As some of you may have seen over the weekend, I had the chance to see Mike Birbiglia this weekend as part of our college consortium’s Spring Weekend comedy show. After seeing him earlier this year, I was interested to see what material he would choose to share. Because we’re a Catholic institution, there was one bit (about Catholicism) that I suspected he probably would not be able to perform. Hilarious, but…just in case. We reiterated that request upon his arrival to campus, and he agreed to comply. But as I watched him on stage, the change didn’t seem to throw him very much. He had another joke prepared of similar length, and it still created that seamless narrative that I so enjoy about his sets. For this set, the “where” mattered, and Mike was able to deliver.
His adaptability comes in contrast to other comedians I’ve worked with or know of from friends who have worked with them, ones who want ultimate control over their content. They may be willing to make edits or updates to the material they’re sharing, but those changes must be on their terms. Bo Burnham comes to mind when I think about this idea. We explored bringing Bo for this show, but he was unable and/or unwilling to edit his content to the standard we would have needed him to meet. His style is unpredictable and distinct- a quality he wants to keep in all of his shows. However, when working with him a few years back, he inserted a joke to a set last-minute, a song about the circumstances under which he came to us (offered, booked, and arrived within 72 hours after a last minute cancellation of another act). The song was brand new and about our precise circumstances, but was an addition that he chose to make. The “where” mattered. The result? Well, look:
There are merits and disadvantages to both strategies. The former is utilitarian. It allows Mike to move from place to place, fitting into more potential scenarios and potentially garnering him more work. But the latter creates scarcity, and perhaps by extension greater demand. Bo is seen a little less often, and the product he’s sharing is consistent in a different way. The two methods share one element, however: authenticity. No matter what circumstances Mike is performing under, he’s telling his jokes; Bo is doing the same. Both strategies are unmistakeably honest, just in subtly different ways.
You know where this is going: the two strategies could also be compared to how we work each day. As we assess our offices, student populations, and office cultures for fit, do we do our best to share the content or perspectives that fit the work environment we’re in? Or do we hold strong to who we are, acknowledging that may mean we won’t be able to work in just any environment?
Maybe it’s a matter of adapting our material and ideas to our current setting, letting our techniques and exposition be shaped by an understanding of our context. The opener for this weekend’s show was a local comedian named Will Smalley. This was actually the second time he’d been on our campus this year; he came in the fall as part of a local comedy show that our Student Government sponsors during Welcome Week. In that set, he told a joke about…well, there’s no graceful way to put this- about AIDS.
(For the sake of this discussion, I’ll say that this joke could have been about anything to make the point I’m making, but it happens to be about AIDS.)
There’s an element of context that’s associated with talking about AIDS. Its discovery in the eighties and the fear that was associated with learning about its symptoms and effects is lost on people too young to remember it or the events leading up to it. For most of our incoming first year students, their first exposure to AIDS came with Magic Johnson or Real World’s Pedro (if not something later). They just understand it differently. When Will told the joke in the fall, it could really only be funny with the earlier form of context. And in a true testament to how old some of us pros may be getting…it landed awkwardly without that background information. But the fun thing about seeing comedians multiple times is that the material evolves and grows over time. This time around, the joke landed differently. The landing was cushioned by adaptation to include context, and a slant that included something this group knows a little more about (pirates, in case you’re wondering). Again, the “where” mattered.
Where am I going with this? (Pun recognized.)
Most of us in higher education are not comedians. At least, not professionally. But the “where” matters for us too. Some of our material (skills, talents, or ideas) fits our “where”. But some of it doesn’t always. In an industry that is admittedly a big ship to have to turn quickly, the agility of our ideas can have a hard time matching the glacial pace at which many of our institutions tend to move. We have a few options when this happens.
We can take the Birbiglian path and try to adapt to the environment we’re in, finding ways to put our trademark on things within the given guidelines. This tends to be easier for professionals earlier in their careers- in the experience gaining, dues-paying stage of our careers, adaptation can be helpful. It can help build resiliency and understanding of our surroundings. Moreover, it gives you training on how to present interesting ideas in a way that appeals to those with greater decision making power than you.
Alternatively, we can Burnham our careers, setting an internal set of guidelines for the work we’re doing and where we’ll do it. This can be helpful when we have particularly strong non-negotiable factors, such as geographical preferences or family/relationship-based factors. But it may limit our options, and that will need to be considered as well. Additionally, if those non-negotiables are deemed indispensable in the marketplace, you’ll have a tremendous amount of value when shopping your proverbial wares.
But in either case, the process that Will went through is absolutely essential. Be it in grad school or in any other preamble to your path to this work, take the time to work through your material. Comfort with your priorities and abilities is important before taking it into a new setting and making it your livelihood. Test your opinions, interests, and skills in a variety of environments. Carefully examine the context that you’ll be working in. Find ways to adapt your message and methods to your surroundings and constituents, while making it unmistakeably you. Taking this time to become good at your craft is what’ll get you to the big time in the first place. Don’t leave that part out! The “where” matters, but so does the “what.” Prepare accordingly.
What are the standbys on your setlist? What “bits” adapt depending on where you go? How did you learn which was which?