Stand up comedy is a special thing. It’s easy to play the game, yet it’s hard to master. There are a bunch of know-it-alls and there are a bunch of novices. Guys can get famous overnight and they perform side by side by the guy who’s grinded twenty years of his life on the open mic circuit. It is never as simple as the “funniest wins,” because we’ve all seen the comic on TV that we just don’t find funny.
But unlike most art forms in the world, there is an equalizer. In stand up, the equalizer is being the “headliner.” Headlining usually means that the comic in question is the main attraction, or at the very least they are the last comic of the night so they should command your attention. Before and after the show (most level-headed) comics consider everyone an equal. However, when the show starts there is a clear hierarchy. The MC gets and keeps the show going, the early acts warm up the crowd and the headliner is in essence the main draw of the night.
We just accept this. It’s part of the game.
It’s almost like a cultural thing. Growing up in Brooklyn, most people commuted on public transit. We would all hang out in front of a bus stop, and when the bus came we all made a rush to the front of the bus. “Get in where you fit in” is what we called it. Head one borough over to Queens and things were way different. Folks there would stand side-by-side with each other in a single line, parallel to the curb. When the bus arrived, the first person would be the first in line. Single file.
We just accepted this. It’s part of the game.
There is something about being the headliner that is pure. The oft-repeated fantasy of seeing your name in lights doesn’t really happen if you’re third on the bill. In my experience working in the professional wrestling industry, the main event is what got people to buy tickets. Then there’s this whole issue of the undercard not outshining the main event, but that’s an entirely different post for another time.
I’ve been doing comedy for about a year and a half and I’ve only headlined once. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about how many gigs I’ve headlined until I decided to write this article. Maybe because I’ve seen headliners perform on a completely different level (in a good way) on past shows, and I’ve seen headliners completely end the show on a whimper (in a bad way) in others. In fact, a comedian’s skill or talent truly has no bearing on their place in the lineup. It straight up, doesn’t matter
But it does.
Headlining goes beyond making people laugh for an extended period of time. Like a pro wrestling champion, you are given the ‘title’ of entertaining the crowd. The promoter (comedy or otherwise) has put their faith in you that you are going to entertain to your fullest potential. In short, it’s an honor and it’s the one people fight for.