A couple years ago I won one of the Bustolini’s Stand-Up competitions. Later I was talking to a woman who was in the audience the night I won, and she told me that I didn’t win because I was the funniest—I won because I was the cutest. At the time, not only did the idea of me being cute sound preposterous; the idea that I won a comedy competition based on looks sounded absolutely absurd. “Hot” comedians are a rare breed, and whether stand-ups like Anthony Jeselnik and Daniel Tosh received their television shows based on merit or on their dashing good looks is up for debate. It seems clear that looks don’t get one as far in stand-up comedy as they do in other fields. If comedy were based on looks, there’s no way dudes like Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld and George Carlin would have risen to the top.
Despite knowing this, that woman’s comment bugged me for months. I almost started believing that I wasn’t that funny, and I was just getting by on my Lincecum-esque dork chic. I remembered something John Ross told me: that an audience can decide whether or not they like you before you even open your mouth. This isn’t true in all circumstances, but an audience member will judge a stand-up comedian and immediately anticipate a certain brand of jokes before that comedian reaches the mic. Obviously, a comedian’s jokes can change the audience’s mind. If the audience decides they’re going to like you, as a comedian you need to justify that decision.
So in the instance of whether or not I won Bustolini’s because I was cute: I didn’t. But I think the audience had already decided they were going to like me, and I was able to back up that decision.
Of course, it’s not just being handsome that determines whether an audience is initially going to like you. It’s everything about your outward appearance: energy, confidence, clothing. I’ve noticed I can get away with darker material if I look more presentable. I used to tell a joke about how I could never be a rapist if I wanted to (which I don’t!), and when I told it dressed in my usual way (clean clothes, neat hair, glasses), it would kill. But once, I told that joke when I had my hoodie up (so looking a bit like the Unibomber) and instead of laughing, it seemed like the audience was thinking, “I think this guy actually thinks about raping people.” (Which I don’t! Also, I’d love to explain my rationale for approaching a rape joke, but I’m running out of words and would need another column.)
Speaking of different columns, if you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned women in an article about “physical appearance vs merit,” it’s not an oversight. The situation, unfortunately, is different for women and I don’t have enough room to adequately cover the subject. You’ll just have to wait a few weeks. Sorry.