Comedy Trials

Posted on 19 March 2012

Well, it’s comedy silly season once more in Melbourne Australia. The comedy festival is about two weeks away from opening and everyone is trialling material. What? You say you are about to launch your first festival show and you haven’t done any trialling? For shame. Trialling is an important part of ensuring your comedy is the best it can be.

Most of you will know about preview nights. Those are the cheap ticket nights at the beginning of the comedy festival, where the comedians are allowed to have a few slips of memory and a few technical failures. Even so, the preview is just a running start to launch a final product. Trials are when you haven’t finalised your material. You are testing stories, jokes, and gags to see whether they are a hit or a miss.

I have been to several trial shows through the years. I highly recommend up and coming comedians do the same. You will gain insights into how others develop their material. Trials are meant to be a sheltered place where comedians can expose themselves, warts and all. So I will talk about three I have seen held by TV personalities, but their names will be changed to protect the guilty.

What to Expect

These shows will be rough. Not just a little rough, very rough. No one will be bothering with lighting or microphones. Props can be pieces of paper with hand drawn images. Sound can be a boom box that has the play button pressed awkwardly now and then. You will see comedians carrying around cheat sheets with an outline of which jokes happen when. They will sometimes forget to do certain bits and back track.

As part of the audience you are asked to just be yourselves: laugh when you think something is funny, and don’t laugh when you don’t. You are also asked to be patient. If one joke doesn’t work, be open to the next one tickling your fancy, rather than rolling your eyes and switching off. So the comedian is looking for audiences who can be both honest and generous. This is why many trial shows are arranged privately.

How Macadamia Wills Trials a Show

It has been a number of years since I went to this trial. The trial was privately organised by a mutual friend. What I remember is that Macadamia seemed to be using the trial largely to gain confidence in interacting with his audience.

Macadamia would make an observation such as, “People are using the term surreal without really understanding what that means.” He would tell a few jokes based on that observation, then start querying the audience about their experience. What Macadamia seemed to be testing is, “Have I thought this subject through enough that I have something to say for every come back.” I’m sure he was also gauging how much laughter each segment was receiving.

When this show finally made it to the festival, Macadamia even used some of the material that was developed with his trial audience, referring to some of their comments.

How Blaire Bloops Trials a Show

Blaire is a list woman. However, she didn’t carry her joke list around with her to remember what comes next.

Blaire would tell a few jokes in a measured pace, carefully observing her audience. She would then stop and write down a few notes. Every so often if a joke failed, she would follow it up with a saving line, then put a large mark across the non-joke on her list. “We’re not doing that one again.”

She clearly wanted to reward those kind enough to donate their time to her show’s development by giving the best performance possible. So, she wouldn’t let a wonky line drop. Something that WAS funny had to be put in its place. This is a good habit to get into, and trials are a great place to practise rescuing material.

I also loved the way Blaire would on occasion simply ASK people: did you like that bit? She does a lot of smile-worthy humour. People love that stuff, but as a comedian it’s hard to gauge whether you’ve hit the mark, because lighting conditions make it hard to see people’s reactions. It’s much easier to hear laughter. Asking also shows great respect for the opinions of audience members.

How Hobbes Woodrow Trials a Show

Hobbesy’s anecdotes were already highly polished and guffaw-worthy on the night of her trial. Character and delivery were a beautiful blend of silly joy. Her trial had more to do with mechanics.

Props are a lot of fun, but they also bring their own special problems. It’s well worth the time to see how they will work, how you will work, and how the audience will work when you start using them in a real situation.

In this show Hobbes had a wall covered in pieces of paper. Each piece had written on it a topic she could talk about. Every time an audience member shared a particularly good story about the topic, she would put their name on the back of that piece of paper and re-stick it to the wall. Well, in theory. The sticky wasn’t cooperating and paper fell to the ground. She quickly shifted gears and used a whiteboard sitting in the room on which to write names. People actually felt a greater sense of pride having their names on the board. That small change may mean a lot in the success of her show.

Trials are nervewracking to the comedians using them. No one likes to have a joke fail, but you have to put yourself out there and find out…is that joke funny. If you don’t take risks, you don’t find the gold. This is a safe way to take those chances. If you ask me, the real courage comes when 1) comedians allow themselves to listen to feedback and 2) they are brave enough to recognise and cut material that isn’t working. It’s not easy hearing your babies criticised. It’s not easy slashing your babies to pieces. Only these babies are more like bonsai trees that are trimmed to create greater beauty.

Peace and kindness,


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