So occasionally I don’t just write about joke writing. . . here’s an article I wrote about the art of following someone. . .
Following Susan Boyle
So like the rest of the planet, I am a huge, huge fan of Susan Boyle – the unassuming woman who took to the stage on Britain’s Got Talent last week and literally blew away the judges, the audience, and now the Internet community. In fact, the only person who was probably not thrilled with her performance had to be the guy or gal who followed her. While she was knocking ‘em dead onstage, I’m guessing that person was getting nauseous backstage.
As a comedian who cut her teeth in comedy clubs before moving into the corporate and association arena, I’ve had to follow a few Susan Boyle-ish acts in my time. It’s scary. But we figure out how to follow crowd-pleasers because it’s a part of the gig. And the techniques we use to switch the audience over from THAT show to OUR show can be used by anyone else who finds themselves walking up to a microphone right behind a show-stopper. Whether you’re a speaker, a sales person or a CEO, you WILL find yourself having to follow a great act some day, so here’s some ammunition!
Make a reference between you and her. Some people will tell you NOT to mention the person before you, because you’re figuratively bringing that person back “on stage with you.” Maybe. But my experience has been that if the person is so awesome, they’re probably still on stage with you, anyway. Considering that, you need to segue from them to you by finding a way to reference them and include yourself. If I was following Ms. Boyle, I would’ve made a quick list of what the audience liked about her. . .her voice, her attitude, her song, her wowing the crowd. And then I’d look at what she and I do and don’t have in common. This would give me a great line to bridge to my act. . . ”Well, that’s nice, but that was the song I was going to sing… Now what?!” or, “I’m no longer concerned about winning this contest, I now just want to be her opening act!” Say something that acknowledges her talent but also brings you into the equation. Simply saying “let’s have a hand for So and So” is not a good reference because it doesn’t involve you.
I’ve had to follow many big name acts, most notably Michael Richards, Kramer from Seinfeld (pre-meltdown days). At that time, he was walking onstage to standing ovations before he even opened his mouth. When I came out, it was sort of like “who the heck is Jan McInnis?” Attention-wise, they were still back at Richards. So I had some fun with his character by complimenting it and making a connection to me. “Didn’t you all love him as Kramer on Seinfeld? He was so goofy. He reminded me of every blind date I’ve ever had.” It got a good laugh and offered the audience a way to focus on my act.
Say what the audience is thinking. In my book, Finding the Funny Fast, one of my tips to develop quick humor is to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and say what they are probably thinking. It’ll release tension and give you a nice transition. So what is one of the biggest things people were probably thinking when Susan Boyle’s follow-up act came out? If I were following Susan, I might’ve kicked off with ”I’m guessing right now, NOBODY on the planet wants to be me!” Aside from laughs, that line would probably get a little empathy, and more importantly, bring the audience on my side (they certainly didn’t want to follow her either!). . of course, then it’s up to me to shine. So make a quick quip about the audience’s thoughts, again, adding yourself in, and you’ll give yourself a leg up.
Run your own race. . . Be yourself. Don’t change your style to try to match the energy or the humor of whatever went before you. You have to be YOU. That’s why we like Susan. . .she is the real deal. You can bet she would have had that same performance regardless of what the act ahead of her did. I once followed a guy for a week at a comedy club who told me that he wanted my headlining job. . .and then he proceeded to get the audience riled up into a frenzy with dirty jokes and high-energy humor; in other words, pretty much everything I am not. At the end of the week, he came up to me very frustrated and said “I’ve thrown everything I have at them and you’re still able to follow me. . HOW???” I said “why don’t you just do your own thing and forget about ‘getting’ me.” And that’s my advice to you. Focus on what you do best; that, in turn, will allow you do well. If you’re good at what you do, the audience will like you and key in to what you’re doing. When I was featuring in clubs, I hardly ever blew the headliner away, but I still became a headliner myself because I did my thing and offered a great show; soon enough, the club owners saw it. I tried not to pay attention to how good or bad the other acts did. Remember you’re there for a reason, so take the pressure off yourself and just have fun. At the Punchline Comedy Club in Atlanta, over the doorway that leads from the green room to the stage, some comic has carved the words “make them come to you,” and that’s exactly what you need to do.
Be Nice. And as always, when making a comment about your predecessor, be nice. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times people say something about the person they’re worried about and have it come out bitter. My joke about Michael Richards focused on his goofy character, not Richards. If I’d said Richards was goofy, I probably would’ve lost the crowd. If you don’t want to be funny, be SINCERELY flattering, or at least make a sincere comment, like the one I offered about wanting to be Susan’s opening act. Trying to get ahead by making others look bad almost always blows up in your face. And don’t put yourself down, either. Self-deprecating humor is a good way to make a quick joke, but not in this instance, since you’re already starting from a disadvantage.
There are, of course, many other techniques you can use to win the audience over and get them into you, but these will get you started. Use them well enough, and some day you’ll be so good you can pass along some advice to the poor guy following YOU.