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I am friends with a few aspiring comedians and often get asked to come to some of their shows. I use “shows” very loosely. In reality, it’s just them trolling free open mics around the city, getting fucked up, and then trying out some material that usually is not very funny.
[I have one particular friend whose] material is often forced, not very thoughtful, and just not reflective of who this person really is. He is trying to be something he is not because he thinks it’s funnier, but it just falls flat every time because the audience senses a fakeness. How do I tell my friend to stop getting fucked up before shows and be more of himself without hurting his tender lil artistic soul?
—Friend of an Unfunny Phony Artist
It’s true that most artists tend to have more sensitive souls than, say, criminal prosecutors. But — and here’s the other thing about artists — they must learn to take criticism.
Criticism is key to perfecting a craft, whether it be comedy, painting or writing. But that’s also why open mic nights and other small, informal shows exist: to see what works and what doesn’t and what material gets real belly laughs and what invokes more eye rolls than lols. Hopefully, your phony friend will catch on to the fact that his act is falling flat because he’s not genuine and you won’t have to say anything at all. Why do we love comedians like Louis C.K. and Amy Schumer? Because they’re real. They talk about true life experience and we can relate.
If your friend notices a trend in that no one laughs at his jokes, he might ask you what you think is the issue. Be kind, but be honest. Tell him you like him more and think he’s funnier when he’s being himself and not using alcohol as a crutch. Volunteer to be his test audience to try out new jokes before he takes the stage, with the understanding that you will give candid feedback.
If this has been going on for some time and he’s just not getting the hint, tell him how you feel. If he can’t take the honest critique of a good friend, how will he ever react to a published negative review? Artists bare their souls for a public audience with an understanding that not everyone will appreciate their art form and that there will always, always be negative reviews.
A couple years ago I produced a stage production of Richard III. It was a punk rock musical version, set in 1970s/1980s London. I worked my ass off on that production and was eager for all of my friends and family members to come and support the show. A lot of them did, and some of them didn’t. It stung a bit, but I had to remember that 20th Century punk rock Shakespeare isn’t everyone’s idea of high-quality theater. A few of my friends that came never told me what they thought of the show, and I never asked. If they had loved it (and many did!), they would have told me, and I didn’t think it necessary to fish for compliments that may not exist.
Perhaps your silence already tells your friend what you think of his act, but if he does ask your opinion, tell him. Don’t awkwardly struggle for something falsely positive to say. Your opinion of his comedy doesn’t define your friendship, and hopefully he will see that your commentary derives from a place of caring and good intentions.
Readers, weigh in: how have you dealt with this situation? Share your advice in the comments.
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