A buddy and comedian buddy and good guy and friend of mine, Brett “One-L” Hamil, just published another great article in City Arts… that was the link you just went past… about a phenomenon that comedians can be afflicted by, known as “The Ears” or “Laugh Ears.” It happens when a comedian is not getting laughs with material, yet isn’t really aware of how poorly they’re doing. Perhaps somebody up close is laughing in a room full of 200, so they think “Hey, I’m doing pretty well tonight!” Or they got laughs on ONE bit. Or the audience started laughing at how poorly it was going. Regardless of why the comedian is eating a bowl of Poop Soup, The Ears really is more painful to those who are NOT on-stage.
Brett’s article has perspective from a few comedians, but I answered a few more questions that didn’t make it to the final edit… no hard feelings… Here are some thoughts about being delusional on-stage. I think this carries into other professions as well…
1) What is “the ears”? Where did you first hear the term?
“The Ears” or “Laugh Ears” is a temporary sensory disability when a comedian thinks they are doing well and their material is hitting, yet neither is actually happening. They are most-likely eating hot garbage, but are too detached from the moment for whatever reason to hear the silence after their punchlines. It’s a persistence problem; the afflicted party isn’t self-aware enough or just willfully ignorant of their inability to elicit laughter.
I first heard about “laugh ears” from a local club owner, after we watched a well-rehearsed, nearly response-less set from a performer we’d seen muddle or bomb 99% of his prior sets. The guy’s cadence was the same for each joke, regardless of subject, and wasn’t getting any laughs AGAIN. It didn’t bother me, it was like, “meh… next.” Then he asked the owner for some feature work at the club, and the owner kindly rebuffed it. Guy made a stink, asking “why not?” and the owner finally said, “You kinda got Laugh Ears, like, you’re not doing as well as you think you are. People aren’t laughing but you’re, like, not even hearing it. All I hear is nothin’.” The guy didn’t get it.
2) Have you ever suffered from it?
Suffered? No. Didn’t even feel it.
I’m sure I have, but it’s been a while. I do recall a set where I just “did my time,” and thought “well that was pretty good,” because I hadn’t forgotten anything. The headliner, and the MC, and the booker, all asked me “Whaddya think happened up there?” I was honestly confused, like “Huh? I’m not saying I killed, but I didn’t dig a hole and fill it back in with a watery carrot-laden shit, either, dickhead.” Paraphrasing, it’s been a while… But later on I thought, “Yeah, it was pretty quiet for a while, and not like they were listening. Oh gawd…” Pain set it.
3) How do you assess your sets?
Purely on how many post-show offers I get for drugs or threesomes. But sometimes it’s a moment-to-moment thing now, like calling plays in a football game. I know what I want to do because I know me and what works and how to structure things, but sometimes you audible, you go easy because the audience clenched up. It’s part of my ability to do well, reading a room’s reactions and tailoring my material and pace to that. There’s no reason to bore them.
But also, I did a set for 3500 people last Summer, outdoors, and thought I ate so much crap that it would be weeks before any other comedian could eat crap, because I’d eaten all of it that night.
But the stage manager and a ton of people said they loved it and were cracking up. I just couldn’t hear the pack of laughs because it was all going up, lot of people milling about, spread out over an acre, etc. I’d rather bomb outdoors in front of 3500 than bomb in a room of 35. That quiet 35 are just way too intimate. And on that stage that day I literally thought “Well I have to quit now, I’m the worst and I’ll never open for Earth, Wind, nor Fire ever again.”
4) How do you balance self-criticism with maintaining a healthy level of confidence in your abilities?
Who the fuck said I do? Unhinged, manic delivery is my style, they’ll laugh because it is undeniable even if it’s unoriginal. It’s loud, man, they dig that.
I think I balance it by not doing anything I’m not pretty damn sure will work in one way or another. And if it doesn’t work after the 3rd time, I give it to an open mic’er. I will challenge myself sometimes with material that I know could divide a room, but have to dig for the funny parts of it. But also, balance that with asking myself what I’m trying to prove by doing that type of material. And i never think I’m so great that I’m not one set away from the one that makes me rethink calling myself a comedian.