There’s a club owner
in Stockholm with some very outspoken views on what is and what isn’t standup. He and I have had the same conversation on
this topic a few times; being a comedy snob myself, I enjoy talking to people
who make me feel less extreme. As
judgmental as I can be, I do think standup is an enormous umbrella, covering a
wide range of styles and techniques. I’m
not a huge fan of standup involving a guitar, a puppet, or any props now that I
think about it, but I still consider it standup. His view is that standup is a sort of
conversation with the crowd, a connection with them, so it’s only standup if
the comic has a natural, conversational tone on stage.

While I don’t agree
with him to such an extent, this is something that’s been on my mind quite a
bit, and I’ve touched on it now and then in various blog entries. The Stockholm scene is so active and open, we’re
spoiled as comics. Getting stage time is
easy- there’s no paying for spots or dragging people into a club to pay a cover
charge and 2-drink minimum. One can be
brutally, embarrassingly unfunny and still manage to get spots. Obviously one is not going to get a lot of
experience and longer sets without any talent at all, but the fact that someone
like that could manage to get a spot or two a month does say a lot about
conditions in this city.

There are a few
reasons for this. There is at least one
club in operation every night of the week, the majority of the clubs are free,
and the two biggest open mics are each open several nights a week. But the biggest reason is that standup itself
is still relatively new in Stockholm, compared to New York or London. Crowds, for the most part, are polite, and
heckling is rare. When there is heckling
it’s usually just some drunk being rude and not especially challenging to shut
down. Most importantly of all, crowds
are patient, especially at the open mics where there can be ten, fifteen,
twenty comics on the lineup. Three or
four comics in a row can bomb and while the crowd will hardly be enthusiastic
about it, they haven’t walked out, either.

Because of this, there
is a small but thriving genre of standup here that doesn’t need laughs, that
just involves the comic saying his (almost exclusively male, in this case)
piece and leaving the stage feeling like a success. This is something for which I have a tremendous
amount of respect, because when I perform, entertaining the audience is the
last thing on my mind. I need them to be
entertained, of course, because I don’t enjoy bombing and I do want more
opportunities, but I want to have all the power instead of the other way

But… and this is what’s
been nagging at me. This particular
style of standup exists in a vacuum. It
doesn’t matter if there are two, twenty, or two hundred people in the
audience. It feels more performance than
standup. If the crowd enjoys it, it goes
very well. If they’re not into it at
all, it doesn’t. In either case the
performance is exactly the same. There’s
no connection with the crowd, no adapting to the current conditions of the
room. The performer exerts no control at
all to determine how well, or how poorly, his or her own set goes.

This, then, is the
problem as I see it. Some of the
toughest, most successful comics- or performers, let’s say- have years of
experience. They know how to work a
room, how to build a good feeling and connection with the crowd, but often
choose not to. This is inspiring,
perhaps, but for good and for ill. It is
all too common to see rookies emulating that behavior from the start. “I’m going up on stage and saying what I want
to say and fuck the crowd if they don’t like it.” It gnaws at me because I love that, in
theory. In reality, it translates to
someone going up on stage for the very first time, to dead silence from the
crowd, and four minutes into a five-minute set saying something like, “So then
I got my third finger into her asshole…”
(Guys- we can talk about literally anything when we’re on stage. Why do we love talking about anal sex so

Performers aren’t
limited to sex and politics, though. Another
example, involving the aforementioned club owner- One night, we were watching a female comic
who usually does quite well, but the crowd wasn’t going for it this particular
evening. Minute after minute of silence
slowly passed and it didn’t seem to faze her at all, since the delivery, beat
for beat, word for word, was exactly the same as the last time I’d seen her
kill. He started pulling his hair
out. “What is she doing?” he hissed.

“She’s going through
her script,” I replied. I doubt she felt
good after plowing through the rest of her set, but the crowd’s reaction or
lack thereof, hell, the crowd itself was irrelevant. She might as well have been at home,
performing in front of a mirror. It’s
interesting to me that she didn’t perform as a character- for some reason, the
ratio of female characters vs female comics is higher than male characters vs
male comics- but despite the conversational delivery, there was no connection.

It’s a tricky thing,
choosing to be a performer instead of an old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill
conversational comic. On the one hand, they
stick out and get a lot of positive attention, particularly amongst their
peers. On the other hand, that complete
surrender of control to the crowd is more than I could deal with. There have been nights when I went to a club
with a set in mind but found the room would not support it, so I changed my set
to adapt. On many of those nights,
despite very tough conditions, I managed to do at least a little well, and even
if I was grumpy about not being able to do what I’d wanted to do, I didn’t feel
like I bombed, either. If I was a
one-liner comic or performed as a low-energy character, there’d be no way to
adapt. I would bomb and just have to
hope that the next time I performed my set exactly the same way I’d do it for a
better crowd.

In any case, while it’s
been on my mind I have no final judgment on the matter. I don’t think it’s better to adapt to the
crowd than stick to one’s guns and not adapt at all. Considering the amount of respect performers
get from other comics, it’s probably better to be that way. But I can’t help but feel that it is a
failing to completely ignore the environment and the audience, and I’ll always
have the most respect for comics that kill no matter what. On the bright side, the Stockholm scene
supports however one wants to be.