Don’t Worry About Being Too Smart For Your Audience. You’re Probably Not.

Don’t worry about being too smart for your audience, because you’re probably not.

I had a stupid little joke I old the first time I was ever on stage. “Dyslexia…(beat) that’s the punchline to my next joke.” In retrospect, most of my jokes from that first night of stand up were pretty stupid, but some people enjoy them and so I kept doing them. A take a real writer’s approach to comedy, and I put in a lot of time writing things that I believe to be very clever. I try to get my laughs from writing things that are often obscure thoughts and weird observations and I try to fully utilize all the tools
available to a comic.  Often times these premises are not immediately clear in their first iteration and it is usually only after a series of revisions do they become funny to general audiences. I will point out, they are typically factual and technically accurate, but not
always funny.

Something that I found interesting form early on was a phenomenon that taught me to reframe my view on “intelligent humor, and intelligent audiences.” Sometimes I would have one of those shows were people didn’t exactly “crack up.” They would laugh or chuckle. They would smile and I could tell from looking at them they were engaged, but there would never be momentous
laughter like a professional comedian wants. Occasionally, people would come up to me after the show and apologize for everyone else in the audience, and say things like “I liked you’re comedy. You’re smart, and don’t worry about the audience. They’re just not smart enough to get your jokes.” This used to make me feel better. Now it doesn’t.

It actually makes me feel worse now that I am a little more experienced. Instead of taking it as a justification of why the audience sucked (which I don’t consider to ever be an acceptable excuse) I feel like it means “Hey Jamie, instead of making your joke accessible to the most people you could, you made it resonate with the fewest possible.” And to a comic who is trying to make the
most people laugh more of the time doesn’t that sound kind of like a stupid plan?

If you think your material is too smart for certain audiences, then you are obviously waiting for those perfect audiences to set
the stage for success. If that is the case then you’re already beginning to fail. If I thought that I would eventually become a successful comedian by waiting to find the right audience who would “appreciate” my “intelligent” humor than I would have been sorely mistaken.

The average comedian is not going to be lucky enough to perform solely in comedy clubs and with perfect audiences. I’m from Atlanta, which is a great comedy city, and even I have to perform in all manner of clubs, rooms, and venues. I get progressive alt-comedy fans from what the city that Advocate magazine rated as “The Gayest City in the USA” as well as playing more rural rooms where I’m the only Chinese person that most of the audience members have ever seen…and I’m not even Chinese.

I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to take a workshop during the 2009 NC Comedy Arts Festival. The workshop was with a very accomplished comedian who is the stand-up comedy talent coordinator for The Late Show with David Lettermen. This workshop gave each of the 12 participants an opportunity to present our material and get honest feedback about what we
needed to do to be successful in the biz. People have different feelings about the usefulness of workshops and comedy classes, but this was being taught by the guy that books for Lettermen. I’m not trying to make this out like I had an audition, I’m simply emphasizing the fact, this guy sees MANY comedians on a daily basis, he knows who the players are and how they are doing, so I
considered his feedback valuable.

Well, he liked my material. He said he was surprised I had been at it as short a time as I had been but thought I was on the right track. The biggest piece of advice he gave me, something I remember and think about to this day, that my jokes might need to be as he called it, unpacked so they were more palatable to most audiences. THE IMPORTANT PART OF THIS: No one used
the expression “dumb down your jokes.” He didn’t tell me I needed to cater do “dumber” audiences. I’ve never felt I was “too smart” for crowds. It does happen that you might use a reference that geographically or generationally is missed, but the
bottom line is, funny is funny. Economy of words is extremely important to a comedian, but this is the one case I believe that sometimes it might be necessary to throw in an extra word or phrase to explain something in order for people to get your joke. They’ll forgive you if you make the joke worth it.

It takes a whole different level of intelligence to make your material resonate with all audiences. One of my favorite comedians, and I think a great example is Steve Martin. If you watch or listen to some of his stand up, he has some really intelligent joke construction, and uses some ridiculous jokes and sight gags to balance out his show.

“…Some people have a way with words, and some people, not have way.” – Steve Martin

*Notice how there is no mention of penises or strippers in this joke.

Being able to write to the top of the room’s intelligence level, and then make your jokes accessible to everyone else is not just smart, it’s brilliant. You have to be smarter than everyone in the room and then self-aware enough to present it in a way people will accept. One of the biggest flaws I see with really intelligent comedians is that they are so smart, and they want
the audience to know how smart they are. Nobody goes to a comedy club because they want to think. If you’re going to “Hicks” the audience then you probably need to ease them in and or trick them by making them laugh.

Something I can’t stand that a lot of comedians say is “I hate Larry The Cable Guy, he’s the stupidest comedian ever.” I don’t for a
moment believe that everybody needs to like Larry DCG, nor do I suggest you have to respect him, but you should. Dan Whitney found a character that resonates with millions, millions, yes read that, MILLIONS of people. That means he’s doing something right. The fact that he created this character and it’s not him makes it all the more impressive. Who among us wouldn’t like to
create a character that has multiple tv specials and sells out shows across the country?

I’d do it, if I could, but I’m not smart enough to be dumb enough right now. If I tried to do that, I’d probably oversell my ideocracy, so I’ll work on building myself up for a little bit more time before I unleash my personal, Rary The Cable Consultant.

That is all.

Jamie.

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About Jamie Ward
I am a comedian. At this point in my life I live comedy. I'm not all that funny, but it's all I think about every waking moment.

One Response to Don’t Worry About Being Too Smart For Your Audience. You’re Probably Not.

  1. David P. says:

    I was having issues with this, feeling like certain crowds dont get some of my stuff. but you’re right our job is to appeal to all audiences. i get caught up trying to impress ppl with what little wit I have instead of making my wit universal. It takes more work but that’s what separates smart people from smarter comedians. Good stuff as always dude.

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