Material conflicts is not the same as joke stealing, but rather two comedians who are using similar, if not exactly the same, premise or topic. When the two comedians are on the same lineup, the one who performs first usually gets the better response. In a classic club of MC/Opener, Feature/Middle, and Headliner, this means the more experienced performers lose some of their originality because a previous comedian has joked about a similar idea.
This brings up an unwritten, now written, social contract of etiquette that less experienced comedians remove material conflicts, so the more experienced comedians can get the better laughs. Again, this is unwritten and therefore subject to interpretation.
Material Conflicts as Less Experienced Comedians
If you’re lower on the totem pole of your comedy tribe, how do you want to deal with material conflicts?
You can ignore the conflict and chance pissing someone off who’s higher on the totem pole. You can cut the material, but what if you don’t have enough material. A room or club booker might ask you to cut the conflict. This is one of the reasons bookers want comedians to have more material than stage time.
I’m not offering answers here, but rather bringing up this unwritten etiquette so you can decide how you wish to deal with it when it occurs. My wife, Gayla Johnson, was doing a road gig as a Feature. After the first show, she noticed that she and the Headliner were both doing a bit about the names of alcoholic drinks. After the show, the Headliner was cordial, but not very friendly.
Gayla called me and asked what she should do. I suggested she take the drink names bit out of her show as a sign of respect to the Headliner. She had enough material to cover the stage time, so take the high road and allow the Headliner the status of having no material conflicts. She did.
After the next show the Headliner noticed and became very friendly. They had dinner and even hung out for the next couple of days as well. The club booker also notice and said to Gayla, “That was a classy to remove the material conflicts on your own.” From doing this simple gesture, she made two influential fans.
Material Conflicts as More Experienced Comedians
How do you want to handle material conflicts from the top of the totem pole?
Some confident comedians don’t care about material conflicts as they believe their jokes will get the laughs even when the premise has already been covered. Some get very upset as they feel undermined by someone earlier in the lineup and insist all material conflicts be eliminated, which can cause some hard feelings. Some are gracious enough to change their set to remove the conflict as they realize the less experienced comedians may need that material to fill the time.
The point is for you to know about the concept of material conflicts so you can decide how you want to deal with it when you’re lower or higher on the comedy totem pole.
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