EXIT STAGE RIGHT, PLEASE
Back in the ‘90s, I used to perform with a sketch troupe and we had a regular gig at the Comedy Store on Sunset. During that time, we saw a lot of bad comedy. Some of the worst came from an improv troupe called “At the Drop of a Hat.” They were a bunch of middle aged people who did unfunny improv while accompanied by an on-stage cellist. (To his credit, the cellist was actually pretty good.)
One week, they got the call to perform at the Comedy Store’s La Jolla venue. It was kind of a big deal to get invited to La Jolla. You got a free meal and could stay the night in Mitzi Shore’s condo on the ocean at Pacific Beach. Naturally, my troupe was wildly jealous and wished “At the Drop of a Hat” ill as they headed south on the 405 freeway.
We got our wish.
A few minutes into their performance, someone on stage made some crack about SDSU that didn’t go over well with the crowd. So someone out there in the darkness just said, in a dispassionate tone, “boo.” He didn’t yell it or draw out the “o” so he was actually booing the group, he just said “boo.”
A few seconds later, someone else said it. “Boo.”
More and more people started in, and before long, people were actually booing “At the Drop of a Hat.” It started in the middle of the room, and spread out the edges. Pretty soon, it was loud, “booooooooooo!”
It was at this point that someone in “At the Drop of a Hat” actually thought he could retake the situation. He smiled and laughed and said, “Ok, I get it. ‘Boo.’ Now, someone give me a location where two strangers might meet…”
It wasn’t going to work. The audience had gotten a taste of their own power, and they wouldn’t be satisfied until “At the Drop of a Hat” walked off the stage in shame.
About four minutes later, the battle was over. The humiliated comedians walked off the stage, through the hostile crowd, and out the door, to the thunderous cheers of the audience. (The La Jolla Comedy Store has no back exit, making their walk of shame all the more terrible.)
So this afternoon I’m watching the news from Egypt on Al Jazeera English (fine, put me on the “do not fly” list, those guys have covered this story better than anyone else) and I thought of “At the Drop of a Hat.”
On one side of the screen was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, addressing his nation. On the other side, a live shot of protesters in Ciaro. At first, the protesters were silent, watching the speech on TVs set up around the square.
Mubarak starts by telling people how great he is and how much good he has done for Egypt. But after a few minutes, it becomes clear that he’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to resign. Instead, he’s talking about a constitutional committee he’s set up to produce reforms and talking about how he was wild and impetuous as a young man.
Somewhere among the protesters in Ciaro, someone took off his shoe and held it over his head, a sign of great disrespect. Pretty soon, others were doing the same. By the time Mubarak repeated that he would not step down before his term ended in September, the people in the crowd were shaking their fists and chanting something like, “he must go now.”
Is it possible the president of Egypt has even less skill in reading crowds than the worst improv comedy group in LA? Apparently so. To an outside observer, it’s hard to believe just how wrong he got this.
But make no mistake, the audience has gotten sense of their own power, and they won’t be satisfied until the performer leaves the stage.
(Note to Mubarak… who certainly reads this blog and is frustrated that I don’t post here enough: get onto Wikipedia and look up Nicolae Ceauşescu. These things don’t end well for people in your situation. Get your luxury flat in Dubai and get the hell out. The alternative for you is much, much worse.)