Stand-up Comedy 101
By Jaz Kaner-
(Written – primarily for actors – in 1998 for my column in DramaLogue, I still enjoy the 90’s references in this piece. It’s my standup comedy ‘how to’, and still has some insightful ideas).
Amnesty Nervosa – If you’ve done some acting, then consider this prerequisite filled, but for many, the whole getting on stage solo thing sparks a primal fear. Speaking before a group of people is the #1 fear people have. In fact, they say we fear it more than death. (If you’ve already read in front of the producers consider yourself immortal.)
I recall one story of airline pilots that were rigged up to monitor their heart beat and tension during the flight, and the doctors found that everything went off the chart when the pilots had to pick up that little microphone and address the passengers (you’d never guess, listening to those narcoleptic announcements from the cockpit).
There are a few things you can do for nerves.
#1. Lost, and Proud of It — Know what you want to say. As with acting, you’ll find great comfort in the safety of a solid script, but there’s a delicate balance here; You want to know exactly where you’re going, and at the same time you don’t want it to look memorized– or that you’re stressed because it’s not. It’s got to look real, and for many types of acts that means it should look like you “just thought that up”.
I constantly write new stuff that doesn’t get a fair test-run simply because I don’t take time to memorize it, and then fumble through or forget to do it entirely. Maybe I’m lazy, but I keep hoping that some club owner is going to get creative and put up a tele-prompter in the back of the room. Until that happens, I’ll just keep reaching for the water glass on the stool while I sneak a peek at my cheat sheet.
#2. The Lewinski Method — It may help, especially first time out, to know exactly when you plan to hold the mic, or not, and whether you plan to talk about it. You’ll look real slick if you just walk up there, whip the thing out, and hold it loosely up to your mouth, then stroll around flouting your mighty presence (practice that flouting thing).
#3. Busted! — Be aware that in many rooms you’ll be blinded by the spotlights. There’s not much you can do short of inventing a character that wears Ray-Bans. In some rooms you can request that they “drop the hot whites a bit and throw some flood on the first few rows” (um, yeah, that sounds good).
#4. Starving Artist — Perform with an almost empty stomach. Butterflies and digestion don’t go well together. This may be a personal preference thing; I’ve known guys who’d wolf down a meal while doing their show, but for most of us, keep it light – that way there’s less to heave.
#5. Mescal-culation — Alcohol makes things funnier — mostly to the one drinking. If you’re finding courage in a bottle, you’re going to run into problems on those three show Saturdays.
The Plug — If you are starting from scratch in the comedy business, I should take this opportunity to mention a good book called, “Be A Stand-up Comic (or just look like one)”. It’s a basic nuts and bolts “comedy career guide” that was written by the owners of one of the longest running comedy clubs in the country, “Laughs Unlimited” up in Sacramento (it’s also the first club I ever worked; 1982, opening for Paula Poundstone and Garry Shandling?!). Author Scott Edwards, who has annoyed comics for years by offering his ego-shattering worldly advice, wisely decided it would be much safer to put things down in writing.
To those of us whose ego will allow the input, he offers these comforting words on fear: “Fear is what will keep you from doing comedy. Fear is what will spread self doubt through your mind and have you bombing in your brain before you step out on stage…Never give the audience a clue that you’ve just ruined two weeks of perfect constipation right on stage…They’ve paid their money. Now they want to be entertained. So, more often than not, the audience will be very willing and intent on listening to what you have to say. These people actually WANT YOU TO SUCCEED.” (I personally have a streak that pre-empts my writing anything that inspirational; I’d rather push you off the deep end and snicker while the sharks feed.)
The Microphunny – Every time I watch the Oscars, I cringe at the sight of so many otherwise intelligent people LEANING DOWN to that little microphone, like it never occurred to them that there’s a well paid sound crew that will make them heard. Then it occurs to me that these people don’t usually see traditional mics – they work all year around with boom-mics, wireless mics, shotguns, and parabolics. And then there’s always “post”. What you’ll find however, is that very little of that technology has made its’ way into the comedy clubs. Comedians are still largely (except for a few wireless magicians, jugglers, and hypnotists) fighting it out in the trenches with the industry standard – the virtual icon of the comedy business – the Shure P-58. It’s a clunky muzzle loader, silver in color, and sure to blast you out of many a tight situation – for many years a favorite of club owners who value it for it’s boring durability. (The Edwards book mentions the cost and delicate handling required of “this fragile tool”…cheap bastard.) Make sure there’s a mic-stand and clip — you may need both hands to deflect rotten fruit. Watch out for mics that have that damn little button placed right where your hand flicks it off just before your punch line. If you’re following the proverbial drunk guy who spits all over the mic while doing loud sound effects, grab a towel and wipe the mic; not only have you avoided ebola — you’ve just gotten your first laugh.
How Come You Never Write? – Your stand-up showcases not only your persona and some acting ability, but your writing ability. Carry a scrap of paper and pen at all times, and jot down the funny ideas, because you’ll never remember all of it. Then when you sober up in the morning and pull that stuff out of your sticky pocket, you’ll read it and go “huh”?
Most of us do write our own stuff (and god, do we get tired of answering that question at the clubs). Hiring a writer is no crime, it’s just that creating material that fits your character, your personal viewpoint, beliefs, and delivery is such a personal endeavor that few comics have a successful “marriage” with a writer. They also cost a lot. A typical writer works on retainer of some sort, and makes like thirty to fifty bucks per joke – money well spent if you lack the funny knack, and I have yet to find anyone who will admit that. (Is this sounding like a Smash Mouth song?)
But a good joke that fits you well, such as one about your name or goofy looks, can be used in countless situations — interviews, publicity, IRS audits — and pays for itself many times over. Ego is the other reason more comics don’t hire writers — we’re all in love with our own ideas. I mean heck, that’s the reason we got in this business in the first place.
Edit. Edit. Edit or You Write Too Much – This is something I preach to everyone. Brevity is the buzzword. There’s nothing more annoying than the guy who comes up to me after a show and wants to tell me a joke, and then he proceeds to tell the longest-wordy-winding-road-time-consuming-hey-there-goes-my-attention-set-up IN THE WORLD. (…and I’ve already heard it). Short attention spans are a big by-product of the 90’s. Write your stuff out, and then go through it and cross out every unnecessary word you can. Cut it and get to the funny. Your audience’s time is too precious.
The Character Issue — Wow. Sometimes the hot topics fall right into your lap. Current politics aside, character or persona is probably the single largest item separating road-hacks from movie stars. I’ve met performers who couldn’t write, act, or even deliver a line without a cue-card, and yet I knew, in some frustrating backwater of my mind, that none of that would impede their success, because they had that CHARACTER. (And I submit to you Larry “Bud” Melman.)
A rare few seem to be born with a unique look, a voice, and the matching inseparable perspective, while the rest of us are stuck with what amounts to a lifetime of searching for our SELVES.
All I can tell you, brethren, is that you’re not alone. We are one confused people. But there is Hope: Gather up your memoirs, mantras, and mood rings; your astrological charts, family genealogy, and those first-grade report cards. Bring the lists of hobbies, talents, and past lives, and that poem you wrote in college after the bong-hits out camping. Read that Depak Chopra, Noam Chomsky, Cornholio manifesto. Take the five day fast, the peyote buttons, and the high resolution fiber optic flash-powder colonic. Then, returning from your walkabout, as you pick your way down the misty mountain-side, basking in your newfound higher self, you’ll hear a voice crack from the heavens, “It’s your agent calling – Do you know how to roller-skate?”