Welcome to another week of comedy. Congratulations. This week’s sets will mark your second month of doing standup in a dedicated manner.
Some of you may want some benchmarks by which to measure how well you are doing. I am reluctant to give you any. Everyone’s learning process is different, and everyone starts with different strengths and weaknesses. I know comedians who took a long time to get good, and some who were prodigies who later plateaued. The seven week mark is way too early for any measure to be meaningful.
I think you honestly won’t know for six months and sometimes a full year whether standup comedy is a good fit for you. At that point you can ask yourself, “are my sets often succeeding in front of the kind of audiences that I like?” and “do I have at least ten minutes of Group One material?” Then you can start to assess whether you want to try to pursue this as a career.
But for now, all you need to ask yourself is, “is this fun?” If the answer is “yes” then you are hitting the only benchmark that matters. My hope is that by the end of the class, you have a five minute set you are comfortable performing. A set that you can reasonably expect will make a friendly, attentive crowd laugh. I also hope that you will have a performance style that at least does not get in the way of the effectiveness of your material. That’s my goal for you in this class, but if you find yourself short at the end of three months, don’t fret. So did some of the funniest comedians in the world at this point in their careers.
Last week you worked on a performance element in your act.
Have you noticed any progress? Was it distracting to have another goal in your head besides simply performing your new material clearly? Continue to work on that same goal this week. It will begin to become automatic in time. Trust me.
Last week I gave you an affirmation to say in your head before you go onstage. This may have seemed corny to you. I am sure you can do better. Rewrite what I wrote. Make it an expression of your goals and make it speak to you personally. Write down exactly what you would tell yourself if you were a coach. Tell yourself this silently in the moments before you take the stage this week.
Even if you are not someone for whom affirmations work, there is real value in focusing yourself before you go onstage. You want to be centered and mindful of what is about to happen. Comedy is stressful and you are about to make hundreds of decisions in seconds. You are about to deal with fear. You need to be in the best possible frame of mind for you as a comedian. You need to get all of the thoughts about the other concerns of your life out of your brain so it has room to perform the difficult task at hand. You need to get your courage up to where it needs to be. You need the things you are trying to accomplish front and center. You need to be in whatever place works for you. Tell yourself the exact things you need to hear to get there.
Whatever you decide, simply jumping out of your chair, mid-whisper to the person next to you, and running on stage is not the answer. An ill-prepared mind is apt to make mistakes.
I want to talk about your environment on stage. You will most likely be under lights. Hopefully lit by a good theatrical light or lights; possibly not. Pay attention to the lighting in the room. Watch the other performers. Are they in the light? Where are the spots on the stage to avoid? Where are the dark areas? If they can’t see your face, valuable information that can make them laugh is lost. Make sure you are performing in your best possible light.
You will most likely have a microphone. Try not to hold it directly in front of your mouth if you don’t have a performance reason to do so. Your face is one of the biggest tools you have. Cut down on their ability to see it and you cut down on your ability to make them laugh.
Most often there will be a mic stand. Leave the microphone in the stand and you get to perform with both hands, but you are now planted behind the mic and limited in your ability to move. Take it out of the stand and you can go wherever you want, but one of your hands is stuck holding the mic. You can go back and forth throughout the act or stick to just one style, but make sure you try both at least once. You will ultimately find a style that feels right, but make sure you “see what you are missing” before you settle in.
Some nights the mic will go out, or feed back, or some other awful thing. You will have to perform without it. This WILL happen. So at some Open Mic where it is possible to do and still succeed, do your set without the mic. Then when it happens to you, you will be prepared and it won’t throw you off.
There will probably be a stool. If you are not going to sit on it, put it behind you. You don’t want to restrict your sideways movement. In addition, things on stage at the same depth as the comedian take focus. You want their eyes on you, not that big wooden thing right next to you.
You will most likely be wearing clothes. As I said before, your face is important. Billed hats that cast a shadow over it are generally going to hurt your act. It is not THAT big a deal. I have seen people do just fine with a baseball hat brim in their eyes for twenty minutes, but I do think it shaves about ten percent effectiveness off of your act. If you like the hat enough to live with that, go nuts. It won’t sink you, but it’s real.
Some club owners and comedians will tell you to “dress up” because that will make the crowd respect you more. Maybe they will tell you to dress up on the weekend because it is “classy” and helps the audience feel like it is a special night. This is horse shit.
Dress up if it is right for your act, but not for any of the reasons above. If wearing a suit fits your persona, then do it. If you want to send the message that you are the sort of guy who wears a suit, with the status connotations that conveys, do it. This works for many comedians. But if being in a suit undermines your material or sends the opposite message you are going for, don’t.
Clothing choice is an artistic decision. The only thing you should be thinking about is how this visual component affects how your jokes are recieved. It is an important choice and can’t be influenced by any other factors.
If you don’t have a strategy for your clothing, or if you don’t look at your jokes and have some outfit come to mind, just dress the way you like to dress. After all, these are the clothes that fit you, and ultimately it is your material that the clothes will accompany. What you like to wear anyway will probably work. People will warn against shirts with print or wearing bright white. They have a point, but like the hat brim, I think you are sacrificing perhaps ten percent effectiveness. It’s not nothing, but if you NEED to wear your lucky white Mos Def shirt, it won’t kill your set.
Keep in mind, however, that any print on your shirt will affect how the crowd sees you. Wear a Boston Red Sox shirt and you ignite all the associations the audience has with Boston fans in their brains. If you don’t want this, don’t do it.
There is more performance stuff later in the Assignments. On to writing.
So far, the writing process we have been using has relied on pre-written material. You have crafted jokes from the notes you have taken on funny things you have said and thought. You have written jokes from whole cloth. You have precisely tweaked the words when they don’t work. All BEFORE you ever got to the performance space. This is not the only way to write comedy.
Hopefully you are trying standup comedy because you are a funny person. You knew how to be funny instinctually before you ever sat down and wrote a joke. Your natural comedy instincts are still there and can be an aid in your writing. You don’t have to write every joke at home days before you perform it. You can write on stage, and you can also edit on stage. Editing first.
I have emphasized keeping jokes short and free of needless words. I have emphasized using colorful language. Sometimes your natural communication instincts are better than your “writerly mind” in doing this. You don’t write out the things you are going to say in your regular life the day before you say them. There is the same pressure to be clear and brief and explain complex ideas in your everyday speech as there is on stage, and you succeed anyway. You must be doing something right.
I want you to take one joke idea from this week and not script it out. Know the elements: what expectation you are setting, what your suprising fulfillment is, and a basic idea of the punch line. Then just go up and talk it out. See if you don’t end up writing a good version of the joke on the fly.
Now take one of your best jokes. A Group One if you have it. Don’t worry about the exact wording. Just relate the information and get to the punch line like you were just talking to someone. You may end up with a better written joke by allowing your natural, real-time mental editor to discard what isn’t necessary and cut to the core of the idea. I find that when a joke is in its first month, you will naturally discard useless words without even consciously knowing you are doing it. This is a helpful thing. Let it happen. Your on-stage brain is honing the material into a tighter, better bit.
You can also write on stage. I know some people who do a lot of their writing this way. You will come up with things in the moment that your writerly mind could not have thought of. The “actor” version of you has a different set of comedic muscles then the “writer” version. Relying on this side of your mind may force jokes out of you that would never have occurred in your room over your computer.
Writing onstage tends to happen naturally when we are doing very well. When an audience is more into you then usual; when you feel their love and support; you get better. This is a real thing. Comedy is a conversation. When the audience is giving you warmer and bigger laughs than usual, your comfort level increases. You relax. You take more risks. The audience, who are totally “getting” what you are about, rewards them. And on certain nights, this results in you getting in what I call “the zone.” Not that original, I know.
This may have already happened to you. Think of your best set. You very well may have ad-libbed something very funny. Something you wouldn’t have the courage to do if you felt the audience was tight or unsure if they liked you. In “the zone” you become like Mario when he eats the mushroom, or Pac Man when he eats the pill. You are “super-you.” When this happens, you unlock all kinds of skills that normally aren’t there. The audience has given you permission to use everything you are capable of. The fear is gone, and the best example of your funny self appears on stage. When this happens, you will be ready to write really good stuff on stage.
“The zone” doesn’t happen that often, but it teaches a lesson. When you feel the crowd likes you, take a risk or two. If a funny thought comes to mind, say it. You have built enough goodwill that it can’t hurt you. And if they laugh, remember it, and try it the next time you do the joke. If it works, you just wrote a new line without ever touching a computer or a pen.
Another way to write on stage is to follow this rule: “if they are still laughing, keep talking.” Say you have a premise that has two punch lines. Say the audience laughs hard at the premise. You can tell it is something they are excited to hear about. When you finish that second Punchline, and you still see smiles on their faces, say something else. Who cares what? Just your next thought about that topic. I have seen bits grow from two to thirteen punchlines just by doing this every night. The audience will let you know when the topic is no longer interesting. Just talk about your subject until they aren’t laughing anymore.
I know this onstage writing approach is a poor fit for some comedy styles. One liner comics rely on a more scripted style, and it may not be appropriate to ad lib. It may break the pattern they want the audience to look for. But even a one liner can have a tag to it. If you think of something, go ahead and say it. You can fit it into your style when it’s time to do it again. Zach Galafinakis goes back and forth between riffing and one liners all night and his act works just fine.
You can also go up and just talk the bit out right in front of them. If you know how you feel about something and you have a clear statement in mind, you can sometimes write the whole thing on stage. It is probably a waste of both you and the audience’s time to go up simply with “dogs” as your subject. But go up with “my next door neighbor needs way less dogs and I am going nuts” and you may very well get somewhere.
A good idea if you want to try this kind of onstage writing is to have one punch line written. As long as you know you have one written punch line you can save til the end of the riff, you know you are not wasting the audience’s time. This way, they will not think you incompetent if your riffing doesn’t get results. They won’t see a bit that just trailed off and lose confidence in you. You can hit the punch line you prepared and move on. Basically just get your premise out and riff it out, and if a minute goes by with no laughs, use your prepared punch line to end the riff and move on (hopefully) with a laugh. Of course, if they laugh at that, you can always keep talking. But having one prepared Punchline should carve out enough leeway from the audience to allow you to riff a little beforehand.
You don’t need to write alone. Writing with a fellow comedian you respect can help get jokes from formative stages to a finished product. There is nothing wrong with asking another creative person for help. This person needs to be someone who you think is funny, of course, and who understands your point of view.
It helps if you are going to collaborate to have most of the joke done except the Punchline. You need to know what you want to say and how you feel about that. Your writing partner should be helping you write YOUR joke, not turning into something else. Knowing exactly what you are trying to say is necessary before allowing another mind to join your process. But Punchlines and tag lines and whole new premises can arise when you let a friendly voice interact with yours. It’s also fun as hell.
But any collaboration needs to be equal. If you find that one of you is doing all of the work, you need to stop. If it is you, you are getting nothing out of this, and if it is the other writer, you need to work on improving your writing game on your own. But if you protect your vision of your act and you come to the table with fully thought out ideas, collaborating with another comic occasionally can benefit both your acts.
Prepare your material with the Comedy Refinement Process we have been using thus far, with two exceptions:
Pick one joke for which you only write the basic points and a Punchline. Communicate it to the crowd the way you would in regular conversation. Allow your natural comedy instincts to take over as you write the joke on stage.
If you get a laugh with any of your written jokes, say one more thing on that topic after the joke is over. If they laugh at that, say the next thing on that subject that comes to your mind. Work on allowing yourself to ad-lib on stage.
If an ad-lib works, try it in the exact same place the next time you tell the joke. This does not always work. Sometimes the exact moment that made this funny is necessary, and attempts to recreate the magic that produced the laugh fail. Sometimes it works and you can come out with new lines you can use every night.
I want you to wait until you get to the open mic to write one joke. Then write the first thing you can think of about the room the open mic is in. If you’re stuck, the neighborhood or block will do. Trying to write for the moment can help activate your instinctual funny mind.
A good way to do this is to write the first thing you notice out of the ordinary about the room. Chances are the crowd will register this too.
You will be expected to comment about strange details of the room and odd things that happen during the show throughout your whole career. It is time to start flexing that muscle.
Furthermore, commenting about the very experience and location you are sharing with your audience at that moment is always powerful. It connects them to you instantly and is a good thing to be able to write.
Use the new affirmation I told you to write before you go on stage. If this doesn’t work for you, find another way to remove your previous thoughts and find the proper mind space to perform.
Go up to the other performer your thought was best at each Open Mic you go to this week and compliment them on their set. Tell them a specific thing you liked. You may already have done this, but if not, start now. It is amusing to me when comics at an Open Mic say “this audience sucks.” Guess what, that audience includes them! If you don’t want your crowd to suck, stop sucking. Show support when someone makes you laugh. It will foster a friendlier and more attentive open mic, and you need to start making connections to other comics.
If you ever want someone you can collaborate with or run jokes by, and this is something that is valuable to your future as a comic, you need to begin to forge these relationships.
Look at the all the jokes in your Bit List. For each one, write out two sentences. The first is the idea you are trying to get across in the joke as a declarative sentence. The second is the way you feel about what you are saying. For example, for the following joke:
I’ve been depressed lately. I checked the mail. Apparently, I’ve been pre-denied for a Visa card.
You would write : I am poor. It makes me depressed.
Now, record your set at one of the open mics is week. Watch it. Make sure the ideas expressed in those sentences are clear in your act. If not, figure out what you need to adjust. This is also a good time to make sure you are enunciating everything carefully and not talking too fast. When jokes start to become well rehearsed, there is a danger that you stop listening to your words as you say them and they can come out unintelligible.
Watch the following videos:
Pretty obvious here.
What elements did Nick and Jon add to the traditional stand up performance? List each laugh they got where the laugh did not come from a traditional spoken punch line.
How did Nick get laughs on his first bits, and how did his later justification for each joke get a second laugh?
Standup comedy can be anything you want it to be. You can always do something no one else has ever done. If it is funny, it is funny. You have no limits except the audience’s capacity to laugh.
See you next week. Kill ‘em.