August turned out to be a month of some very bizarre and unexpected extremes. Fortunately, I'm an extremist.
HIERARCHY: large city
MOTTO: En avant!
VENUE: U of M Rarig Center Arena
By all accounts, this was another record-breaking year for the Minnesota Fringe: audience numbers continue to grow, a number of new and upcoming companies did surprisingly well, and I heartily congratulate the new administration on their hard work to bring this about. As for me, I had the worst audience response and turnout that a show I've produced in the Festival has had since 2005. My audiences in both Kansas City and Indianapolis outstripped my hometown attendance by an order of magnitude. What happened?
One trend that I noticed was an upsurge in the suburban audience -- I saw several audience reviews talking about making the trip into the city, etc. I know this is a grail that the staff has been chasing for some time, and I believe that it's ultimately good for the long-term health of the Festival. One of the bizarre short-term effects is a major spike in the overall conservatism of the audience -- I saw some of the most audience-friendly comics being sternly lectured about the vulgarity or non-traditionalism in their shows. And, uh, I am on the opposite end of the spectrum from audience-friendly.
At just about every show, I'd walk onstage to see a large number of older patrons glowering at me humorlessly. And I was torn between my typical mental response of "I'm so grateful that you've come out to hear what I have to say!" and "Oh, man, you are really not going to have a good time for the next hour."
(This did give me the surreal experience of being pulled aside by people in LA and KC saying "You really need to step up the raunch, dude, seriously" and being pulled aside by people in my normally progressive hometown saying "You really need to dial back the raunch, dude, seriously.")
But I think that having a handful of audience members stumble in from outside of my target demographic -- that's a smaller issue. The larger one is, where the hell was my core audience? I'm coming off of a string of well-attended and well-received storytelling shows: the audience that met them with warmth and enthusiasm was nowhere to be seen.
The most obvious notion is that they were leery of the content. I'm hesitant to accept this, because I've done quite well producing political comedy before. But that was during the Bush administration, when being a libertarian was cool and weird and sexy. Under a Democratic administration, it's a dirty word. I spoke a while back with an older libertarian comic who confided in me that he just couldn't get any traction with that material in the Clinton years, and for the first time I think I'm starting to understand what he meant.
(I must have understood this on some level, since I largely quit political blogging once Obama was elected. There just wouldn't be any more fun to be had: we must regard our leader with great solemnity, now.)
I did a show a few years ago with another storyteller who advised me to cut the phrase "libertarian activist" from my standard bio, concerned that audiences would associate me with the Tea Party. My immediate thought? That I had been a libertarian for years before this vaguely racist pack of anti-intellectual bumper-sticker-shouting paranoid hacks stumbled drunkenly onto the scene, and I would be damned if I would yield the title to them.
My experience this year to me suggests that my consent was never necessary, and that they've already won that battle in the public eye. Libertarian is a dirty word, and will be for the foreseeable future. We lost the war; and insofar as one of my goals with this show was to humanize the philosophy, my inability to get an audience in the door to hear the material made that a resounding failure.
HIERARCHY: large city
NICKNAME: Circle City
VENUE: ComedySportz Indianapolis
ME: Hey there! I'm doing a political comedy show over at ComedySportz.
PATRON (peering at the card suspiciously): I saw this in the programme. I didn't know what to make of it.
ME: Then you should come and see the show! And still not know what to make of it!
The executive director of indyFringe is a real sweetheart, who pulled me aside partway through the Festival and asked, with some concern, how my experience had been going. A number of people had been asking her warily about the libertarian, she informed me.
See, I didn't need her to inform me of this, because part of the bizarre, translucent nature of Fringe fame means that I've been hearing a lot of this firsthand. Either I'm incredibly lucky this year or people are talking about my show constantly, because I've been overhearing conversations about it in every city I've been to.
There was one particularly insufferable couple in Indianapolis. As I stood outside doing my aggressively intensive vocal warm-ups, they peered in through the window and spent several minutes pointing at my audience, making fun of them, and laughing. I smiled, nodded, and agreed that whoever had brought this show to their town must be an idiot. I then waited until they left, slipped my flask back into my pocket, stepped inside, and proceeded to do a show in which that audience laughed at nearly every sentence out of my mouth for the next hour.
Indianapolis may have been wary, but you would never have guessed it from my audience turnout, which was consistently robust -- and once I guided them through their initial trepidation (which typically takes me about 5-10 minutes) they were hooting, cheering, and applauding. I had one group that came with the explicit intent of sabotaging my show through heckling: they quickly became among my most vocal supporters.
Indy has one of the strongest senses of community of any Fringe that I've toured to. This can be attributed, I suspect, to several factors. For one, it's much smaller -- there's only 64 shows -- which means audiences are seeing a larger percentage, and are consequently much more game to take chances on an unknown. For another, it's geographically tight-knit: just about everything takes place in a four-block radius. With copious buskers, you turn onto Mass Ave and you enter Fringe World.
I was dragging my heels into this one, dreading every performance; and I walked away from just about every performance feeling like my skin was singing. After an uncharacteristically negative hometown experience, Indy's adventurous audience restored my faith in the circuit.
"What we love about you," the ED said to me, "Is that every show you bring forces the audience to make a choice." I'll take it. On to Chicago.
SO WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?
That I still have a lot to learn.
FIRST AMENDMENT BOX RESPONSES
As part of the tour, I've included in each programme a "First Amendment Box", in which audience members may write any extreme, absurd, or politically incorrect thought -- and submit it anonymously. I share them here, with no commentary or context.
- I want to control the weather
- Mandatory oral sex at all voting locations
- A chicken in every pot and pot in every pipe
- Health care - flat tax
- Snowman tax
RE NEXT FREE ELECTION:
1) All Republicans are obsolete and irrelevant post Andrew Jackson;
2) Hillary Clinton is too morally ambiguous and ego [illegible];
3) another [illegible] free candidate after Obama, if we must, but a hyphenated name like -- Garcia-Schneider!
America is a land of illusion, full of pageantry and falsehoods. There are figureheads in the highest offices, producing theatre, hiding behind false ideals, letting the wizards behind the curtain do what they like. I sometimes feel like I'm watching a movie and I'm the only one who can tell Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time. You can be free in America, but you have to have enough money to buy it.
War against pigs. Legalize meth. Ban the behind the ass under the balls angle in porn. Forget the Alamo. Lower the drinking age to 13. Ban anime, execute all anime scofflaws. Smoke weed. War against the mail-men. Set Mike Pence on fire and throw him down stairs. Don't comply. (BLACKS!) Eternal salvation or your money back! SUBGENIUS.com
If those fucking tea-baggers and crazed evangelicals got all the dumb shit the way they say they want it, they'd still probably not realize how fucking stupid they all are! Dumbass Libertarians are included in this mini-rant I wrote. Your ideas as a Libertarian are repulsive!
The Repubs are like bank robbers. You might not approve, but you can sort of understand. The Dems are more like the guy who takes a tennis racket and tries to chop down a lamppost because he thinks it's the Antichrist.
The electoral college should be disbanded and all governmental positions, federal, state and local AND all federal, state, and local policies should be voted on by the people of the US. Even tax changes!
Change the national anthem to Mm-Bop. Or something with a peppy tune. The internet gives too many idiots a forum to be...idiotic. And, apparently, I am too much of an idiot to deny them my attention.
To the extent that we have taxes, men should pay more, as they disproportionately commit crimes and burden the criminal justice system (which is a big business in America anyway).
America is not the greatest country in the world. Christianity is not compatible with being a soldier.
We are all doomed! Unless we are not...revolution. It will be televised this time.
End of life care is too expensive -- sick old people should be euthanized.
Campaign finance reform is priority one. All other concerns are secondary.
There is no hope unless we can bring ourselves to compromise with our enemies.
As a gay man, I'm terrified of AIDS but condomless sex feels so good.
I really want to hate your show, but I don't. Bravo. Keep inquiring!
I believe that eugenics may be the answer to our future survival.
Robin Hood was returning citizens' extraordinary taxes! Thanks!
[Drawing of a marijuana leaf.] THIS. (I am an intellectual.)
If the world smoked a joint, there would be peace forever.
Stupid people should not be allowed to reproduce.
(I pretty much say everything I think.)
A right not exercised is a right lost.
#GaryJohnson for President
Anything I believe
I believe is true
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