The One Where Mabel & Bob Absentmindedly Wander Into a Comedy Show

A few days ago there was a sizable audience filling the Victorian-era goth bar that for some reason has been made a comedy venue here at the Fringe. Of the 20 or so people in that audience, a group of 15 people was completely made up of co-workers who had left work early with the express intent of drinking and being entertained by performing monkeys. I am not a performing monkey. I do, however, wear the fez and vest of a performing monkey. But, only when I'm not performing ironically enough.

After the first sketch someone in that crowd of 15 audibly asked if something was going to happen. At the start of the second sketch a colleague of the crowd walked in with a tray of drinks and there was a huge "Yay!" from every single one of his co-workers. After the second sketch there was mock applause. During each sketch there were "hushed" whispers that my deaf-in-one-ear grandfather wouldn't have had much trouble hearing, though the accents were so cartoonishly thick that he would have had trouble deciphering. After the third sketch we walked out on our show, completely fed up with the "entertain me, clown" audiences of the Fringe.

Though that was an extreme case, I have spoken with other performers here at the Fringe and they have confirmed that unless you pander to your audience they will almost certainly refuse to get on board with you. There are a couple problems that arise out of this "Audience is King" culture. I should provide a disclaimer that I am talking strictly about comedy at the festival and that there are certainly shows and comedians that fall outside the majority. But, because most performers -- comedians especially -- desperately need the approval of the audience to help boost any self-esteem they may have, most of the performers here at the Fringe have crafted safe, pandering romps full of shallow jokes and performances that are essentially no different from comic to comic. Not to mention the fact that audiences act like they own the performers and feel free to walk in or out halfway through a show and judge what they see without any knowledge of what has come prior or what will come after. Our comedy in particular is very slow and often jokes are not paid off until near the end of the show.

The most shocking thing about the Fringe is how undiscerning the audiences actually are. I foolishly believed that this was a festival where fans of art, theater, and comedy would converge and see thousands of shows that, for lack of a better word, could be called "alternative" or, as the name as the festival suggests, "on the fringe." But, with the increasing power that corporate money holds on the Fringe (see here and here) it's all-together dangerous if we as artists begin to also cater our work to an audience instead of an audience attempting to understand what we are doing. Before arriving at the Fringe I erroneously believed that our show was too safe. The sad part is our show, though it is alternative and sports a unique stylistic voice, would not be considered out of the norm in Chicago, but has proved massively polarizing here. This has left me sorely disappointed in the Fringe as whole.

It should be noted that there are good, discerning audience members here and they should not be forgotten. But, they seem to be few and far between. I see far more people that just want to sit and be entertained and not be engaged whatsoever.

I want the Fringe I had in my mind before I got here.