Better Characters, Bigger Crowds

Posted on 13 February 2012

Growing up a Character

When I was growing up my family moved town on several occasions. These moves were to small towns, towns that my parents felt would be safer and hold more traditional values than a city. Americans tend to characterise small towns as either places full of dumb hicks or a sort of 1950s utopia…even those who live in them.

Being the new kid in a small town is a misery. The other kids know you are a safe target for all their frustration and anger. Picking on you won’t endanger their status with the other kids.

Some kids overcome their bullied status by becoming the class clown. This usually only works with the boys. You will have heard of some comedians who made their start this way. With a girl it serves to make her even more of a target, with the other kids feeling the need to put her in her place. Don’t let anyone get sentimental at you about the innocence of childhood, that innocence disappears at a very early age.

Everyone needs friends. Given my situation as the new kid, the only solution was to open up to anyone who was willing to be a friend. These were usually the kids on the fringes.

My best friend in one of the towns where we lived was Michelle. Both of her parents were deaf, so she had developed a speech impediment. She also had wild red hair, glasses, and a wicked sense of humour. I remember going to her house, reading her Vampirella comic books, listening to her teach her budgie the lyrics to the streaker song, and laughing hysterically at our jokes.

That town had been particularly harsh. The level of violent crime there even made it to national news. Between us Michelle and I found a little slice of joy and a whole lot of resilience, despite the darkness, through the powers of friendship and laughter. I also learned a very big lesson in not judging a book by its cover. Kind and beautiful people are to be found all over the place and in the most unusual packages.

Understanding Characters

Some comedians like trading on caricatures and stereotypes of people. They use their audience’s expectations about certain groups of people and then either confirm or subvert them with their jokes. Often the comedians have had little to no direct experience of these people, or for whatever reason choose not to see beyond their own expectations.

What would such comedians make of Michelle? She would be easy to send up, if they had never met her or spent time getting to know what a big heart she has. The same is true for many other people.

For a short time I lived in Hahndorf, South Australia. That little town was frequented by members of biker clubs, particularly around Christmas. This is when members of many biker clubs band together and ride from Adelaide to Hahndorf for the Christmas Toy Run. The toys are often strapped to their handlebars and, when they reach their destination, are donated to the St Vincent de Paul Society for distribution to children in need.

I would regularly chat with this or that big fella in black leather motorcycle gear having a cappucino at one of our cafes. More than that I would ask them about their experiences travelling across country. They had some great stories. I have to admit, the description I carried in my head of these guys was giant teddy bears.

Now certainly, some bike groups are dangerous gangs. These aren’t the ones who ride up to Hahndorf, nor are they the majority. However, they are the ones who receive the most media attention and stick in people’s minds.

A couple years later I moved back to Melbourne and had a show in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. A British comedian friend was helping me with my marketing. At one point we were standing in front of Melbourne Town Hall handing out flyers to our shows. I wandered up to a couple of bearded guys in biker gear, leaflet in my hand. My friend started waving at me to stop. I gave them the flyer and returned to my friend. “Don’t waste your time with those guys, they aren’t going to turn up at your show. You need to be more targeted and effective,” she said. I understood what she was trying to say. My show could be described as cute and a bit earnest, not what you would expect to be of interest to these guys. But guess who turned up that night! Two big biker guys.

Because I was willing to see beyond the biker image, I learned a lot more about who these people are, how they live, what they do, what’s important to them, and made friends. This gives me a lot more detail for telling comedic stories which include bikers and an element of truth. I also opened the door to an unexpected audience.

I have similar stories about my goth, punk, and furry friends. They are all such wonderful glorious people, if only others would take the time to discover this. I’m sure I have some of the weirdest looking audiences on Earth. I wouldn’t have it any other way. These people are life at its most creative and vibrant.

You want a successful comedy career? You want something unique and special to say that people will remember? Open up to humanity and allow yourself to discover the veins of gold.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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