Hope you had an Open Mic week full of learning and at least a little fun. I hope you are making progress towards your first five minutes of Group One jokes.
Just as last week focused on joke writing, this week focuses on performance. But before I get there, I just want to repeat that I was holding up the “Subway worker” joke as an example of a joke that did its job at a minimal level, not as my idea of great comedy. I picked it because it was a real, honest to God Open Mic joke. I wanted to show two things: nuts and bolts advice on how to make a marginal joke better, and how we need to keep even the marginal jokes in our act until we replace them with better ones. Hope that is clear. On to performance!
Last week I had you pick a Performance Goal and work on it in every set.
How did this feel?
Was it hard to maintain concentration on the goal at the while also thinking about your wording and how the new stuff went?
The mind can only hold so many conscious thoughts at once. One or two at most. I have zero knowledge of neuroscience but this seems right. So the goal is to work on something consciously until it becomes automatic. Let’s say your Performance Goal last week was to smile more. If you have a stage character that is friendly, it is a good idea to smile when appropriate. After all, you are hopefully enjoying performing, and it fosters a good feeling in your crowd. Clearly this doesn’t work for Lewis Black, who cultivates an attitude of grumpiness, but for many acts, it can engage and enliven the audience.
In your first few sets of working on it, it’s going to be something you will have to constantly remind yourself of. Your mind will be on a joke. “How does this one go?” you will think, and then wrestle out the Punchline. A second later, you’ll be like, “Oh shit, smile!” The smiles will come at odd times and it will feel weird and distracting to think about this. Especially while you’re already trying to perform material you have never said before without any joke-killing word flubs.
But after a certain number of sets, which can vary according to the performer, you will find yourself smiling without thinking about it. Your mind will no longer have to interrupt its thought flow to yell “Smile!” at your face. You will find yourself smiling the exact amount you wanted to when you started working on it. It will be automatic. What was once a thing you had to constantly remind yourself to do on stage for it to happen at all will be now a natural instinct. You will smile appropriately every time you perform. It will be just something you always do on stage. You act will now have an added element working for you to help your performance succeed.
To borrow terminology from the world of computer role playing games, I call something you are still consciously telling your self to do an “active skill.” In game terms, this means it’s something you have to physically hit the buttons for to make your video game character do it, like shooting their gun or jumping. Something that you do without consciously telling yourself to do I call an “automatic” skill, or “passive” in gaming terms, something your character just does, like parrying or dodging.
In the above example, you worked on smiling until it went from something you had to think about to something you just did. That’s the goal when working on a performance element, to turn active skills into automatic ones.
When you work on a performance element, work on one, and only one, at a time. It’s realistically all you can handle. You have so many conscious thoughts when doing new material, one extra one is all you can ask your already maxed out, frantically multi-tasking, onstage brain to handle. Even then it will resist your efforts. Work on that element and only that element until you feel it has become automatic. Then you can declare victory and begin working on your next Goal.
You should always have a new element you are working to strengthen on the performance side of your act. I have one right now. I am trying to use my natural, uninflected speaking voice more in my delivery. Louis CK did physical act outs on “Live at The Beacon.” I had never seen that in his act before. Just as Michael Jordan added elements to his game long into his career, like a fade away jump shot that is absent in his early years, so can a comic. The beautiful thing about standup comedy is that you will never reach a peak at which you cannot add something new and make your act more compelling.
“How do I KNOW when it has become automatic?” you may ask.
Good question. The best answer is, “you will feel it.”
Let’s use smiling as the example again. At some point you will do a set. Either on stage, or just after, you will realize, “Holy shit, I was smiling at appropriate times and I didn’t think about it once.” Most revelations in comedy come at a gut feeling level. You will just instinctively know that your comedy character has just “leveled up,” to borrow another term from the role playing game world.
But if you are a person who likes to see tangible evidence, tape yourself at the moment you adopt a new performance goal. When you start feeling like you’ve got it down, tape yourself again. Are you smiling enough? Then congratulations, you have added that element to your act. Now it’s time to move on to another goal. Hopefully that goal will not be “don’t smile so much.”
That’s a joke, but it gets us to my next point. Your performance style will change and mutate throughout your career. Adjustments you thought were awesome can look awful to you down the road. I went through a “high energy” period where I ramped my volume and speed up to a frantic level. This was a performance goal I went after because I had previously just been just standing there, calmly telling my jokes. I was boring and lifeless. But I overcorrected until I was kind of a lunatic. Then I had to consciously adjust the other way until I found the right medium.
Some things you add may not work. If you find yourself having to readjust when a new element gets in your act that you overdo or no longer like, don’t get down on yourself. Watching your sets might very well make you cringe. You will see yourself doing things that seemed like a good idea that make you want to hide in the other room. It’s OK. Years will go by and this will still happen. Your performance technique is ever evolving and will go in many different directions before you find something you like. The great thing is that your act is only what is happening on stage at the moment you are currently inhabiting. Every time you get onstage is another opportunity to reinvent everything.
I will return to Performance Goals in the Assignments„ but I want to explore some other aspects of performance before we get there.
You are performing in Open Mics right now, and they are the hardest venues in comedy. When you begin to perform in other environments, it will seem markedly easier than what you are used to. You are running with immense weights tied to your ankles and when they are removed you will be amazed at how much more effective you. But even on better shows in front of paying, engaged audience members, some of the difficulties of the Open Mic will still come up. The following techniques will help as you attempt to get your jokes past a crowd of jaded comics and bored drinkers watching you for a lark. They will continue to help for your whole career.
Have you had a crowd where some of the tables are laughing and some are just staring at you? You may feel an instinct to aim your jokes at the table that isn’t laughing. To “finally get them.” The frustration you feel at an unresponsive table will only fuel this instinct. You want to perform right to them; prove you are funny; conquer their resistance; win them over. This instinct is natural but it is the wrong move. You would be pouring your comedic energy into a black hole. It will eat your performance and the tables who do like you will feel neglected. They will start to pull away from you as you ignore them.
Remember, the audience decides what they think of you in the first thirty seconds. They judge you based on your entrance, looks, confidence, and general demeanor. If you didn’t get them up top, you can get them back by proving yourself funny, but you are at a disadvantage with those who made a negative initial assessment.
Your best move in this situation is to play to the tables that were on board from the start. Give your energy to them and they will give even more back. Find that guy who’s laughing hard and give your Punchline right to his face. Lock your eyes on his, holding your big emotive face right there, even after the joke is done. Make the tables that like you like you even more.
That energy will be infectious in the room. That happy feeling spreads and that grumpy table that wrote you off at first may give you a second chance. Laughter IS contagious, and they might wonder what they are missing out on. They may feel like if it was funny to the table next to them, maybe they should give it a chance. I will not tell you that this always works. Some tables will simply not respond to what you are doing and this is just part of the reality of performing in a subjective art form. But I can tell you that this is a much better bet than expending your limited energy trying to “crack” a table that is resistant. Give your attention where it will do the most good.
But if you DO get a chuckle out of the table that didn’t like you at first, you can now reward them with a couple jokes aimed at them. Cultivate that spark you started with the tables that were on board from the start, and then fan those flames as they spread from table to table with your attention. You just might get the whole crowd on your side.
This brings me to my second point. Your performance is a conversation with everyone in the audience at once. Even if you are not actually asking them anything, you are communicating your material to them, and they respond either with laughter or with silence. It is important to try and reach them all.
That being said, there are certain styles of performance where the comic does not make eye contact with each person in the crowd. Perhaps you have picked a strange misfit character who stares blankly into space as he does his act. This is perfectly valid, but know that it is asking more of the audience to accept this and “come to you” than if you meet them halfway. It can still work, but just be mindful that you have asked them to give you more careful attention than they are used to giving a comedian . If you have not made such a creative decision, it is advisable to make eye contact with as many audience members as you can. You can then give the illusion of eye contact to the sections of the crowd that are too shadowed for you to actually see.
Personal attention and eye contact is just as powerful in group communication as it is one on one. Eye contact has another purpose as well. In addition to giving the crowd the personal attention of the comedian, it allows YOU to get real time information about how they feel about you and what you are saying. Their faces are just as helpful as their laughter in letting you know how they are enjoying your act. Are they interested? Angry? Confused? You won’t know unless you look. And the act of looking makes you a more engaging performer for them. At some point, unless your creative decisions purposely forbid it, eye contact and “giving some of the show to everyone” should be one of your Performance Goals. As it becomes automatic, you will find yourself instinctually knowing who needs attention when. You will feel which tables are the right ones to focus on for which jokes.
Along the same lines, view their side of the conversation the way you would someone talking to you. If they are laughing, don’t interrupt them. Let them laugh. That is what they are here to do after all. The more you allow them to enjoy a long complete laugh, the more they will be encouraged to do it again.
Cut off their laugh and they wonder if it is OK. They will be skittish and not as quick to do it again. After all, you stomped on them the last time they did it. It takes effort to listen and it is enjoyable to laugh. You just cut off their fun time to make them work again.
With experience, you can play with the rhythm of the “conversation” and cut off the tail end of their laugh to work them into a frenzy. You can also let all of the energy in the room die away to total silence to create tension. In general, however, allow the audience a good solid laugh at least until it starts to fade out. Waiting until most of the room is back to “listening mode” before you continue creates a healthy exchange of energy between performer and audience and fosters future laughter.
At times, especially when performing older bits, you may find yourself going on what I call “autopilot.” You will be doing your act and your mind will start to drift off. You will continue to perform out of rote memorization with no feeling and no emphasis. You are no longer “in the moment.” You are just saying the words the way they always go, putting no effort into inhabiting them. Your jokes are now automatic and your mind is elsewhere.
This is deadly. When you notice this, it is important to immediately mentally ask yourself, “what am I saying?” and then grab hold of the wheel, so to speak. Invest that sentence with all the emotion and attention to nuance you can muster. Actively remind yourself to tell these jokes the way you would if your career depended it on it.
In a way, it does. The audience can tell if you are invested in the performance, even if they couldn’t put that in words. If you are only giving them a “going through the motions” version of your act, they are only getting the writing and nothing behind it. They are only getting half of your act. And they are unlikely to become your fan from such a performance.
Autopilot happens to all of us. It is a hazard of repetition. Down the road, when jokes become impossible to invest with the excitement and feeling that led you to write them, it’s time to drop them from your act. But for now, just as with jokes that might not be the best examples of your comedic point of view, they have to stay. You simply need to be on guard for this. When you find your body and mouth doing your act while your heart and mind are elsewhere, jump back in the cockpit and take manual control.
Record this week’s sets on video if it all possible. If not, take detailed notes on each joke in your setlist as quickly after performing as you can. Watch your best set of the week.
Ask the questions you asked after the Greg Giraldo video in week one about your own act. Leaving out the questions that aren’t applicable to watching yourself. Then ask:
What one aspect of my performance bothers me the most?
What is the first thing that comes to mind I could be doing differently in my performance?
Use this to determine your next performance element you will work on making automatic.
At one Open Mic, watch every comic. For each one, ask yourself:
What is one performance element I noticed in their act that helped them?
What is one performance element I would tell them to work on if I was their manager?
The goal here is to alert yourself to the breadth of possible performance elements for you to add to your act. This plus the list from last week’s video segment should give you enough ideas to work on for years.
Prepare your set for this week’s Open Mics as you have the last few weeks. Perform them as usual. Before you perform each set, take a moment to clear your head, and tell yourself the following things:
“I am funny and I am here because it is fun and I enjoy it.
The people here want to laugh and I can make that happen.
I am going to invest myself and my energy into these jokes and perform them with the attention and emotion they deserve.
I am going to communicate material like it is important because it is.
I am going to stay in the moment and not drift into autopilot.
I am going to work on my Performance Goal until it is automatic.”
Watch the following videos:
Asking your familiar questions from week one. At this point, starting with Greg Giraldo, you have seen thirteen widely different approaches to standup from many points of view. Which of these were your favorite? Why did they make you laugh more than the others? Which comedian do you find most similar to your ideal version of your act? What approaches do they use that appeal to you? Why? Which appeals to you least? What elements of their act do you find the most in appealing? As you begin to hone your own comedic sensibility, finding what attracts you and what repels you can help point the way.
Before Bernie Mac taped this set, the comedian who performed before him was booed off the stage. How does Bernie turn the hostile crowd on to his side? What performance elements does he use to win them over?
How does his selection of jokes help him win them over? How does the length of jokes he selects help win them over? How does he use the DJ to help win them over?
How does Bernie demonstrate confidence, courage, and command to the hostile crowd? How does he use his body to do this? His face? His voice? When do you feel he gets them fully on his side?
Follow Maria Bamford’s eyes during her set. How often does she look at someone different in the crowd?
Maria does three voices in the act. One is her performer voice. One is Paula Deen. What do you feel the purpose of the second voice is? How does it help her cut down on setup lines in her jokes? How does it embody the premise of the joke? What point of view does this voice represent? How does this character feel about cooking? Does Maria agree with it? How does she show this?
There are at least four laughs, possibly five depending on how you count, that Maria gets from performance elements. That is to say, she gets a laugh without saying an English word. Noises, faces, and motions only. Can you find them? Write them down. What does she do to get each laugh? How do these elements add to the comedy? How do they allow her to cut down on setup lines?
How does Maria punctuate and highlight the emotions she and the two character voices she does is feeling? Both verbally and through performance elements?