It’s not that I was nervous.
After more than 30 years as a touring standup comedian, playing way too many “Tonight Only! Comedy! And Chicken Wings!” shows in roadhouses with an apostrophe in their names – O’Toole’s, O’Malley’s, O’Sheah’s, O’Lord-Get-Me-Outta-Here – I’ve become inured to even the most unwelcoming and uncharitable audiences.
“Thank you,” I’d say after my closing bit, often with no small hint of sarcasm. “And good night (enter town name here).” Then I’d get in my truck and drive off, thankful that I was unlikely to ever meet any of them again.
But for this recent pandemic-era performance – in the town where I live, in the sanctuary of Cambridge Street United Church — there was no audience. I was more curious than nervous about the outcome of a truly solo performance.
Sure, Erwin, the church choir director and producer of this weekly on-line concert series – recorded, then posted on the church’s website — was in a pew about 10 metres in front of me. Walt, the church caretaker and Man Friday (and everyday, really) was wayyy up in the balcony, arranging angles for the two (or was it three?) camera shoots. To the left and right of me were three mannequins wearing 1980s-era shirts. (They were less than six feet apart, by the way). I wish I could say their blank stares – and wardrobe – were unfamiliar to me. For a brief moment, I was back in my hometown of Cornwall at that gig in 2005.
It’s not that this was a tough audience here at the church. (The two humans, I mean. Not the mannequins). Walt and Erwin are two of the kindest, smartest people I know. Walt was even instrumental in shaping some of the bits for this routine, which was inspired mostly by this new physical-distancing and self-isolation lifestyle. But I suspect he and Erwin may have even smiled politely had I been standing in front of them reading the ingredients on a box of Corn Flakes.
“Riboflavin,” I imagined they’d point out to me afterward. “Yeah, you really punched the B in that word, Denis. Well done! I smiled.”
But a smile isn’t a laugh. And, I’ve learned over the past three decades, laughter is often so contingent on being able to do it together. If someone is seated next to you – (mannequins don’t count) — you’re more likely to laugh. If not, it’ll likely just be a pleasant and quiet – maybe even embarrassed — smile.
That’s the thing with standup. It’s an art form that not only thrives on a live audience with many members, it requires it. For the immediate feedback. The instant approval. But, mostly, a standup needs the audience to determine a comic bit’s timing – when to pause, when to slow down, when to stop. And timing, I admit, has never been my strong suit. (I’m more of a writer who’s had to learn to perform. Oh, and rehearsing is boring). It’s my weakest link when there is an audience in front of me.
I applaud musicians and actors for using social media to showcase their métier during this pandemic, often from the sparseness of their homes with only a dog or a loved one or two within earshot. And, really, they pull it off quite nicely. I’m not so sure I did. Maybe you could ask the mannequins.
Denis Grignon is a professional standup comic, journalist and host of The Advocate Podcast: Stories from Kawartha Lakes, sponsored by Wards Lawyers. His debut CD, More than Just Puffed Wheat, was recorded at the Lakeview Arts Barn – in front of a real audience. His most recent audience-less performance is live-streamed this Wednesday at noon at theunitedchurch.com and available for viewing for 24 hours afterward.