This is a bar, not a day care. He reluctantly told me that I could go up if I could “keep it clean”. My plan was to do my bit about Diamond the stripper. Not a clean set, so I declined.

The next day, I put on some nice clothes and went into talk to the owner. I wanted to give my side and to find out what the problem was. Turns out the guy running the show was just too much of a coward to tell me he didn’t like what I was doing, so he blamed it on the owner. The owner eventually called the guy for his side and was told that I was talking about porn (correct), pedophilia (no) and bestiality (no). Regardless, the owner sided with the guy running the show. If people aren’t into it, he has no obligation to give me stage time. Saint John’s reluctance to try anything new is why the scene was dying, but fair enough. He’s a business owner, not a curator of the arts. Nobody was leaving the bar because of me. Worst case, they went out to the deck for 10 minutes. I certainly wasn’t worse than just having somebody’s iPod on shuffle because nobody wanted to play. A few months later, they shut down that Open Mic altogether, so I wasn’t the problem. Anyway … I still kept going on Tuesdays and even went back to O’Leary’s a couple of times.

One day I was driving around the north end and saw a sign at the Somerset Pub advertising “Open Mic Comedy”. Oh shit! This is my big break. Turns out “open mic” doesn’t mean the same thing in comedy as it does with music. I showed up and asked to go on, but Lloyd Ravn told me the show was already full. He eventually took pity on me and gave me 5 minutes. I didn’t have anything that short because I was used to rambling for 15 minutes at Cougars, but I did a rushed version of my “Monday Night” story. There wasn’t many people there, but it was such a big difference performing for an audience that came to a comedy show on purpose. From there, I got added to the top secret FaceBook group for NB comedians. I went up a couple of times at Trevor Muxworthy’s monthly show at the Wilser’s Room in Fredericton. This was even better. After spending so long powering through my jokes, it was weird having to pause for a laugh. Wow, that line was funny … I forgot. All the other comedians were very nice to me (at least after they saw me perform and do well). I told Trevor that my goal was to eventually get onto one of Shane Ogden’s shows at the 3 Mile in Saint John. Trevor said that I was really funny and that he’d put in a good word for me.

After getting a couple of my Wilser’s room sets on tape, I contacted Shane Ogden about getting on the show. He was not impressed. He gave me some kind of condescending “advice” that I did not agree with. He seemed to be under the impression that I was some kind of hurricane of anger and swearing (that damn cheeseburger bit screwed me again). He said no, for now. Instead of listening to anything he had to say, I just decided that he was full of shit and didn’t know what he was talking about. I had seen some of his shows and thought that I was at least as good as some of the other comedians he booked. The next time I was on a show at the Somerset with Shane, he even sent out a FaceBook message outlining what kinds of things we should avoid doing or saying because we “want these people to come back again”. The message was sent to everybody on the show, but I suspected it was directed at me. What a bastard. I was especially annoyed because I was planning on doing a relatively clean crowd work / 10000 Jokes set.

At this point, I decided I wanted to start my own show. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do, but I had some ideas about what I didn’t want to do. First off, I didn’t want to tell the comedians what they could and could not say. It is better when they don’t have to second guess themselves. It would also be better for the audience to be able to go to a show that doesn’t pull any punches. I wanted the show to be uptown because that’s where the cool kids go. The Somerset is a nice place, but many of the people I know don’t want to go all the way across town to see people they’ve never heard of talking about their dicks. Also, to go along with the low barrier of entry, I didn’t want to have tickets or a cover charge. Comedy was a fairly new thing and people are cheap. I would rather have people at the show than a big pile of money that wouldn’t happen anyway. It had to be “Pay What You Can”. Nobody is allowed to be upset if they don’t have to pay. Finding a good venue was the next thing that needed to be done.

One Saturday night, I was at the R Bar with some friends. There were five people there watching a cover band. The R Bar is in a rough part of town with a bad reputation. There are a couple of bars around the corner that are particularly rough. It is a nice place though. It had been renovated since the last time I was there. It was a nice little bar that was masquerading as a dive bar. I figured that if I could bring in 6 people on a Saturday night, I’d be doing them a favour. They aren’t going to have a problem with the content of the show as long as the bar was making money. Bonus: I’ve known the owner’s son for most of my life. I set up a meeting with Glen, the owner. I had some notes and was fully prepared to argue my case. I didn’t have to argue too much. He was on board almost immediately. Apparently he is a fan of comedy and has been involved in putting on comedy shows in the past. June 26th, 2014 was the first show and it was great.

I made myself the host even though this was outside my comfort zone. At the time, I didn’t have any short jokes and I only had a handful of longer sets that I had been working on. The format I decided on was for me to introduce the show and do a bit of unprepared, looser material. I usually have a topic in mind, but rarely anything written down or worked out. I usually aim for 4 other comedians in the first half. For my in-between segments, my plan was to rely on my dumb 10000 Jokes joke book. I attempted to do some crowd work to go with this like I did at the Somerset, but I am terrible at it. Eventually, I mostly abandoned the crowd work and just found a chapter semi related to something in the previous comic’s set. After an intermission I would bring the crowd back with one of my prepared bits before continuing on with the other 3 or 4 comedians.

I have been told several times that the intermission is a bad idea, but I don’t listen. I used to be a teacher, so I know how hard it is for people to shut up and listen for extended periods of time. People need a break. It also gives me a good time to go around collecting donations. This is a pay what you can show and I have been happy with the amount of money being put in the bucket. Some people are cheap and some people are very generous. It all works out in the end. Maybe we’d get more if I charged $10-15, but I think that might cost us some audience members. Laughter is a valid form of currency at a comedy show and I don’t want to trade one for the other. Every month, we pull in enough money to pay each of the comedians more than they usually get for these kinds of shows ($0 on average). I also get to keep some for myself.

Over the past year, I have seen the audience grow more than I could have imagined. We regularly pack the R Bar. My shows are their biggest nights. I have also grown as a performer. Hosting duties have given me a chance to get better at improvising and trying new things that I wouldn’t have had a chance to do otherwise. When I started this thing, I did one of my 10000 Jokes from the book almost every time I hit the stage between sets. Now, I hardly ever go to it. For those who miss the 10000 Jokes segment, tune in to the Jon Floorward Show on Youtube. Also, that bastard Shane eventually did put me on a show at the 3 Mile (3 times since November, actually). I’m not sure how much of that was due to me getting better and how much is Shane just becoming more open-minded with his bookings. Either way, I’m almost ready to stop being mad about that first “No”.

It has also been good for the other comedians. Although the out of towners are usually afraid that they are going to be shot or stabbed, they almost always have a good time. They don’t have to worry about what they can and can’t do at my show. Creativity grows when people don’t need to worry about being “allowed” to do something. It has also allowed the Saint John comedy scene to grow. I’m not working in a vacuum, so it is hard to quantify my contribution to the growth of comedy in Saint John compared to what other people are doing, but I know I have had some impact. Comedy isn’t nearly as unusual of a thing as it was when I started. As “dangerous” as a comedy show at the R Bar may seem, it is still a walk in the park compared to the open mic trenches I suffered through. I have been very impressed with all of the new people I have given stage time to. Lots of new comedians are coming up and I’m going to go ahead and take credit for all of the ones who got their starts at No Jokes Barred.

This Saturday, June 27th, we are celebrating the 1 year Anniversary of NJB. Along with a group of hand-picked comedians, I have promoted myself to headliner for this one. I am equally terrified and excited about that. I’m also letting my friends in Hoveland host the show. I’m not sure what they have planned, but I’m sure it will be hilarious. My original plan was to start at a bar like this so that I could build an audience before moving on to a better place. The R Bar has grown on me and is part of the No Jokes Barred identity. Since we have been filling the place lately, it would be nice to move somewhere with some more room, but a too-packed house isn’t a bad problem to have. I don’t want to lose that special R Bar charm.

Just in case this hasn’t been long enough, here are some scattered memories from the past year of No Jokes Barred … some good, some bad:

-          Deciding to only perform sober after watching myself on video getting progressively drunker each time I go on stage at that first show

-          “Shut up and talk!”

-          A stray cat walking into the bar mid show

-          The first time I booked a show on a long weekend the day after the welfare cheques came out

-          The terror I felt leading up to the first time I told my “Moby Dick” story to a hometown audience

-          Phil Smith’s Spiderman costume

-          Melissa the bartender always does a great job despite working alone with a room full of people.

-          Having to shut down a drunk veteran who was being an asshole. “I don’t care what you did 50 years ago. You are being an asshole right now. Stop it or go somewhere else. Nobody came here for you.”

-          Catching certain people on tape trash talking the show. Did they not think about the very obvious microphone sitting on their table?

-          Some of the old-guard “comedy rule book” people still talking down to me regardless of the success

-          One group of people walking out on the show due to “transphobic, sexist and racist material”. I don’t agree, but at least they were respectful and left quietly when they realized they were having a bad time.

-          Hoveland’s first time on the show (characters, comedy, magic)

-          Bringing Stacey up on stage with me

I’ve probably forgotten a bunch of stuff. The main point is that this show has been an awesome experience and I can’t wait to see what happens going forward. Thanks to everybody who has ever attended the show and to those who have performed. I’ll even thank the person who wrote about the show in the paper without ever showing up to one. Also thanks to everybody at the R Bar for letting this happen (you are welcome for all the extra booze money I’ve helped you earn).

50 more years!

 

Theatres Vs Clubs

Blog post ... hmmm. I suppose the idea of this thing is just to say what's on my mind. What if somebody takes something I say the wrong way? Does anybody care what I think anyway? Let's give it a go.

Last night I did a show at the Saint John Theatre Company's BMO Theatre in Saint John. It was sold out. The crowd was great and so were all the other comedians. I had a lovely time and I would love to come back.

After the show, one of the other comedians said "this is what all shows should be like" (paraphrasing). I don't know if I agree. Don't get me wrong, I love doing shows like this. It feels good when a crowd is really into it and I'm glad to be a part of showing all those people a good time. Part of me doesn't want to trust the laughs though.

Are they laughing because I was good or are they laughing because they are supposed to? When you are in a room full of people who are laughing, its kind of infectious. I'm doing my job as the comedian and they are doing their job as an audience ... just like we're supposed to. It's kind of like being in a church where everybody sits down, stands up, says "amen" when they are supposed to. At least some of them must be just going through the motions, right?

As an audience member, I'm kind of hard to please. It takes a lot to get more than a smile out of me. I feel kind of weird being the only one among a hundred people not LOLing. If I wasn't such a stubborn asshole, I'd probably join in just to go with the flow. Those laughs are certainly welcome during a Jon Forward set, but those aren't the laughs I'm chasing.

For example, before I got into the meat of my set, I winged it for a few minutes just to introduce myself and set the tone a bit before I got started. Also ... the joke I was doing was about 7 minutes long, so I have to pad it out a bit to fill my 10 minutes. A line like "Pretty impressive that we have a sold out crowd tonight when it says 'it might be shit' right on the poster. You're either really brave or really stupid". If I was in the crowd, I might have smiled slightly. Last night, I got a huge laugh from it. Again ... very much appreciated, but I don't feel like I earned it.

What if my whole set was "jokes" like that? What if I only did shows like this. I don't think I'd ever grow as a comedian. Audience feedback (positive and negative) is pretty important for developing material. If I only played for audiences that laughed at every word coming out of my mouth no matter what, I don't know if I'd ever get better.

My favorite place to perform is at the R Bar for my No Jokes Barred shows. Part of it is that this is the show I put together. I host it. I pick the comedians. And nobody is telling me what to do. It also gives me a chance to fail. Even though most of the crowd knows me and presumably likes me, sometimes jokes bomb. It doesn't feel great at the time, but it tells me that one needs to be reworked or just thrown out completely. If everybody laughed when they were supposed to, I'd keep those shitty jokes. I've seen polite audience laugh at my so-so jokes way more than I've seen rougher crowds not laugh at my great jokes. For the sake of this argument (and my sanity), I am blocking out all memories of my music open mic days. Fuck those "audiences". All they want are Pear Jam covers.

I don't want to begrudge any audience for laughing at material I'm not super proud of. Thank you. I am glad I brightened your day. However, I would never trade in the crickets and tumbleweeds I get at the R Bar when I suck. Thank you too.

Maybe I should be happy to give the crowds what they want even if it's not what I would want if I was watching myself. A laugh is a laugh. Maybe everything I say is just effortlessly hilarious and I should learn to accept it.

Either way, I still want to be able to test material in front of different kinds of crowds. I still desperately want to impress my biggest fan ... me. My R Bar audience is the closest I have to a room full of people with my sensibility.

Well ... that was long.