John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

Success in Comedy - More than Just Laughter from the Audience

by John Cantu ©

I  once had a conversation with my comedy buddy, Tony DePaul. This was very early in our comedy careers and he made an astute observation.

He said, "You know Cantu, there are a lot of factors that go into being a successful comedian. They can be your on-stage delivery, your physical appearance, the way you dress, your length of time in the business, your agent, the fact that you have fresh material, etc. There might be twenty or thirty elements."

And he went on to say, "No one masters all twenty or thirty. You sometimes see people succeeding who have only mastered ten or twelve or fourteen."

That is a profound observation. I often see a comic looking at another performer and noticing that the other comic is getting better gigs and since the other comic has mastered factor #8, suddenly this comic starts to try to master factor #8 as well.

But each comic masters only a small subset of all the possible factors that go into making up a successful act. And that accounts for the vast differences in performers. This is why when you consider all the comedy stars you realize how different each is: Rodney Dangerfield, Roseanne, Bill Cosby, Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, David Letterman, Brett Butler...

But maybe it is factors 12, 16 and 22 that you do well and that the audience most likes in you. So you will be more successful in the long run if you spend more time trying to simply figure out what works best for YOU.

A corollary to this is how to judge when you are good.

Let me illustrate with an anecdote I originally wrote in the July 2000 Comedy Club Diaries.

Bob Rubin tells comedian friends: My first time on stage at the Zoo you were officially allowed five minutes. I did seven, maybe seven and a half minutes and killed. Just absolutely destroyed!

I was getting off the stage and I saw Cantu rushing over to me, and I sort of beamed inside 'cause I figured he was gonna say something like, "Hey way to go! Killer set, Rubin."

Instead, when he got up to me, he got right in my face and said: "Don't you EVER f****** ignore your 'Get-off-the-stage!' cue again." And then he simply turned and walked away.

While that is a true story, here's another story that may be apocryphal, but it was told to me years ago by a comic friend. It illustrates one of the many reasons why it is so damn important to learn to respect cues and time limits.

A friend told me about his first performance at Vegas nightclub. He was doing so well, he ignored the stage manager's frantic signals to wrap up his set and he did an extra five minutes.

While he was pleased with himself at his laugh filled set, the stage manage was enraged. "Listen, you little dumb schmuck - don't ever do that again. NOW we've got to pay the band members a full hour's pay because of union rules and your 'just a little bit over time' stunt - and it's coming out of your pay!"

Also, Rubin's mistaken over-reliance on audience response is repeated by other comics over and over and over. When comics perform, they come off the stage beaming when the audience laughed and then they are nonplused when I don't share their enthusiasm.

But my attitude is, "Ok, you're a comedian and you got on stage and you got laughs and you think that is terrific. But getting laughs is basic. That's what a comic does.'

For a comic to get excited over getting laughs is like a plumber getting excited over the fact that the pipes he fixed don't leak - - - it's not special. It is what one expects. It is bottom line basic ability.

I would always tell comics these are the five stages of success through audience response.

  1. The audience laughs. And as I've said, it's not special, it's basic. It's what is expected of you.
  2. One or more audience members go out of their way to approach you after your set to tell you "You were funny." or "I enjoyed your set," or some such similar praise.
  3. The audience member goes to work the next day. When asked by a co-worker, "What did you do last night?" He says, "I saw some comedy. Saw this guy who was pretty funny." (Note if he doesn't mention you by name you have not sold yourself properly.)
  4. The audience member goes to work the next day. When asked by a co-worker, "What did you do last night?" He says, "I saw some comedy. Saw this guy named Cantu who was really pretty funny. You ought to go see him."
  5. The audience member goes to work the next day. When asked by a co-worker, "What did you do last night?" He says, "I saw some comedy. Saw this guy Cantu, who was damn funny. What are you doing tonight? I'm gonna go see him again. Come with me."

Now that's word of mouth. That's what you want to develop. And that's what you should be striving for:

People who come back to see YOU AND BRING one or more friend(s).

Here's how to deal with the fact that the people who happened to be in the room when you got on stage laughed. Appreciate it, but don't let it affect you too much.

NEXT: Backstage Secret from the Tonight Show