What’s the Difference Between Standup and a Concert?

Hutch Harris (the Thermals) talks expectations and being the guy with a guitar at a comedy show.
Hutch-Guitar

Comedian Moshe Kasher texted me at around ten on a hot Tuesday night in late May 2016. He was looking for a musical guest for the next day’s Portland, Oregon, stop of The Honeymoon Tour, a comedic variety show of sorts hosted by him and his lovely new bride, Natasha Leggero. Based on my own touring experiences, a honeymoon tour sounded like the first stop on a short road to divorce. I kept this thought to myself and agreed to do the show.

I’ve been a performing musician for more than two decades and an amateur comedian for just two years. Comedy was something I had wanted to try for years, and when I started I was thrilled to learn it was not only fantastically fun, but that I had somewhat of a knack for it. When it comes to music and comedy, I usually try to keep ’em separated. I tell myself I won’t be the guy with a guitar at a comedy show, but, it turns out, I will — I just have to be asked by the right person.

Much of an audience’s reaction to any performance is based first on expectation: people go to a show expecting to be entertained in a certain way. How you appeal to those expectations — or how you subvert them — is one of the keys to succeeding on stage. Expectations are one of the things that make performing comedy so incredibly hard; when you buy a ticket to a comedy show, you damn well expect to laugh when the show starts. The comedian has the sometimes Herculean task of dragging laughs out of a very unwilling audience. Laughter is a very specific response, and there’s no substitute when you are performing standup: make them laugh or die trying.

Expectations are one of the things that make performing comedy so incredibly hard.

At a rock concert, reactions are often foregone conclusions. The band plays a song. The audience listens to the song — or at least hears it. The band finishes the song and the audience applauds, whether they’ve enjoyed it or not. Which is not to say that every crowd at a concert is full of only adulation for the performer — it’s just that there is usually a base level of responsive respect. When I perform songs, I am trying to get the audience to listen. When I tell jokes, I am trying to get the audience to listen and then laugh.

The Portland stop of The Honeymoon Tour was the Star Theater, in sleazy historic Old Town. I walked out on to the stage at the Star to total coldness; the audience had not been warmed up and I had barely warmed up either. Before the show started, I had strummed a few chords in the tiny basement green room, but mostly I was just talking to comedian Steve Agee about our mutual love of ’90s ska bands. In the comedy world, going up first is called “the bullet” for good reason. It takes a while for an audience to feel comfortable enough to laugh, and whoever takes the proverbial bullet may be sacrificing some laughs, or their whole set, for the good of the show.

It was a packed theater in my hometown, so there were at least a few people in the audience who had heard of my band even if they weren’t huge fans. I explained to the majority of the audience (who hadn’t heard of me), “I play in a band called the Thermals. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it, it’s only for people who have really good taste in music.” This is one of my favorite openers, as it manages to present me as both self-deprecating and a total prick in just two sentences. Hey, get to know me.

“People think touring in a successful rock band is glamorous,” I continued, “but the only time I got laid after a show is when I got mistaken for the guy from The Big Bang Theory.”

The joke is only half true — the touring I’ve done has definitely not been glamorous and I have been publicly mistaken for Jim Parsons (Sheldon Parsons on Big Bang), but it’s never led to more than a confused handshake in an airport bar. Also, I rarely have sex on the road.

I did get a huge laugh — not because it’s a great joke, but because I was holding a guitar. People saw a musician walk out onstage, therefore they only expected music. They weren’t expecting or demanding that I make them laugh, and were relaxed and receptive when I did. So although I was hired to only perform music, I managed to sneak some of my standup routine in as well. Keep ’em separated? Why try, when they’re so easy to combine? I played a few songs, ending with “Born to Kill” (which was either very inappropriate or incredibly appropriate for a tour celebrating a recent marriage) and brought on comedian Louis Katz.

I wouldn’t recommend live performance for anyone who wants to feel awesome every night.

I felt pretty good after my short set. I didn’t feel awesome, and I wouldn’t recommend live performance for anyone who wants to feel awesome every night. To those people I would say, maybe try snowboarding or hard drugs? Many nights in the world of performance are spent surviving: surviving your set and your own subsequent feelings of self-doubt and -loathing that come with expressing yourself in a public arena. That night, I survived. Honestly, if every show were amazing, there would eventually be little reason to continue. Our own failures, real or perceived, move us forward. I die tonight, but I will be born again tomorrow.

The show that night wasn’t about me. I was a hastily prepared appetizer for a meal that had many other delicious courses already planned. The entire lineup was fantastic: Louis Katz, Molly Ruben-Long, Steve Agee, Greg Berhendt, Leggero and Kasher. These are some of the best comics in the game right now. I sat side stage for most of the show (when I wasn’t talking with Steve Agee about Primus) and listened.

What struck me most about Kasher is how he was able to make his audience feel comfortable and cared for, even when he was roasting them. A total pro at crowd work, Kasher teased his audience about their jobs and lives, but did it so good-naturedly that it only endeared him to them further. It’s a good way to approach an audience no matter what you are doing on stage — get to know them as a way of letting them get to know you. I haven’t taken any classes on standup, and I don’t want to. No offense to anyone who has taught or learned standup in a classroom — it’s just not for me. To me, performing standup comedy is like playing drums: a lot of things you need to know about the craft are up there in plain view on stage. Watch and learn, then get up and do.

I don’t call myself a comedian. I haven’t done standup for very long, but I do enjoy it a lot and I am trying to get better at it. I don’t really call myself a musician, either. I can’t read music, and although I may be skilled at writing, I’ll never come close to being as technically skilled as any of my idols or even my peers. I do feel like I have accomplished a lot in the world of music; sometimes I feel as though I’ve accomplished enough. One of my favorite things about doing comedy, about starting fresh in a new field, is that there is so much to learn. Every time I watch an amazing comedian kill on stage, I want to learn more about how they do it. I may not have been born to kill, but I feel if I work hard enough, I can learn.

(Photo credit: Steve Agee)

Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past eighteen years.  Harris founded and is the lead singer/songwriter of Portland post-pop-punk band the ThermalsIn fourteen years, the band has toured fifteen countries and released seven records. Follow Harris on Twitter here.