Monday, September 29, 2014

Auditioning for Last Comic Standing

On Sep 28th I auditioned as part of the closed auditions for the 9th Season of Last Comic Standing. As I’m writing this, I have no idea whether I’m going to get picked for the season, but I want to share some insights about how this works for the benefit of participants in future showcases/auditions.
Before I go on, I should clarify that I’m not really an “expert”. I’m not part of the production and some of the things I’ll say here are just an educated guess. Also, the production of LCS has changed drastically over the years, just like any reality show, so this info might be completely incorrect for future seasons.

For Season 9, the production of LCS has decided to run several semi-public auditions labeled “Showcases”. These were/are being run in Seattle (my location), Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, Omaha, Ft Lauderdale, Austin, Los Angeles, Boston, Nashville, New York, Chicago and Washington DC. They might add other locations later and I’ll do my best to update this if I can. We can expect these locations to vary wildly in future years, though I’m pretty sure NY will always be involved.

In Seattle, the showcase was split into 2 shows, with approximately 20 participants in each (I believe the total was 45 participants). To choose the people for the show, the producers watched local open-mic nights for several weeks before the show ran to hand-pick most of the participants. Some people were added directly by local contacts due to their prominent presence in the local scene (for example, I myself was probably selected at least in part due to my strong performance as a local producer than only due to being a good comedian). Note that all this happened during August-September 2014, which is more than ½ a year before the actual filming of the season is scheduled to take place. Some of the performers were invited to the showcases based on tape-submissions they sent to the production directly. I also know of at least a few performers who came to Seattle from other cities to perform.

I believe some cities had only a single showcase (for example. DC), while others had 2. For the showcases, each comedian was allocated 3.5 minutes of stage-time (strictly enforced) with no additional guidelines (see my tips below). The venue sold tickets for the show at very low prices (3$ for regular tickets and $5 for higher-class “VIP” seating). Some cities sold tickets for a higher price point, but generally, the purpose of this wasn’t to make money but to fill the venue as much as possible. I personally gave a large number of discounted and free tickets to my colleagues at work, which might account for the large occupancy (the room was packed with about 300 people). I should note, BTW, that proceeds from the ticket sales went to benefit Seattle Children’s hospital, so I’m very happy about that.

For the show itself, comedians were asked to arrive 1 hour prior to the show’s start, and fill out a form. The form asked for contact details, as well as whether the comedian had representation. It also asked for info about the comedian’s last 3 jobs, info on how they started in comedy, and 3 things that make them “unique” (see my tips below). Before the show, a producer working for the venue shared the final list of performers in order.

Once the show started, the producer rounded up the comedians in groups of 5, and led them behind the stage (“the green room”, which in the case of the Parlor Seattle is a corridor leading to the back of the room), where we each waited to be called up by the host (the TERRIFIC Manny Martin, who hosted both shows and regularly works for the Parlor as their House MC). During this, the comedians weren’t allowed in the showroom during the show, so none of us had a chance to see others perform, other than the 4 people immediately after or before yourself.

The big question, of course, is what’s next? Who’s going to go forward? I don’t have concrete answers to that, I’m afraid. Last year, no less than 100 comedians got in the actual show (4 episodes, during each 25 comedians did a set before 90 of them were eliminated and 10 made it through). If the show auditions ~40 people in each of the 13 cities and would be choosing 100 people, then that makes for very high odds for myself and others to get on national television (about 1:5). Then again, they might choose a different number, do more cities, and inject people directly into the show, so it’s impossible to know for sure. For this reason, productions like this typically like to leave their options open to the last possible minute. The filming of LCS is generally in April, so I don’t expect to hear anything before February, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they call people a day before filming and asking them to fly-in immediately. Another blog post suggests they might be doing this now to prepare the show for a possible early launch in mid-season (January instead of the regular May). I know at least one person from Puget Sound who was called by the production company the day after the audition and invited to fly to LA to perform in front of NBC executives in November, so apparently, they are working on a short-list.

Another angle, which is pretty well known, but I might as well mention it here is that reality shows are usually about audience-connection and not just about the “best”, and so the production often picks people not for their quality, but for their background story. That’s why so many participants on these shows have some kind of sob-story to tell about recovering from serious diseases, overcoming poverty or tragedy, or being unique/weird/crazy/funny in some way. For example, a 14 year old comedian would have a much higher chance of making it over an average one. This is why the detail form I mentioned earlier asks for one’s previous job and unique things about us.

The bottom line is that my colleagues in Seattle are terrific and very talented people. If even a single one of us makes it to live TV, I’ll be extremely happy. If I end up being one of them, all the better!

Tips for future contestants:

1.       When filling the forms, make sure you write legibly and clearly, taking the time to think about what you’re going to write and how to put it forward eloquently. The producers need to read through hundreds of these, so don’t give them any reason to dump your form because they can’t read your chicken-scratch.

2.       Bring a good and comfortable pen with you to the audition. The cheap plastic pens they typically give out are likely to negatively impact what you write and how it looks.

3.       Think ahead of what you want to write when listing your jobs and unique properties. This is your chance to stand out, and even if your job title was simple “mail delivery”, try to figure out a way to put it more interestingly. For example, maybe “mail delivery with the highest rate of road-rage related incidents in the county”. Same for “unique” traits…everyone has a day-job and kids, many have weird medical conditions and there are plenty of LGBT members around...but maybe you are the only guy who used to be a VP for some company? Maybe you raped your high-school teacher in the ass daily? Perhaps you’re the only guy who founded MENSA, the high IQ society?

4.       When selecting your material for the show, keep in mind that if you do end up on TV, you need to do relatively clean material. It can be about sex, but if your joke’s “power” is based mostly on using the word “Fuck” or “Nigger” a lot, that might classify you as having a limited trajectory in the eyes of the producers. You might want to start and finish on hard-core jokes to make the most impact, but try to have at least 1-2 cleaner ones in the middle.

5.       Most comedians talk about one of a small group of common topics. Marriage, kids, drugs, being drunk, nasty boss…etc. Try to set yourself apart by choosing a different topic. Even if you do go with the classics, try to find something that’s at least a bit outstanding (for example, if it’s kids, keep in mind that ALL kids say and do stupid and funny things…but maybe yours is retarded or exceptionally violent…that might be your key to being unique)

6.       It might be too late now to develop an on-stage persona or unique characteristic, but if you haven’t, consider it. Some comics exhibit the “confused” persona, while others play the misanthrope. I start every routine claiming to be “an Alien” (as if from Outer Space), and then “admitting” that I’m not THAT kind of alien, and concluding with the kind I really am (immigrant) with some crack about stupid stuff immigrants are known for. For example: “Not the kind that’s here to butcher mankind…the kind that’s here to butcher the English language”.

7.       Another way to be unique is to use some prop or costume that people might remember. This is a bit risky because you don’t want to go overboard and be remembered ONLY for that…but it can work (just like Carrot-Top made his career about little more than prop comedy)

8.       Time your routine PERFECTLY. Overtime is rarely tolerated in our business, but in this case it is an “easy” way to get ruled out. Get a stop-watch (hay! Your iPhone has one!) and go through your set at least 4-5 times to see where you’re at. It’s better to cut a joke and have 10% spare time than risk getting “killed” (getting your mic muted) or disqualified.

9.       Reality shows often mix-in a few VERY bad performers, to give the judges and audience easy targets to pick on and ridicule. It’s a valid strategy to intentionally be that guy by doing a terrible job on-stage (tripping, forgetting your lines, mumbling, crying etc). This is a risky strategy so I don’t really recommend it, but if you really feel you don’t have a shot for who you are, it might be a worthwhile last straw. I’ve also heard of a few that used this to get-through the 1st round, and then change their tune later and try to do well (then again…surprising the production this way is also risky…they can edit your video and make you look even worse!).

10.   Finally…be NICE, HUMBLE and RESPECTFUL. This should be the foundation for any performer, but even more important here. Be nice to your competitors, and forthcoming with anyone you see during the audition. You never know if that quiet guy who came to shake your hands isn’t actually a top-level producer or manager, or whether some polite geeky-fan might turn out to be a club owner who wants to hire you for a gig. Also, other comics might be your opponents tonight, but next week, they might be a big-time producer that might want your involved if you’re friendly.
Good luck to all of you!