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Sets and Hecklers: What DJs Can Learn From Stand-Up Comedians

From last-minute bookings to loud hecklers, stand-up comedians have a unique set of challenges that should feel familiar to almost every working DJ. Guest contributor Jon Paul Hill has put together a great collection of the parallels between the two professions – keep reading find out what you can learn from the careers of comedians.

Stand-Up Comedians: DJing Laughter?

Some DJs are funnier than others. Cheeky chaps like Eats Everything, Justin Martin, and Dada Life use their senses of humor to engage with their fans. But looking beyond clever-minded DJs, there are some major parallels between the careers of stand-up comedians and DJs. Even Bill Burr noticed it in this (not exactly complimentary) bit from his Monday Morning podcast:

Some comedians even use DJ culture as rich fodder for new material. Watch Russell Peters (himself a DJ) talk about controversial topic of ‘Real DJing’:

For even more from a comedian on DJ culture, listen to the last episode of the Houndtall Discussion Podcast, on which Moshe Kashe talks about his own experiences, as well as the history of dance music (with help from Dubtribe’s DJ Real).

Handling Requests and Hecklers

The impetus behind this article was an episode of ‘Louie’ where Louis CK handles the titular Heckler’ with pretty brutal take-down. Afterwards, Louie evangelizes to the heckler on how comedians performing at the club wait their entire week for that 10 minutes on stage, and she, the heckler, takes the moment from them when she interjects.

Hecklers and persistent requesters don’t usually mean to attack and derail performers, rather they just want to be a part of ‘the show’. Ego plays a huge part in the way that an audience reacts to a performer, particularly in a space that doesn’t have a layout (high stages, security guards) that substantially separates the audience from the performer.

Read More: Ean Golden’s classic article on DJ Ettiquite (including dealing with requests)

A firm but friendly tone is usually the best way to deal with people overstaying their welcome in the booth, some people are never going to get it though, and you’re just going to have to take it with good humor (till the bouncer throws them out).

Think Of Your New Mix Like A Stand-Up Special

An early George Carlin standup special VHS
An early George Carlin standup special VHS

George Carlin pioneered the modern comedian career workflow:

  • build your material in clubs/shows
  • record a special
  • build completely new material in new clubs/shows

Mixtapes are a lot like this, particularly the ones that get a higher audience reach – maybe in partnership with a website, magazine, or someone with their own reach of new ears. You might continue to get mileage out of your older mixes/routine after they’re published, but chances are that once a mix is published, you’ll start working on something new.

This is a pretty healthy creative process, especially if you can take your time between uploads to ‘test the material’. See what works in the venue, what transitions are too long? Can something be cut? Does that one track need an edit? Impose a deadline and keep refining your set until it’s ready to be presented in its definitive form.

Read More: 10 things you should consider before making your next DJ mix

Working The Room

Everyone has their favorite place to play, from mega-clubs to tiny basements. It’s usually the space that feels the most authentic to the sound of the artist that are our favorites. What about when you’re out of your comfort zone? Can you still win over the crowd, do you have a few tricks in the bag for these situations? (You should!)

Comedians often have to perform in venues that they’re not used to and to audiences that don’t know them. The Tonight Show has a great series where comedians share when these types of uncomfortable gigs go wrong – watch Jerry Seinfeld explain how he bombed at a disco in Queens back in 1977:

This one usually requires some experience in audience psychology. Should you concentrate on pleasing that bachelorette party in the corner? What about the two quiet students that come and see you every week? You don’t have to compromise your entire performance to please one section of the crowd, but if you play it smart you can touch everyone listening in a meaningful way.

Keep Reading: Should you take gigs outside of your normal genre?

Finding Your Voice

We’ve all seen the overnight successes, the young bucks that come out of nowhere to dominate the scene. However, the majority of comedians and DJs don’t reach success until they have been at it for a considerable time. Call it the magic 10,000 hours, but refining your taste, learning your strengths and paying your dues are extremely important. In the 700th episode of his WTF podcast, Marc Maron discussed this idea of ‘earned success’ with Louie CK, who noted:

“Look what they got, they don’t have to worry, look at the opportunities they got! But, how did we get to this place? We do have advantages, and the luxury of some choices, but how did we get those? Were we born with that? We fucking slogged it with no hope of reaching this. Each of us about 25 years [sic], running in place, learning skill, not knowing if it was going to work out and thinking actually the odds were very against [us].”

Sound familiar? It’s all about keeping the faith, working hard in the face of improbable odds, and trying to enjoy the process of craft-building throughout. If you’re consistently evaluating your own style and how it’s resonating with an audience, you can be forced to start defining success for yourself, which leads us to…

Making It Work

In a recent Comedy Masterclass talk (see below), Dan Harmon (comedian and creator of Community, and Rick and Morty) talked recently about the new waves of creative young people: there’s more to do, more ways to work, for much less money than there used to be. In parallel with that, if one can make find a way to make it work, chances of happiness and laughter are higher:

DJing (or comedy): you love it, and it’s the thing you’re best at, it calls to you, and you get weird if you go too long without doing it. There’s no reason to stop just because you haven’t fulfilled some arbitrary benchmark of success. You can always alter the terms of your own contract.

Many comedians have used technology (YouTube, Twitter, Vine, and podcasts in particular) to find new audiences, engage existing fans and develop their careers on their own terms. DJs have the same challenge, and should use the evolving world around you to experiment. Perhaps throwing unconventional parties, or regularly streaming DJ sets online – they’re all ways to fulfill the creative drive that comes with being a performer.

What lessons have you learned from other creative professionals that have inspired you in your DJ or production career? Let us know in the comments below:

  • Ken Barloh

    Tony tone Blackburn was quite the entertainer proper legend he is

  • FUNK SINATRA

    4 am, a dude comes to me
    “Can you play a song my girl friend knows?”
    Sorry I don’t know her taste
    “DJ! PLAY SOMETHING MY GIRL DIGS!!!!!”
    OK! bring her over, I will get to know her for a week or two, find out ALL the things she likes, and then I’ll play A SONG for her
    “OK BYE”

  • orge

    I once had a lass come up and request some inappropriate pop whilst I was playing breaks. Politely told her I didn’t have her request but she persisted… Told her no again and the next thing I knew she had reached out and span the cdj platter!? Thankfully, it was the vinyl deck on the other side that was playing.

    J

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  • Anthony Alonso

    One thing I learned a long time ago. While taking requests all night can kill you, pay attention to who is making the request. If I see a group of of 15 kats all buying drinks and getting people engaged and one of them requests drake., I’ll let him know straight up, I don’t have Drake bruv but I’ll throw a couple hip hop tunes in for you.

  • Dirtylooks

    I really appreciate this article. I remember hearing Louis C.K. talk in an interview a few years ago about his process of building new material that he learned from George Carlin and how he was constantly working on new material and would take the best joke from his last set and open with that, then have to build on to more of that material. I really felt like that could be directly applied to DJing and have dome my best to incorporate that as much as possible into my own workflow. Great to see Jon saw the same thing!

  • orge

    Worst experience I ever had was

  • informed guest

    this is my favorite cross-genre topic! teachers have to deal with the same stuff, too. try teaching poetry to high-schoolers who are tryna party and run outdoors.– I get where they’re coming from–having been there myself of course–but you gotta imagine the guy in front has passion, man–at least hear a brother out before you talk drama over him and revert to surfing ya phone. we’re here for a reason ’cause we know and vibe what we’re talking about

  • noxxi

    until they come at you with “play something good”

    • Chaser720

      Or “Play something I can dance too”. Bitch this is dance music.

      • noxxi

        aw yeah, weve all had that one. Ive also had “what songs do you have” and “can you go on youtube?”

        • Gonzalo de Castro

          “Can I plug my phone in???” -_-

          • noxxi

            “can I have a go?”

      • The Daddy DJ

        Exactly! And then you ask them what they want to hear so you can get a vibe and they literally can’t name a song and say “just not what you are playing”. Assholes.

      • I hate that one the most…
        You litteraly can dance to anything if you just tried for one second. Just because it’s no foxtrot or walz doesn’t mean it’s not dancing…
        It’s just the same as the “real music” thing…

    • informed guest

      I once got a “this music’s so old–don’t you have any new stuff?”

      • noxxi

        haha, I once got “can you put on “x” (obscure folk band from the 60s, can’t remember the name)” followed by “why not, you have a computer, put it on or im leaving”

        it was a techno night… and it was some random old guy, wtf.

        • The Daddy DJ

          Ha! I used to deal with these fools all the time when I played Hip Hop at a Boston bar. If someone pissed me off enough and I was confident in being able to regain the crowd, I’d call them out on the microphone and say something like “this dude right here wants to hear this garbage so here you go.” and maybe play it for a minute until the dance floor cleared and the person was embarrassed. Then I’d flip it back to the good stuff almost like a joke.

          It usually worked to get them off my ass and people would think it was funny because it was so random. Sometimes it could backfire though if it was a group of girls that wanted Britney Spears or some shit and then like half the crowd got into it so I had to kind of go with it. Sometimes it works out in your favor though. Just gotta read the crowd. Obviously this only really works in bars or small club environments.

          • Ken Barloh

            I used to do wet farts on the dance floor

  • I took a top 40 gig at a local gay bar a year ago because I needed a challenge. It’s the only dance floor on my side of town so, no matter how you get to the midnight hour, the dance floor is always packed from then until close. I figured that I’d be in good shape after trainspotting the other dj for a while and realizing I was better than him. Also, the crowd was pretty diverse. By the high point of the night, it’s more like a regular college bar with tons and tons of girls either on girl’s night out -or with their boyfriends. As the year went along, I found that I had lots of fun combined with some ridiculous experiences at every gig. Basically, when the college kids show up and pack the floor, they start requesting hip hop and r&b bangers, which I’m more than happy to play. Simultaneously, the older gay men and women turn into the nastiest bunch of wallflower haters, I could imagine. They stand near the booth and hiss at my terrible song selections and pester the (also old and out-of-touch) owner who sits at the bar and drinks all night. Now, mind you, all the dudes who work there love when I’m there and we worked out a deal where they would keep the owner distracted any time they sensed he was about to pester me. As a music fan, I love those gay anthems too so at 11:00, for instance, when I look out at the floor and notice a gaggle of real-deal drag queens, hey, let’s go I’m dropping “I’m Every Woman” and “I’m Coming Out” back-to-back. Now, do you think that earns me any good-will towards the end of the 4.5 hour set when I’m dropping trap songs for the college kids who fill the place by that point each night? Nope, I actually bought a TASCAM DR-40 in order to record these gigs and their massively schizophrenic crowds. Speaking on the crowd, what is with these millennials??? The djs who mixed at the place before me always put out a request list so I continued that tradition. In a way it’s helpful for me to take a read of the crowd and helps me steer my set. But, my God!, young people just hound the s#$% out of me all night until I either play their song or actually tell them to $%^& off. Like, I have to take it there at least 2 or 3 times per gig. Best part is the end of the night I usually only end up with only a dollar or two in the tip jar. Sometimes an older man or woman (read non-entitled millennial) will request a bad song but do it in a polite way and accompanied with a 5, 10 or 20. That wack song gets played pretty much immediately because the classiness is such a stark contrast to the young kids and their, just entitled attitudes. I better understand what Alan Freed went through during the payola days. Back to the bossy millennials who try to hijack my sets, I pretty much handle them like this article suggests (which lets me know I have good instincts). The salty old people who hiss at me are the most annoying -I’ll have a floor packed full of people with good crowd-noise audio for my TASCAM recorder and when I listen back, it’s peppered with some miserable old queen or some salty young person that I told to bugger off, complaining. Maddening. Anyway, I recently let this gig go because the owner busted into the booth and told me to stop playing hip hop the other night. For the last hour, I turned away, probably, 15 people who wanted to hear hip hop (as my custom by then for that last hour was to really just play bangers for the kids). I finished up the set, got paid, and politely let them know I’d be moving on. Another funny thing the owner did to me one night, earlier in my year-long run, -he busted into the booth one night and instructed me to turn the bass down as he couldn’t hear the conversation he was trying to have at the bar. This happened at the high point in the night with a full floor. I kinda wanted to quit then but decided I wasn’t done proving that I could rock a crowd in 2015/2016 just like I used to back in the mid-’90s at college parties and local dive bars. Here is a link with many of those gigs recorded with the awesome TASCAM recorder. Mind you, nobody dances during the first hour so I use that time to be eclectic and select tunes for people at the bar, or posted up around the club, but as the night goes on, you’ll start to hear more and more crowd. When I mixdown the raw audio, I usually lower the crowd noise when there are annoying people in my ear but sometimes they’re so annoying, I’ll lower the clean signal from the mixer and let the crowd +the annoying person play loud and clear -to put them on blast. I love the DR-40 for its ability to record crowd noise and a signal from the mixer in 4-channel mode so you can blend them in software (like audacity). The sets are all the Square sets with red squares on the artwork. My hearthis.at also has a few edits and sets done in my usual style too. https://hearthis.at/alt./#tracks

    • Milton Keane

      Cool story bro

  • Dubby Labby

    The line between being cheese and fun is thick and full of gaps if the cheese is grouyere. :V