We are almost done. Just two more weeks and you will no longer have my guiding voice as you hit the Mics. In a regular class, we would now be in the review portion as we prepare for the final exam. In standup, however, there is no final anything. You continue to learn all the way up until the last set you ever do. So how will I spend these final weeks?
The first goals of this class are to get you to write your first five minute showcase set of “Group One” material, and to be able to perform it in a style that maximizes your effectiveness as a comedian. Since people improve at different rates, you may have already achieved this. You may be halfway there. You may have one Group One bit and a bunch of things that still need work. Because of this, there is no set point at which you “graduate” from the class. When you have a five minute set that works whenever you have a decent audience that is engaged with the show, congratulations, you are an Entirely Free Online Comedy Class Graduate. Feel free to celebrate appropriately.
The other goal of this class is to give you a process, what I have called the Comedy Refinement Process, that will help you focus your efforts in comedy effectively going forward. This process will continue to work for as long as you progress in standup comedy, giving you the maximum payoff for your time spent. It is working for me as I type this. As we begin these last two weeks, let’s review that process. Just like I would for a final exam in a regular class, I have put it all in one convenient place as a reference for your future in comedy:
The Comedy Refinement Process
Create Four Documents.
These can be in your phone, tablet, computer, or a notebook, although the third is best done on some computing device to save you work.
The first Document is your Daily Thoughts. This is where you write down every though or bit of conversation you ever have that makes you or someone else laugh.
The second document is your Joke File, where you craft these daily thoughts into complete jokes, that can be told to strangers in your performances.
The third is your Bit File, best done on a computer, where you organize your jokes by title into three groups:
Group One, where you put jokes that consistently get laughs. Jokes that are ready to perform in front of any audience. Jokes you are confident of. Jokes that work.
Group Two, where you put jokes that succeed occasionally but still need work. Jokes that can benefit from some more time at the Open Mics tweaking and honing them. Jokes that you are still perfecting.
Group Three, where you put jokes that don’t work. Jokes that haven’t gotten a laugh more than a few times. Jokes that currently stump you and need to be put aside until a future insight fixes them. Jokes that you are not actively working on right now.
Any joke you write goes in one of these groups. No joke is to be thrown away!
The fourth Document is your Set Notes, where you write down any notes and insights you have after you perform.
B. Every day, write down every funny thought you have and any funny thing you say in your Daily Thoughts file.
C. Once a week, turn as many of these thoughts as you can into Jokes. Put these in your Joke File. Remember, character pieces and stories go here as well.
When crafting your jokes, ask yourself the following questions, make sure the answer is yes.
Do I set an expectation for the audience of what I am going to tell them?
Do I fulfill that expectation in a surprising way?
Am I using colorful language that invokes their senses?
Is my language clear and understandable?
Am I using the least amount of words I can to convey the idea?
D. In your Joke File, for each Joke,
Write out the message of each joke as a declarative sentence. What are you saying? Is it clear? Is it the message you intended? Is it a message you are comfortable with? Make sure the audience can get this meaning when you perform the joke.
Write out how you feel about what you are saying. What is the emotional stance of your stage character towards this thought. Are you happy about this? Angry? Sad? Frustrated? Strangely detached? Make sure you communicate this emotion effectively. Make sure this informs your presentation of the joke. Make sure the audience understands this when you deliver it.
E. Select the bits you are performing that week. Arrange them into a Shit Sandwich, with a Group One bit at the beginning, another Group One bit or the best Group Two bit in the number two slot, all the new untried bits in the center of the act, and another Group One or strong Group Two bit to close.
You do not need to use this structure for showcase sets (though it works very well) but it is the best structure to give your Open Mic sets a chance to nurture the new, untried material. It gives it a safe space in the center of your act for maximum chance of success with the audience.
F. Go up at least three times a week. Write down how each bit did in your Set Notes. Which bits worked? Which did not? What can you do to make them more effective? With your writing? With your Performance?
G. Choose a Performance Goal. Write it down in your Set Notes. What non-linguistic element of your act do you want to work on? Something with your movements, facial expressions, vocal style. Work on only one performance goal at a time. Turn it from something you must concentrate on to something you do automatically. Track your progress towards this goal in your Set Notes. Record your set when you feel like it is becoming automatic. If you have achieved this goal to your satisfaction and it has become an automatic part of your performance, choose another goal.
F. At the end of the week, asses your progress. Move any jokes that are now working consistently to Group One in your Bit File. Move any jokes that have failed at least five times and not succeeded once into Group Three. Take any Group One jokes that you feel need no further Open Mic work, or which your Open Mic audiences have heard too often to respond to, off the table for next week’s sets. Take any Group Two jokes that are still not perfect and ask the questions in Step C once again with an eye towards improving them for next week.
G. Repeat Steps A through F. At step E, Keep Group Two bits in the rotation until they are definitely Group One or Group Three bits. Make sure at least two jokes in your Open Mic set are brand new jokes from this week. Feel free to use some time to do Crowd Work or Write on Stage as you see fit.
This process will remain with you until the end of your career and it will serve you effectively. Stick with it and you will find yourself with the best comedy act you are capable of producing.
“So now what?” you may be asking. “I have the process. I have analyzed a ton of comedy. I know when I will have ‘graduated.’ Why not just end the class now?”
Because I still have more to teach you. Up until now, I have tried to maintain a tight focus on only teaching things that you can directly apply to performing short sets at the Open Mic level as a beginner comedian. I wanted to make sure everything you learned you could immediately use. But we have come to the end of the class. I no longer need to give you daily assignments to expose you to new facets of comedy, and I want to tell you some things that will be helpful as you continue past this class into the future.
One of the first things you may be asked to do once you start having successful sets in your comedy scene is to host a show. You’ll be up on stage for the length of the Open Mic or showcase. You will be introducing all the acts and keeping the show moving. There are some things unique to hosting that are worth discussing.
It is especially important to remember the “let them adjust to the start of your set” advice from earlier classes when you are the start of the entire show. You are the first comedy element they have seen all night. If you think the audience members are hard to “grab” at the top of your set, multiply this by twenty when they haven’t seen any comedy at all. They are not yet an audience. They still have their concerns from their day in their heads. They may not have their food or beer. They may not have finished saying that last thing to their friend before the show starts. It is your first and foremost job to grab them and get them ready to give a bunch of comedians their undivided attention.
So when you get up there, DON’T JUST GO INTO MATERIAL. Greet them. Tell them about the show. Get them excited for what they are about to see. Do some Crowd Work if you can or would like to. Expect that they are not ready to hear jokes for at least three minutes. They aren’t.
Some of you may have a persona that does not lend itself to this type of cheer leading activity. It is hard to think of Dan Mintz hosting with his stage character. If you have a quirky or deliberately downbeat or low energy stage character, hosting will be harder for you. It just will. On the plus side, you will not be asked to host much, as smart bookers will see that your talents are better showcased within the context of an already running show. However, if you ARE asked to host, it is important that you host IN CHARACTER. Don’t try and be a happy energized host and then switch when it is time to do your jokes. You are still giving one comedy performance the entire time you are up there and you need to keep your stage presence consistent.
Even though non “hosty” hosting is hard, it isn’t impossible. I have seen Anthony Jeselnik host shows within his “fake dick” persona, and it has worked. Just know that you still have to get them to listen and give the performers a chance to shine and filter that through the character you have chosen.
Once you hear no more table talk, and see that the crowd is looking at you and seems ready for jokes, you can begin your ten to fifteen minute hosting set. But understand that a cold crowd, that has heard no jokes until you tell them your first one, is not going to respond like a crowd that has watched a ton of comedy already. Don’t get thrown off by this. It may seem like your Group One jokes are getting way less of a response than they should. This will happen. Just stay in there. It may be that they will not give you the response you are used to until your last joke or couple of jokes. This is fine. That means you have done your job and they are now a proper comedy audience. You may now bring up the first comic.
Once the show is up and moving, keep it moving. You had your time at the top and it doesn’t serve the show for you to keep doing material between comics. Especially in an Open Mic setting where there are a lot of people to get through. It is appropriate to do material if someone had a rough set and you feel you need to get the crowd back on board. Do one to three minutes of Group One stuff and then get on to the next person. It may feel unfair that you are the host and you had to blow all your good stuff at the beginning to a cold, inattentive crowd. Unfortunately that is just how it goes. You may reward yourself with a little mini set at some further point in the show, but you should keep it at that. No one appreciates a self-indulgent host. Hosting can be a thankless task. But you will soon learn to be satisfied by a show that is running smoothly and a crowd that is reacting strongly to the other comics. Even if no one on the show thanks you personally, you will know inside that you made this happen, because you are a pro.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with an ad lib here or there or a riff off the last person’s set, but the show will almost always run better when you keep your time in between comics to a minute and a half or (whenever possible) less.
Resist the temptation to give jokey or back handed intros to the comics. Let the audience experience them with an open mind, without too much prejudice going in. Give the other comics a chance to set the tone of their portion of the show the way you would like to set yours.
That being said, if something truly horrific occurs, if a performer is truly out of line, abusive, or just plain psychotic, it is your duty to comment on this and bring the audience back to a place where they can appreciate a show. How can you guage when this has happened? YOU WILL KNOW. There will be a palpable sense of dread and tension in the room and you will feel uncomfortable. This is when you must speak for the audience and defuse the situation, and if it means saying something unflattering about the previous performer, so be it. I saw a pre-sobriety Steve-O creep out the Laugh Factory crowd so thoroughly with fifteen minutes of erratic behavior and offensive outbursts that they no longer wanted to be there. Nick Thune went up after him and said, “I’m sorry… but what the fuck was that!??” It had to be done and it got a huge cathartic laugh. You will know when this emergency hosting must occur.
I don’t mean when someone bombs. When this happens, you don’t need to comment on it at all. And you certainly don’t need to stab them in the back. My previous instruction was for when things get horrendously out of control. If someone bombs, just do some material and get things back on track. Maybe switching the order and bringing up a strong act next might also help, but in general, making fun of someone who ate it is needlessly cruel and damages both the show and the audience’s opinion of you.
I have in general been against making the audience clap for various things during your act. It’s a waste of words and an unwelcome chore for the crowd. Within the confines of your act I believe this is true. But as a host, the rules change a bit. Sometimes you will notice flagging energy. Sometimes you just want them to get in the mindset of clapping and thinking as a group entity and not a collection of individuals. A few well placed “give it up for your comedians” are necessary when hosting. Try to keep them appropriate. A round of applause for each act as they come up. A round of applause after a particularly good act. A round of applause for the bartender or wait staff as the night goes on. Don’t over do it, but keeping the audience engaged and training them to act as a supportive whole is helpful to a show.
That being said, keep it appropriate. If the crowd is drunk and rowdy, don’t rile them up with exhortations to applaud. They are already at peak energy. Bordering on being unable to listen. If anything, calm them down. If they are sluggish and tired, by all means mention it, and get their energy up. Make sure you only throw gas on a fire that needs it. Water may be necessary if they are out of control. It is also your job to deal with hecklers if a comic did not do that adequately during his set. Do everything in your power to give the remaining comics a positive and level playing field to perform from.
When there are only a few comics to go, tell the audience this and thank them for hanging in there. A long show is easier to deal with if you tell them what they have in store. It is often the uncertainty of not knowing how much more show there is that makes a tired audience drop off. If they know there are only two comics to go, they can often get back in the game for just two more performances. You will learn to feel when they need this reassurance, but in general, let them know how much longer they are expected to maintain interest and they will be comforted and happy.
Watch the following video:
Earlier I discussed how stories in standup should start with a clear set up, like “this was the best meal of my life,” and then the audience’s expectations are set clearly for the rest of the story.
This excellent story by Jay Larson seems to break that rule. It doesn’t. Remember how the expectations and fulfillments in James Adomian’s act are not always apparent due to his conversational style, but are still there if you look for them?
Find the sentence where Jay tells you something about himself that makes you want to hear this story. How does he get the audience to be engaged with this detail? When do they signal that they want to follow Jay down this rabbit hole? It is all in the first forty seconds. He may not have a clear sentence that spells it all out, but in a mixture of questions and personal details he still sets a clear expectation for the story. What is it?
Also, pay attention to how Jay varies his speech pattern for effect. Where does he build to a crescendo? When does he drop back? A great comic uses his voice like he is performing a piece of music. Where can you see examples of that here?
Above all, enjoy a great bit.