A Year of Stories: “Danielle: Friend or Foe?”
In February 2011 I left Buffalo, NY in a blinding snowstorm in order to perform two shows, one night, at a comedy venue in a tiny town called Olean. What should have been a simple 90-minute drive took nearly 4 hours. By the time we arrived I had lost at least 10 pounds of water weight from anxious sweating.
These were a series of comedy shows set up by Mathew Kratz, an aspiring stand-up comedian. The shows were a huge hit in this otherwise one-horse town. I was told that the first show was sold out, and the second would be very full.
I was headlining the evening’s performances, and so I would have 40 minutes after Mathew opened the show, and another comedian gave the 20-minute feature spot. Standard comedy club format.
The first show was going rather well. This audience was an entertainer’s dream: they were determined to have fun with or without the performers. They were laughing on joke set-ups and exploding on punch lines. Asides that would normally elicit a chuckle only from the most astute and attentive audience members were getting big belly laughs. I was having a blast.
I called up a volunteer for a trick I was performing a lot in those days: The Egg and the Bag. It’s a classic of magic, and to be completely honest, I wasn’t doing anything terribly innovative with it.
A lady who was having herself a grand ol’ time wanted desperately to volunteer. When I brought her up, the crowd erupted. Clearly she was a town-wide favorite. This can work for you or against you. On one hand, the audience is already on her side, so you can roll with the existing energy. On the other hand, crowd favorites have a habit of overstepping their bounds, because the audience keeps egging them on (no pun intended).
On this particular night, both things would happen.
Danielle proceeded to give me one of the most difficult volunteer experiences I’d ever encountered (looking back on it though, she was rather tame compared to what I’ve endured since). She interrupted regularly, literally stole the hat off of my head, made jokes that were often funnier than the material I was using, and generally owned the stage. It took everything I had ever learned about handling difficult volunteers to get through the simple trick.
The audience ate it up.
I later hosted the video of our time together on my YouTube page, because the whole experience was just so darn funny. It became my most-watched video (a whopping 2000 views!) and a popular topic of conversation on Internet magic forums, as the go-to example of how to handle a heckler.
I’ve never been quite sure if I should be flattered or not. The truth is, I never saw her as a heckler. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a stage performer is how to tell the difference between a volunteer who is excited and one who is heckling. They can often look the same – interrupting, stealing the stage, making their own jokes, taking a long time to examine props, etc. The difference is in their tone and intention.
Danielle wasn’t out to get me. She was having the time of her life, and the audience loved her. I could tell that she wanted to participate precisely because she was having so much fun, and her engagement with me was an effort to make it even better.
Contrast that with somebody who is trying to disrupt the show either because they don’t like that they are being fooled, or that somebody else has the spotlight. Hecklers act out of misplaced ego. Danielle was not a heckler.
I see that video and remember the show fondly for both the harrowing drive and tremendously fun night. I also got a very nice write up in the paper that I used as part of my promo for years.
The lesson is that some of your most enjoyable and most valuable experiences, in life and in business, will first present as a challenge. Conquering a challenge depends on your ability to understand precisely what it is before acting. If I’d made a snap judgment about Danielle and treated her like a heckler, our wonderful experience together may never have happened.
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Connect with Brian!
- A Year of Stories: “Faking Confidence” July 24, 2016
- A Year of Stories: “Professional Courtesy” July 17, 2016
- A Year of Stories: “Be Patient” July 10, 2016
- A Year of Stories: “Just Ask” a.k.a. How I Got Sponsored July 3, 2016
- A Year of Stories: “Meeting Kristen Schaal” June 26, 2016