It’s a Tuesday night in New Orleans and Hannibal Buress is stepping onstage at a local venue called The Den. That might not sound out of the ordinary for a comedian—telling jokes on a stage is their job—but tonight is unexpected. Buress isn’t in town as part of a current national tour, nor is he filming a special or documentary. Instead, he’s closing out the free local show Comedy Beast by just dropping in unannounced.
Within minutes of Buress taking the stage to do his set, the roughly 40-seat venue transforms into standing room only. Word of mouth spreads throughout the long bar leading into the small back room, attracting those who were only out for a quick drink or stopping by to pick up a to-go order. And the buzz among the crowd—their excitement about seeing Buress in person—comes from the sheer surprise of it all. In a line-up heavily skewed towards local names, Buress’s sudden appearance lends the evening a touch of surprise.
Given his notoriety, he performs longer than the night’s other acts have been permitted, providing the audience with about 20 minutes of material. It’s clear he’s got some polished bits, while at other moments he kneads through set-ups as if they were fresh dough requiring some working out. He throws out ideas and chuckles to himself with his boisterous staccato laugh before pausing for a minute, undisturbed by the silence it takes to latch onto the next thought. In other venues, for a ticketed show, that kind of moment might eat into timing and rhythm, but this isn’t that kind of event. The jokes we hear tonight might eventually make their way into a filmed special or a headlining tour, or they might not.
The beauty of the surprise appearance is the exchange it offers comedians and audiences. Comedians get an easygoing space to try out their jokes, while audiences get to experience a nationally known act in an informal setting. “It’s nice when people don’t expect you to be there and you’re there and it’s fun,” Buress says once he gets offstage, grabs another drink and takes photos with three fans waiting to meet him. The whole experience feels relaxed. He’s allowed to be what one imagines he was before his career exploded. “These showcases are an opportunity to work out stuff with no real pressure,” he says. “Even in New York or L.A. these days, if it’s a showcase, I don’t put my name on it just because it’ll sell, and people have these expectations.”
Mystery and comedy might seem like two antithetical concepts on the surface, but the element of surprise can unite them. Fans may have their favorite bits, but hear a joke one too many times and its rhythm breaks down. A punch line doesn’t have nearly the same impact when you know exactly what’s coming. Surprise drop-ins like the one Buress did in New Orleans allow comedians to explore the element of surprise in a setting where their very presence is the most surprising thing of all. There’s arguably a certain cultural cachet to such events, an aura pervading the surprise and excitement that doesn’t often arise in the way people consume culture these days. They reintroduce that unknown, intangible quality that tends to disappear from the planned nature of ticketed shows, or the accessible nature of TV and digital comedy specials. And, let’s face it, there’s also that good ol’ factor of supply and demand. “I can’t do a ticketed show every time I do a show when I’m in New Orleans or New York, because then I burn out the draw of people wanting to come,” Buress says.
Andrew Polk will soon be a Los Angeles-based comedian, but up until Buress’ performance at Comedy Beast, he served as the show’s co-host for four years. He booked talent largely based on the best work he saw at other local events, but national comedians also reached out to him when they were in town. “They can treat it as a training ground, and it’s super fun because you see famous people trying out new jokes and maybe not doing that well, and reading out of a notebook, and not remembering their punch line,” he shares. “It’s how you see every comedian ever, but with famous people.”
Local comedian Geoffrey Gauchet says about the New Orleans scene in particular, “We have a lot of people that come through here. It’s a pretty good comedy scene, but even if they don’t have a good set, they can still party and have a good time.” It’s a sentiment Buress echoes. “It’s relaxing and I enjoy the music, and the entertainment, and I’m a late-night person full of vices,” he laughs. “It’s a fun city and it fits my personality a lot.”
He’s not the only national comedian who pops up randomly at local gigs—New Orleans or elsewhere. Speaking on the phone after a recent two-week stint in Australia, Kyle Kinane mulls over what local shows let him do that ticketed shows don’t. “The expectations are a little lower,” he says, laughing at himself. “I always benefit from that. It’s fun, and you screw around, and you get to experiment, and the pressure’s not on to be like, ‘People paid however much for the ticket—for the full show.’”
In cities where the brick and mortar comedy shows tend to have at least one big name dropping in nightly, the more surprising experiences are taking place on the margins. “The stuff in L.A. that’s great now—there are the clubs where you can drop in and do spots—but the fun shows that are on the patios of taco restaurants and people’s living rooms,” Kinane says. Oftentimes, in those circumstances, he doesn’t find himself in front of an audience familiar with his work, so he has to force himself to approach the room differently. He adds, “You can’t just be like, ‘Oh, I’m Kyle and I drink, and I like pizza. Everybody knows me.’ Like, ‘No, write jokes. Write real jokes that work in front of strangers.’”
It’s a writing obstacle Kinane didn’t necessarily expect as he grew to be more famous. Once a comedian reaches a place where they’re well known and selling shows because of their name, it becomes harder to gauge whether a joke does well because of that name or because it’s a good joke. Kinane hits upon the catch-22 many comedians face at a certain point in their career. “You do all these jokes about how life is shitty and you’re not getting anywhere with comedy,” he says, “and it’s so raw and it’s just this outlet you need to have because you’re a loser, and then you complain about that stuff well enough that you do get paid, and you’re not broke anymore, and you’re happy, and then you have nothing to talk about onstage. You’ve performed yourself out of a job.”
Since the element of surprise factors so heavily into comedy, local shows where celebrity names can randomly show up offer the crowd a memorable night and let big name comedians reconnect with their roots. They offer comedy fans a treat, a behind-the-scenes look of sorts, and let the performers test new material. Just don’t be a jerk and pull out your phone to take a video. “Someone’s still going to do it, because there are shitty people out there,” Kinane says. It sounds like a fair tradeoff: Don’t be shitty, and maybe you’ll get to experience something special.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.