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.