One of the most fun parts of event planning is finding professional talent for our clients’ special occasions. It could be a tribute band for a wedding reception, a close-up magician for a club mixer, or a comedian/MC for a business conference.
One performer we look forward to booking is Steve Bruner, a West Coast-based comedian who’s been entertaining audiences for more than 30 years. He’s done it all: comedy clubs, cruise ships, conventions, and private parties. Early in his career, he opened for Ray Charles! As his website says, “He’s a lean, clean comedy machine.”
His business and ours went topsy-turvy in March thanks to the pandemic. We thought you’d like to know that it’s still possible to add humor to your online meetings. Here’s our email interview with Steve Bruner:
Q: What made you decide to specialize in clean comedy?
A: I didn’t grow up around off-color language, and many of the comedy records that I enjoyed as a kid showed me that swearing was not necessary to get a laugh. I was a fan of Bob Newhart and Bob Hope, and I was especially in awe of Shelley Berman. These guys showed me that comedy could be a career. From a practical point of view, clean comedians get booked in a lot more places like corporate meetings and college events.
Q: The pandemic must have put your career on pause. How are you coping?
A lot of shows got postponed very quickly. When it became clear that the virus was going to stay awhile, all those postponed shows were officially canceled. I used the downtime to write new material and organize my many, many joke notebooks. Plus I finally cleaned out my garage. But as the months wore on, people started finding new ways to produce shows.
Q: How was your first virtual gig? What’s it like performing without an audience?
A: My first gig was for a charity and everyone was working out the kinks. It was fun but a little stressful. A few members of the online audience did not know to mute themselves, so we heard one person’s vacuum cleaner! The person running the video conference had to hit the mute button on his end.
But crazy stuff happens in comedy clubs as well. A server might drop a tray of drinks or, one time, the power went out when I was on stage. You acknowledge the unexpected blooper, go for a laugh, and keep the show moving.
Q: How does your timing change for a virtual performance?
A: When the audience is in front of me, I can make eye contact and read the room. I know how long to pause for laughter. You cannot hear audience response in most online shows, so I have fun with it. I have a few cue cards I hold up. One reads “INSERT LAUGHTER HERE.”
I’ve been mixing things up a little. I might tuck in a few more one-liners between longer bits. Audience members logged in to see your show, but I might be competing with their kids, dogs, and phone calls. So I try to deliver a lot of funny.
Q: How long do you perform?
My first virtual performance was around 20 minutes. I’ve done plenty in that time range, especially when there are four or five comedians in the show. Sometimes I’m the only comedian, so my set runs longer. I like taking audiences on a funny journey, whether it’s 20 minutes or a lot longer.
Q: What software do you use? What type of camera? What about lighting?
Zoom seems to be the winner of the video conferencing popularity contest. That’s the one everyone uses.
I use my laptop, rather than my smartphone, because the microphone is better. I tried an aftermarket microphone, but had a tiny delay in the audio that made it worthless! I’ve seen stellar systems in use by a few guys, and I’m planning to upgrade my setup.
For shows, I position my computer around eye level. I use my home office because I can shut the doors and because I have a goofy painting of a cow on the wall behind me. I use a ring light to make sure I can be seen, even on smaller screens. Then I just hope my dogs don’t start a barking contest in the next room.
Q: What about the Zoom chat feature? Do you want audiences to chime in with comments?
A: I love feedback, but I can’t really read remarks during my performance. Sometimes audience comments are meant for their friends who are watching on Zoom. It’s the host’s decision to allow comments.
Recently I recorded a seven-minute set that served as the opening act for an online concert. All the segments were spliced together later. So, no audience and no feedback. I was telling myself jokes!
Q: What types of organizations have been hosting virtual shows?
A: Comedy show producers were among the first to use Zoom to replace in-person events, so I’ve done several of those shows. I’ve done shows for cancer support groups, professional conferences, and country clubs. I’m doing a show for a group of retired academics in a few weeks.
Now that everyone is comfortable with Zoom, the organizations that hire me pretty much the same as those who hired me before the pandemic.
Q: How far in advance does an organization need to book you?
A: Right now, I have bookings through late December, so holiday and year-end slots are already filling up.
People are already talking about 2021. They are planning in-person events, which will become virtual events if necessary. Fingers crossed that it’ll be safe to be in the same room as my audience. I really miss it!
Q: What “do’s” and “don’t’s” have you learned from doing virtual gigs?
A: Ask the host for as many details as possible. You don’t want any surprises. If the host doesn’t give all the acts pre-show reminders (silence your phone!), ask for them.
Now more than ever, everyone wants online comedy to succeed. Audience members need the stress relief of a good laugh, the organizers want to sell tickets to keep their lights on, and comedians really need to share their point of view. So far, it’s all been positive.
Q: What advice do you have for the person producing a virtual gig?
A: Go for it! The downside of doing nothing is learning nothing. People want comedy. I’ve seen tickets priced from $5 to $20, so there is wiggle room. Plus there are no capacity issues on Zoom. Look at what others are doing in terms of promotion and ticket sales and build your plan on those best practices.
And when we return to in-person events, I have some advice from my blog. Back in 2018, I wrote a post titled “3 things that event planners need to know about stand-up comedy.”
I promise to read it, Steve! Thanks for your time!