Albert Brooks and Steve Martin Agree: It Sucks To Open For Musicians

Paul F. Tompkins nailed it: ‘There’s something about comedy in front of music that makes people lose their minds’
Albert Brooks and Steve Martin Agree: It Sucks To Open For Musicians

Believe me, comedians get it. If, over the decades, they bought a ticket to see Cheap Trick or Green Day or Haim, they wouldn’t be thrilled if they had to sit through an anonymous stand-up comic trying out new material before they got to the headliner. But somehow, that message has been slow to get through to concert promoters, who have often booked comics to open for music acts.

It happened to Albert Brooks, who got his start as a touring comedian by opening for Neil Diamond and Sly and the Family Stone. It wasn’t exactly a good experience. In the book Comedy at the Edge, Brooks says, “The comedian is not only insignificant; in many cases, the audience hates you for delaying their drug experience.”

Brooks turned one of those nightmares into a comedy bit after he bombed opening for Richie Havens in San Antonio. As the crowd chanted, “Richie! Richie! Richie!” Brooks waited to take the stage and introduce himself as the opening act. “Your name Richie?” asked a stagehand. When Brooks said no, the roadie replied, “They’re going to kill you.”

On his album Comedy Minus One, the bit continues as Brooks reveals his secret to dealing with unruly rock crowds in Texas: “I pulled out the big gun. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to use it, it’s just a trick, but I had to do it. It’s a word that works in that part of the country every single time. It’s a miracle word. The word is shit. I don’t understand it, but 6,000 people — Richie! Richie! Richie! ‘Shit.’ Whooooooeeeee! Hats come on the stage, people run out, begin to build a statue in the park. ‘He’s a hero, he’s a hero, he’s a hero!’ Parades are scheduled. My god, how does that work? Do they talk about that after the show? (Southern voice) What’d you think of the comedian? (Second Southern voice) Let me tell you one thing, when he said shit, I almost died.”

One of Steve Martin’s first breaks was opening for the singer Ann-Margret in Vegas. Again, it was less than an ideal venue or audience for stand-up comedy. The shows were at the International Hilton, “a huge, unfunny barn with sculptured pink cherubs hanging from the corners of the proscenium,” Martin wrote in his memoir, Born Standing Up. “Laughter in these poorly designed places rose a few feet in the air and dissipated like steam, always giving me a feeling like I was bombing.”

The gig did give Martin a chance to meet Ann-Margret’s Viva Las Vegas costar, Elvis Presley. “I’m sure he noticed that this 25-year-old stick figure was firmly frozen to the ground,” Martin remembered. “About to pass me by, Elvis stopped, looked at me and said in his beautiful Mississippi drawl, “Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor.” 

Count Paul F. Tompkins among the comics who hated opening for musicians, too. 

On his Laboring Under Delusions album, Tompkins tells the story of opening for Grant Lee Buffalo at the Whisky a Go Go on New Year’s Eve. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that if I were to tell you right now, ‘Hey, we’re going to have, in the middle of this comedy show that you expected to see, we’re going to have a musician come out and play a couple songs,’ you guys would probably be cool with that,” he said. “But there’s something about comedy in front of music that makes people lose their minds.”

Luckily, Tompkins and his career survived a night of music fans pelting him with ice cubes. In fact, people reassured him after the disastrous set that he shouldn’t quit comedy. “I never said I was going to quit,” he protested. “But you’re sort of suggesting that maybe it’s a possibility that I should.” 


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