“You’ve got to stop thinking of them as your audience,” said James. He was looking Ben straight in the eye as he spoke, his sharp blues and intense stare causing Ben to feel unsettled down to his very core. “They’re not your audience. That’s a misconception that’s going to destroy you up there. They’re not your audience. They’re your enemy.”
Ben glanced toward the stage where a fellow comic was performing. She was receiving a somewhat warm reception, though not spectacular. Pretty generous laughs, but nothing like the comedian who had gone up before her. Ben wasn’t rooting for anyone to fail, but it seemed easier to go up after a poor performance than a wildly popular one. He’d always hated speaking in public. Why he became a comic in the first place was anyone’s guess. He had been shy and introverted growing up, which didn’t exactly stop when he reached his adulthood. Yet when someone suggested that he was pretty funny and should try stand-up, it jumped out to him as a great idea. He was now regretting that impulse.
“So I should lay siege to the audience?” asked Ben.
“No. Not lay siege,” said James, shaking his head, his wild eyes rattling yet remaining perfectly still. “You can’t wait out your audience. You can’t starve them and hope they wave the white flag. You need to employ shock and awe. You need to reduce their cities to glass. You need to give them no quarter. Or lock them in Guantanamo, and waterboard them with funny until they give up the goods.”
“You know, torture isn’t a reliable form of intelligence gathering.”
“No, but it’s good for a laugh. Whatever, you know what I mean. My metaphor’s all fuckey now, so forget it. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t treat them like your friend. They’re not your friend. Don’t try and get on their good side, don’t tell them you’re new to this, don’t be all ‘Hey guys, I’m a person, too.’ They’re not going to care. They’re not going to let you get away with a sub-par set. You need to bombard them with jokes and not let up until they’re helpless puddles of laughter.”
“That’s what you do, is it?” asked Ben.
James nodded. “I throw everything at them every night. I exhaust my supply of funny. And then I make more and throw it at them again. It ain’t easy, but it’s what you gotta do to survive.”
“Oh jeez, is he giving you the ‘Audience is your enemy speech?'” came a gruff voice from behind Ben. He turned to see Edward standing there holding a half-drank beer in his right hand. His button-up bowler’s shirt was open slightly, exposing his grey chest hairs and his bald head reflected the lights from the stage. He smelled like smoke and had a kind smile. “Don’t put that nonsense in the kid’s head, James. I hate that shit, when you push your stupid on the new guys.”
“I’m just doing my part to help him not freeze up out there and get himself killed,” said James, throwing his hands in the air. “Wish someone had told me before I went out there the first time.”
“But your act sucked, that’s the difference. And your way doesn’t work for everyone and you know that.” Ed took a sip of his beer then turned to Ben. “Kid, just go out there, do your stuff you practiced, and don’t worry about how much they laugh. They might laugh, they might not, worry about that after the show. They’re not your enemy, they’re not your friend, they’re your audience. They want to laugh, you want to make them laugh. Do your thing, do it how you practiced, and it’ll be fine.”
“What if they don’t laugh at all?”
“Then you’ll join the ranks of the best comics in the world. Everyone bombs. But only the ones who go up there in the first place get laughs.”
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?” asked Ben.
Ed paused, squinting his left eye in thought. Then he smiled. “Exactly! You gotta get up there and do your thing if you want a shot at the big league.”
“See?” said James, his eyes wide, “it’s a sport! They’re the batter and you’re the pitcher! Gotta keep em on their toes and throw the heat! If they know what’s coming and can hit it, you lose! If they know what you’re gonna say, you lose! Ya see?”
“Give it a rest, James, will you?”
James threw his hands up again.
“I just want to make people laugh,” said Ben. “I don’t know, it sounded like it would be a good way to- to like, bring some joy to the world.”
“We could all use a little more of that, huh?” asked Ed as he took another drink, finishing his beer.
“I like to force joy down their throats, personally,” said James, stepping towards the stage. The comic was now finishing her set, waving to the audience as they gave raucous applause. Apparently, it had been a slow build and now the crowd was firmly behind her. “And they fuckin’ love it.”
“You’re a crude man, James,” said Ed. “Hopefully you won’t go far. But you’ll probably do great.”
“I’ll toss you a nickel from the top,” said James, nodding towards Ben. “And what about our little friend here? Do you think he’ll do all right for himself?”
Ed looked James up and down. “Ask me again in five minutes. You’re up, kid.”
It was true. The stage was now occupied by the MC who was thanking June. Ben was glad to know her name now, though he realized what that meant. June left the stage and walked right past James. They exchanged knowing glances as she passed and she walked up to Ben.
“I think you’re supposed to go out now,” she said with a smile, her curly hair damp with sweat. As she spoke, the MC said his name.
Ben thought that James was probably wrong. The audience wasn’t his enemy. He didn’t have to picture them naked or treat them like combatants. They also weren’t on his team, though. Like most people, they were in some sort of limbo where they probably simply didn’t care about him. He was there to do a job, and he hoped he could do it well. He took a step onto the stage and felt the heat of the lights.
This was another writing prompt. No grand adventure here or sub-plot about possession, just a quick shot about a nervous first-time comic and the advice he’s given backstage. I like the character Ed and I’m drawn to James’ more manic energy. The prompt today was “He’d always hated speaking in public.”
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