We had a difficult crowd on Thursday night at the club, a small gathering of twenty Thursday night revelers cloistered together for the promise of "Seattle's Best Local Comics" (the billing would be accurate if you remove the word 'Best'). Small audiences are tricky. I did well for the first five minutes of my set, doing crowd work and material about my dating life. However, once I started talking about Christianity and Jesus, I lost their enthusiasm; by the end of my set, they barely laughed at some of my best stuff.
At first, I told myself that I lost them because that material is new and I still need to work on it. However, Dave (the owner of Laughs) said something that struck a chord: "You are more interesting than anything you talk about... the audience is interested in you. Where the fuck is the Corona tap?"
I doubt Dave even watched my set and I always suspect he is talking to me in the midst of a delirium dream. This time, however, his advice hit home. As I mulled over my performance, comparing that night with other nights when I've used the newer material successfully, I realized that the biggest difference was how I packaged the jokes.
On nights when I start talking about Jesus or Christianity as part of my overall life (e.g., bringing it up when talking about my divorce or my reluctance to date Christians), the same material lands better. Thursday night, I simply switched topics, and by way of transitioning, I asked the audience, 'Any other Christians here tonight?' Without asking this in the context of my previous monologue about dating, this question and the following bit comes across as both more insincere, more aggressive, and less interesting simply because it is not connected to me as a person. It's just me switching from talking about myself to talking about another Topic - and you can't expect an audience to care about what you have to say after they've just met you.
Dave's point, whether he watched my set or not, was valid and proven by my past experiences. If I consider the stage a lab and the various times I tryout a new bit as experiments, then on Thursday night, I proved fairly conclusively that the same material hits a lot harder if I am able to connect it to my personality and the narrative I am building while developing my relationship with the audience.
Open mics are a great place to try out a few new jokes, but if I have more than 5 minutes to work on a crowd, I need to focus on finding ways to deliver jokes in the context of myself. Jokes told in a vacuum get lost in the void.