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Seven values for conscientious comics

Wednesday 16th April 2014

I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘just a joke’. In a world where comedy is not only entertainment and art, but also an industry and influential form of media, it is important to look at the impact of what we say and do and what affect that has on the world. Even if there is comedy that is 100 per cent frivolous and has absolutely no effect on anything outside itself, I am not interested in being that type of performer.

After two years of performing comedy, I’ve reached some sort of goal as to how I can integrate comedy, writing, my education and career without feeling like I’m compromising my social and political values. This hasn’t been an issue for me in the past, as I believe I’ve always been quite an ethical comedian, but I also think it’s important for me to write down what I want to do, to remind myself of the type of comedian I want to be.

Comedians are lucky enough to be in a position that can openly question how the world works -  it’s a wasted opportunity if we don’t.

Saskia Bunce-Rath

Your audience is cool, so be nice to them

Until I’m on stage, my process is pretty solitary: I write alone and I don’t practice in front of people; everything I’m saying is about me, has come from me, is focused around, me. I’m anxious when I perform so I don’t look at the audience much. When I’ve spent some money and a lot of time on a show, I count each head to estimate the money I’ll get, and subtract expenses.

So it’s pretty easy to forget about the audience. I am trying very hard not to do this. Stand-up comedy is a pretty egocentric thing, and as much as there is a part of me that loves that, I am trying to decentralise the experience. A good audience is the most important variable in a comedy show; they’re not a blank wall to practice on and they are not a stepping stone to my comedy career.

Making fun of people who are already oppressed and already the butts of many jokes is not only lazy, but it upholds the status quo.

The audience have showed up. They are interested in what I have to say. They have paid. If they like what I’m saying, or agree with me, or relate to it in any way, it probably means we could be friends - if we had the opportunity. I recently went to a marketing seminar on how to get people outside my friend circle to come to my shows; I decided I would rather increase my friend circle.

I try to make sure the audience is comfortable, and having a good time. At my Fringe Festival show I gave everyone chips to eat, which made people like me, which was good – it made them part of the performance.

Don’t make jokes that will ruin people’s day. Don’t make jokes that will turn people off comedy. Making fun of people who are already oppressed and already the butts of many jokes is not only lazy, but it upholds the status quo by keeping the oppressed, oppressed and those in power, in power.

Saskia Bunce-Rath

Show vulnerability, create intimacy

An intimate performance is special. It’s much better than simply sharing space. Involving the audience isn’t necessarily about our talking to each other during my performance (although I’m trying to do that more), but about creating a warm atmosphere that makes us all feel something.

Showing vulnerability is the best way to genuinely connect with an audience. Be honest. Talk about dark stuff, talk about light stuff, talk about your relationships, friendships, feelings and how the world affects you. People like that. It’s just as important to do this with your actions as well as your words.

I suffer from reasonably severe anxiety, so performing stand-up hasn’t come particularly naturally. I’ve been given tons of advice about how to perform, and what makes a good performer – usually it’s a variation of “fake it ‘til you make it”, though I’ve found doing the exact opposite has worked well.

By openly showing my anxiety on stage I have come to terms with who I am, but more importantly I have shown my audience, including those who suffer from anxiety, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. I’m not a bad performer because I’m shaking; I’m not bad at speaking because eye contact is difficult. We don’t have to feign confidence. We are fine as we are.

Because anxiety has become essential to my brand of comedy, I sometimes worry about what might happen if my anxiety stops being an issue. What happens if I suddenly gain confidence? What will happen to my stage presence? What will I do with all my stories about awkward interactions with girls? Honesty has been so important to my comedy thus far, so I can’t start lying just because the truth doesn’t work with my shtick anymore. I’ll have to find something else to talk about. Luckily this doesn’t really seem to be an imminent issue.

Saskia Bunce-Rath

Perform for koha

As long as a large chunk of the people I want to reach do not have money to pay for tickets for comedy shows, I will try my hardest to do shows for koha. As much as I value my shows and believe they are worth something, it means nothing if people simply don’t have the money to see them. Value is not a set figure - $10 is worth a lot more to some people than it does to others. And booking fees for tickets beyond one or two dollars suck, and performing for koha gets around these contracts with venues and ticketing agencies. I would rather people decide what my show is worth to them themselves, and pay accordingly. By being honest and inclusive with my audience I hope they will respond with generosity.

Make zines

I love zines. They’re self-published, small-run publications with no editorial censorship, no guidelines and no rules. They’re of variable quality; often full of mistakes. I love them for their flaws. No one is perfect. We all have inadequacies and zines are a great way of showing them. I have been making zines for longer than I have been doing stand-up but I have found them to be a great combination. Comedy is more than standing in front of a group of people and telling jokes; in a zine I can expand on ideas from my set using comics, short stories and poetry. (This piece is based on a zine I titled, Everything Is Sad and Funny and Nothing is Anything Else, I made to accompany my Fringe Festival show.) Zines also work well with koha shows to incentivise audience members to give more substantial amounts.

Saskia Bunce-Rath

Design is important

I struggle with the entire concept of marketing. On one hand it is primarily used as a way to get people to part with their money in exchange for things that they do not need or want, but on the other, I want people to know about things I am doing. I have come up with a compromise for myself that any marketing I use should be something substantial in and of itself. Any text should be funny or beautiful or interesting to read. Any poster of flier should be beautiful and well designed and nicely printed.

Plus, when you put up posters or distribute fliers, you are contributing to public art. Having a beautiful and interesting city is more important than getting as many people to your show as cheaply as possible.

Saskia Bunce-Rath

Collaborate and appreciate

Appreciate other artists and performers. There are so many great people doing great things throughout New Zealand, across all art forms. Try to collaborate with these people more. Shmoozing and networking suck. The best shmoozing is hanging out with your friends and the best networking is mutual interest and admiration. Working with others shouldn’t be a chore or done primarily to further yourself. It should be done because they’re cool and you’re cool and it’s fun to work together and you get something bigger and better than the sum of its parts.

Work with people outside the comedy scene, and perform at a variety of events in and out of the comedy scene. Hire designers to work on your posters to make your ideas actually look good. Make music, make zines, write together, perform together, talk about your desires and goals and work together to make them happen. Don’t take advantage of anyone. Appreciate the work everyone does with constant praise and give them money and/or gifts whenever you can.

Saskia Bunce-Rath

I’m convinced building strong communities who care about each other is the answer to almost every problem the world has at the moment. Comedy has a huge potential to bring people together in a way that helps everyone. Whenever I do anything to further my own goals I should look at how this affects the community too. Building a strong and thriving community helps everyone and I have to remember to praise those who have put so much work into making the Wellington comedy, and greater community a great place to perform and a vibrant and interesting place to live. So thanks Ricky Threlfo, Jerome Chandrahasen, Ben Caldwell, Hilarie Carmody Jen O’Sullivan and James Nokise who are just a few of the many people who have made the comedy community in Wellington what it is today.

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