For the first time, I was hired to perform an hour of stand-up comedy.
The event was a Catholic conference in Cleveland. The organization was going to pay me well and put me up at the same hotel where the conference was taking place.
The conference started on a Friday evening and went through Sunday. My time slot was Friday, during hors d’oeuvres, before dinner.
I drove the 200 miles from Dayton to Cleveland, and arrived at the hotel a couple of hours early. After checking in, I lugged my equipment to the ballroom and began setting up. I had brought my digital piano, acoustic guitar, amplifiers, headset microphone, and P.A. system.
The ballroom was large and could probably seat 500 at the tables that were set up.
At the back wall (about 200 feet away from the stage) were several long tables, generously stocked with hors d’oeuvres.
People straggled in gradually, and eventually there were about 150 in attendance.
At the appointed time, Jessie, my contact person, jumped up onstage with me and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the evening’s entertainment. Please make your way to the front tables.”
The 150 people there, all of whom were at the other side of the ballroom, eating hors d’oeuvres and chatting with their backs to us, were completely oblivious.
Jessie now sweetened her pitch with detail: “Hey everybody, we have a comedian tonight. Ranjit Souri has come all the way from Dayton to perform his comedy act. Please come to the front tables.”
In retrospect I think there were several reasons for this:
(1) There was free food. It’s hard to compete with free food.
(2) My P.A. system could not fill this huge empty space. The room could have seated 500 but only 150 were there. When the population density of a room is low, sound gets easily lost into the ether.
(3) This was an annual conference attended by people from all over the country. These people were meeting for the first time in a year. Understandably, they were more interested in catching up with one another than in listening to a comic they had never heard of.
Jessie was a trooper and tried several times to convince people to come to the front and sit down. After trying a couple of times from the microphone, she went to where the people were, to directly ask them to come and sit. From where I stood, I saw people glance vaguely at me or the stage, and nod, and then go back into their conversations.
I decided, I came here to do an hour of stand-up, so I’m going to do an hour of stand-up, whether anybody’s listening or not. Anyway, I’d played dinner music at enough parties that I had no problem performing with nobody paying attention to me.
Apparently Jessie had decided to lead by example. Because she was now nervously sitting at one of the tables near the stage, with two other people. Maybe they had owed her a favor.
I began my act.
With 150 people laughing and talking and eating with their backs to me, some of them probably not even knowing I was there, the rest not caring, I did my first bit, just for these three polite audience members: I said, “Let us begin with a reading from the book of Numbers,” and then read names and numbers from a massive phone book.
Once I started, there was no stopping me. I had come here to work and, darn it, nobody was going to stop me from working.
About 10 minutes into my act, two or three more people migrated to the front and sat at tables near the stage.
It was around this time that Jessie silently got my attention from her seat, then pretended to slit her own throat with the index and middle fingers of her right hand.
The tone of the gesture was kind—it wasn’t “Stop the show right now.” It was, “You don’t have to keep humiliating yourself like this. You can stop.”
But, like a runaway 18-wheeler, I kept going.
Every once in a while another person would come forward to watch my act.
But 99 percent of the people at the back wall kept talking and eating and completely ignored the fact that a performance was taking place 200 feet behind them.
Even my solo piano version of “What a friend we have in Jesus”—a rocked-out arrangement that was often the highlight of my show for a religious audience—garnered zero attention from the back-wallers.
I’m not sure they could even hear it.
I was now into the last item on my set-list. I sat at the piano and explained that Handel and The Knack had collaborated on a new piece. I then sang the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah to the tune of The Knack’s “My Sharona”—thus “muh-muh-muh-my Sharona” became “Huh-huh-huh-hallelujah.” A whopping seven people were sitting and watching and laughing. None of those who had come forward had left.
When I finished, these seven people gave me a standing ovation.
I think part of it was because they had genuinely enjoyed my act. But more of it was because I hadn’t given up. They had seen me encounter a comedian’s nightmare, face it head-on, and push my way right through it.
In the years since, I’ve stopped doing stand-up, but I’ve co-written and performed in many ensemble-based comedy shows and musicals. I’ve performed all over the country, and I’ve played to many packed houses.
But I’ve also played to houses of two or three people, and once to an audience of one. On those unfortunate nights, some of my fellow cast-members will sometimes push for us to cancel that night’s show. I always fight for the performance to go on. My philosophy has two main points: (1) I came here to work, and I’m going to work. (2) Even if we only have one audience member, he or she is worth performing for.
This philosophy did not evolve over years of performing. Rather, it was born in an instant, with no forethought, on a lonely night, on a lonely stage, somewhere in Cleveland.
Ranjit Souri (firstname.lastname@example.org
) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and essay writing in Chicago.