Sunday, November 6, 2011

It's all about the bar...round 2

Bar manager Brian James O'Connell  expounds more on his experiences behind the iO West bar:

Anytime I’ve had to ask anyone to leave, it’s been relatively smooth because I physically have 30 people standing behind me giving the offender the same look. There really isn’t any room for douchebags or assholes at an improv bar because disagreement makes for bad comedy bits and “this ain’t that kind of scene, dude.”

I’m reminded of this frequently when I travel to other bars in town. I see various acts of rudeness going unchecked. I see rampant egos ruining other people’s evenings simply to serve their own selfish needs for what they consider to be “partying."

I see people over-served and wandering aimlessly because their “friends” abandoned them.

I see guys fly off the handle in situations where a simple “excuse me” would suffice. It always makes me think, That would never happen at iO. Someone would take care of that person. Cooler heads would prevail. It helps that we at iO all speak the same language, though.

QUICK ASIDE: Kim Mulligan asked me the other night whether or not I was able to “turn it off” when I’m at other bars. Honestly, I can’t. I’ve been doing this way too long. I can walk into any bar, anywhere, and within five minutes tell you who has been over-served, who is underage and HOW they got in, whether or not the bouncer is on the take, which bartender is drunk, if the owners are on drugs (and yeah, I can tell who the owners are usually), and so on and so forth.

I can see a fight 10 minutes before it happens. Studying improv and learning how to read people’s body language has only heightened that skill. It used to drive me crazy but now I just remind myself that I don’t work there and Charna signs my checks, not these people.


I usually just turn to my buddy and tell him to stand with me in a different part of the room. When they ask why, I tell them, “Because that guy who hasn’t touched the drink in his hand since we got here can’t take his eyes off of that girl...

"And the guy twice his size standing to her immediate left has….noticed. This isn’t going to be a very safe place to be in about, oh say, three minutes.” But I digress.

And about that shared language I mentioned earlier. Improvisers speak in a different rhythm. There is a give and take there and any new person picks up on it. The bits fly back and forth; shared jokes are told in quick character voices.

Any conversation a lay person has with an improviser is inevitably politely interrupted by another improviser who wants to say hello and then is immediately followed by an introduction and greeting with the new person.

That sort of warmth is extremely inviting to a new visitor. They want to be in on the joke. They want every person in the bar to be happy to see them just like it seems to be for the improviser they are talking with at that moment. It just LOOKS fun. And it is.

When I meet a lay person who is the boyfriend/girlfriend of an improviser, I inevitably make the joke, “So when are you starting classes?” You simply can’t be around improvisers talking very long without wanting to be part of the conversation.

In most bars, we just want your money. At an improv bar, we add you to the conversation. You’ll buy drinks simply because you don’t want to leave.

It’s also why everyone who works at an improv bar also performs there.

I can’t imagine how a lay bartender could function at an improv bar. He wouldn’t know the language. He wouldn’t know the history. He wouldn’t understand that a Level 2 student is ordering in that old prospector voice not to be a dick but because he’s trying to be funny - to impress you.

The student is trying to belong - to join the conversation. And he wouldn’t know Miles Stroth or Bob Dassie from a hole in the ground, which could be a problem.

Can you imagine how difficult my job would be if I had to stop every five minutes and explain to the lay bartender, “No, dude, that guy just raised his voice because he’s doing a bit. He’s not starting a fight; he’s doing his Mr. Energy character from The Friday 40...

"And by the way, please don’t make TJ Jagodowski wait five minutes for a beer; he is an improv legend and has probably earned a little extra prompt service for all he’s done for the art form. That’s embarrassing. What’s that you say? (Sigh.) A bit is when….”

I shudder to think.

Which leads me to the dark side of having your crowd know each other rather than strangers at a club who may never see each other again: Things can get…..complicated.

When you have a lot of sensitive, artistic types in the same room with healthy egos whose art is so closely tied to their personality and their self-value, you need a bar manager who can be a calming influence.

Yeah, we don’t have any fist fights at iO but we do have people who have long histories with each other and sometimes not always the best histories.

I hear everything. I know more than I should know and a very important part of my job is being discreet. I sometimes see people not at their very best (which happens at EVERY bar) but at an improv bar, that person is part of the family. I need to contain that situation because I don’t want them to be embarrassed.

I need to let them know I don’t want to ever see that again AND I need to keep my fucking trap shut about it.

In this job, I spend a lot of time patiently listening to a particular view and attempting to be objective. I try to find mutually beneficial solutions. I try to encourage people to work with me.

Hey man, I want a lot of people at your show as well. Let’s try and work out some drink specials.

I spend a good part of my time reminding interns, who are our lifeblood, that although they are not getting paid, they are still getting something of value (free classes) so they should really try to treat it as, you know, a “real” job.

I also spend a lot of my time encouraging those who go that extra distance and do something because it needed to be done and not because they were asked to do it.

I want those interns and staff members to know that I saw it and appreciated it. That they aren’t faceless, that someone is watching and recognizes effort when it is given.

And I always wasn’t very good at it at first. I was used to regular bars where I had to exert a little more authority and use a different sort of language - “bar” rhythms, not “improv” rhythms.

I was reminded by one of my servers not too long ago that one of my first requests for her to do something the way I wanted it done began with the line, “Now, I know you’re not retarded but,…”

Woof. Yeah, not good, I admit! But I was used to working with restaurant/bar “lifers." My godmother, my Aunt Kathy, was the head server at Coletti’s in Chicago for thirty years. She would have smirked and gone right on with it.

At the end of the night we would have been friends again. That’s just how the business works.

You can read this post in its entirety where it originally appeared at PhillyImprov, and you can see Brian James O'Connell don his many clever hats either behind the bar (through November 8) or on the Main Stage with Top Story! Weekly, Dr. God, The Armando Show and others.

1 comment:

  1. Long Live iO :D
    HONKEY, Alum May '11
    Sat Night Box Intern

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