‘The Opening Act’ is an Honest Look at the Stand-Up Comedy Grind
October 14, 2020
Opening act slots are coveted by newer comedians. It’s a chance to open for an established act, gain new fans, and actually get paid (sometimes pretty decently) for doing comedy after years of free open mics — usually a gateway to more paying gigs. Comedian and first-time director Steve Byrne focused on the work of an opening-act comedian for his film of the same title.
In Byrne’s flick, stand-up Jimmy O. Yang plays Will O'Brien, who finally catches a break after months of hustling open mics and working crappy survival jobs. He gets asked to open for his hero, Billy G. (played by Cedric the Entertainer). The only catch is Will has to bunk with a freewheeling, lady-loving, hard drinking comedian named Chris, played by Alex Moffat of SNL fame. Chris may make Will’s life awesome or totally blow the gig for him. Spoiler: Will doesn’t soar out of the gate.
Byrne, who has spent years on the road himself, says there is something to be learned from bombing.
“Professional stand-up comedy is a lot harder than it seems. It’s not easy to make someone laugh. In a comedy club, in an arena, to say something that you took from pen to paper to elicit a laugh — one out of 10 jokes work,” he said.
“Stand-up really is a profession of rejection. Every time you hear a laugh, it’s a small victory. An hour special is 60 minutes of a bunch of small victories.”
In the film, Will’s bigger victory is connecting to his idol (which does not come easily). When Will cools the room instead of warms it, he wonders if he’ll ever work again. Billy G. gives him some excellent advice over lunch: “Find your voice.” It’s wise words for a profession that is completely dependent upon identity. Byrne himself admits it took him about 12 years to really find his voice.
When queried if Will might ever get to open for Billy G. again, Byrne revealed there was a scene that was cut for time.
“Billy is enjoying a cigar, and Will asks him to take a selfie. As Will is looking at the selfie, Billy tells him to keep in touch, but only once a month. Will is confident he will work with Billy again. Will he work with Chris Palmer? I don’t know about that.”
Bottom line, it seems Byrne believes if you’ve got the talent there’s always room for second chances. One wonders if the merciless pandemic will grant stand-up itself a second chance. Byrne no doubt thinks stand-up will soon again have it’s heyday.
“Stand- up will def survive [COVID-19]. Comedy is more than ever an essential business. It will come back bigger and stronger than ever.”
Byrne asserts audiences need a communal experience as soon as possible.
“We all watched and witnessed an event together. We now all know what quarantine is like. I love hearing all the different takes that stand-up comics have on it right now, but I know the clubs will be packed when they open. We need it. We need to laugh together.”
In the meantime, audiences that have a hankering for a stand-up experience can stream The Opening Act starting Oct. 16.
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/