Would You Compromise for Comedy?

I'm going to be teaching the class that starts tomorrow as well as on Saturday, and in this first class we work to find each comic's "authentic topic." The showcase at the Hollywood Improv is always a rockin' success, but as students go on to perform at an assortment of open mikes, they have emailed me this question, "Is changing your material to please the audience an act of betraying your authentic voice or is it a practicality that is necessary to being successful?" Do we create material hoping, “Will people get this?” or do we write material utterly for self expression?

In performing for a corporate comedy gig I asked my corporate comedy clients, “What did you like and didn't like about the comic who performed last year?” My client then went on a rant, “Oh, she bombed because she did all this Jewish material. My people are Catholic, they didn’t care about her Jewish grandmother.” So, there went my Hanukah chunk. I didn’t feel good about doing that.

I think of Larry David before he was the creator of “Seinfeld” and the star of “Curb.” Working out material at New York’s Catch a Rising Star, David made it a point to play above the audience’s head and work for the comics in the back. He kept to his brand of comedy even if it meant bombing. But then again, there are hundreds of comics who use the comedy stage for self expression and one of them, actually, does my taxes. Need I say more?

The extremely talented Suzanne Westenhoefer, a lesbian comic quiped in her act, “Looking at Ellen’s career, I realized that you come out, after you’re famous… Oops!” Westenhoefer is a star in the gay market, as well as having achieved much success, her own HBO special among other TV credits, but her joke made me think, “Would Ellen DeGeneres have become such a successful star if she had free discussed her personal life earlier?” Perhaps not.

The comics who have achieved super stardom seem to have found the intersection between their personal lives and the topics that are core for their “group.” George Lopez used his talent to creatively market his act to the Latino community and built his audiences. With his grass roots efforts in creating a huge fan base, he then crossed over into expanding his image to appeal to the masses.

Do we change our acts for the audience, or keep true to our material no matter what? Do we do that lesbian, Passover, S/M joke when performing in the Bible Belt? What do you think?


  1. I think we're all asked to compromise our comedy at some point. And it becomes a choice thing.

    For myself, I try to write things that are authentic to me and understandable to SOMEBODY else. I don't do material that doesn't resonate with me first. Not for very long anyway. It may not hit everybody, but certain segments will latch onto it. Then I think you build those segments into a larger fan base.

  2. It all boils down to a basic fundemental of public speaking, know your audience. If you're a DJ and you personally like classical music but you're working in the deep south, you better play country or you won't have a job. I worked a benefit for an animal shelter and another comic told a joke about microwaving a rabbit. Not good. Every audience has a unique personality. Recognizing and playing to that personality is key to a successful set.

  3. Artists (musicians, comics, actors) need to gain the trust of the audience, public and fan base. Like. Relationship or friendship we like and need to see who you are and what you are all about. The beatles started out writing strong pop sings and doing covers that demonstrated their quirk. Then started to break out of that once we fell in love with them. This never compromised their musical genius. Even their most poppy songs (love me do) had the stamp.
    Comics are no different. George carlin and even bill Cosby did humor that was true to them but not as broad or general. Take for example the hippy dippy weatherman vs carlins later musings on death in his last special. We knew he was funny to go along with it and follow it even it wasn't as wacky. I work with guys who are masters at this. They play to the audience, feel it out and then about 20 mins in start revealing more about themselves. It's like when you're married, you have permission to let it all hangout because you've been accepted and taken in. Conversationally, I would never walk up to someone and start dumping my problems on them, I gotta butter them up first and prepare them and see if they are receptive to me with lighter topics that we both share. The hardest aspect of comedy to me sometimes is making this connection, because people have been let down too often, and audiences keep their guard up for many odd reasons.
    Omg I wrote a lot. :-)

  4. It depends. Take an Emo Phillips. He's not going to change his act. He can't change who he is. I know when I do corporate gigs if there's way more men I do more jokes. More women and I can do more touchy feely stuff.

    Big name acts don't have to change because their audience is coming to see them but the ones on the way up, playing the one nighters and hell gigs are probably going to change some if they want to get booked back.

    I was booked once to open for Jane Oliver in Atlanta, not knowing she has a huge gay following until the booker told me as I was going on stage.

    Even though my act was mostly about being married and having kids I was sure the material was so strong it would go over even with a gay audience. Wrong!

    I finally got the point when I asked the audience if anyone was pregnant and one guy yelled, "I am"! Biggest laugh of the night.

    The next night I dumped all the family stuff and did a lot of edgier material from my past and it went over much better.

    I also agree with what Paul has to say. And that's about it!

  5. This is a variation of the Sex and Cash Theory where you do some creative gigs because it's sexy / cool / edgy and other more boring gigs to pay the bills. Just from being around the NYC scene, there's lots of headliners that perform for free on little bar shows in the lower east side, but then they'll go on the road to pay the bills.

    There's nothing wrong with tailoring your act to fit the audience you're playing for, but if you only start writing for the audience and not yourself, that's when you lose authenticity...

    When I write a new joke, I never think, "will the audience find it funny?" I just worry about if I find it funny, and then when I try it out at shows, I cut out or reword the parts that the audience doesn't find funny. I think Carlin said it best with, "I write, the audience edits."

  6. I think that it's all a mixture of what everyone has said before. Personally, I try to read my audience depending on where I perform. However, I don't stray from usual delivery style (clean, rarely blue).


Judy's Blog

Judy Carter blogs on comedy, storytelling and public speaking techniques, using personal stories and her adventures as a stand-up comic turned motivational public speaker. Her weekly blogs are read by fans of her books, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon and Schuster) and “The Message of You” (St. Martin’s Press), which include comics, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She is also known for teaching the value of humor and storytelling to businesses as a leadership and stress reduction tool.