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New Comedian Questions
When I decided to be a comedian is difficult to pinpoint. I started doing improvisational comedy in 6th grade and was a paid performer by my senior year of high school. When my improv troupe broke up I struggled to find other people as passionate about improv as me. I was too young to be admitted into Second City in Chicago… so I decided to perform stand-up until I turned 19 and could get into Second City.
I think I was overly-confident going in to my first set. It didn’t occur to me that I might bomb until I was actually bombing. I had so much improvisational comedy experience that I thought I’d be a natural (to make matters worse, since I thought it’d be easy I booked myself as emcee for a paid gig. They wanted 15 minutes. I gave them about 4 and got boo’ed for the first (and only) time of my career).
After that first bomb, I decided stand-up comedy wasn’t for me… but I was too competitive to not at least get “some” laughs on stage. I promised myself I’d have one good show and call it quits. The second show was better, the third was decent… but none of them felt like I could call myself “a winner.” Eventually, I got to the point where I could clearly announce a victory, but I realized I was actually enjoying it now. I took a semester off from college and moved to LA. There I had my first set that was an indisputable kill. Never looked back after that.
The fear stayed with me though. While some of my improv experience was useful, I had to learn a lot of new skills as a stand-up. It felt so weird having nobody to play off of. I also started getting ridiculous stage fright. I never had stage-fright as an improvisational comedian because there weren’t any lines to mess up and I always had great teammates if I got in a bind. When I got into stand-up I started freaking out before shows (not like “I got the jitters” … I was throwing up and always on constant lookout for any excuse that could get out of performing). The naïveté of my first performance aside, I don’t remember a single show that I had no stage fright on until several years into my career.
My breakthrough came from a shift in psychology... not from experience. It came from releasing control on stage and being present with the audience. Once I gave myself permission to be myself (instead of "a comedian") then I started having more fun... But the audience started having A LOT more fun.
I've performed for all types of audiences in multiple countries and I haven't experienced stage-fright since.
While it does take a lot of work to become successful, it doesn’t take a lot to start out and to have fun.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how simple getting your first set on stage can be. Don’t worry about having 5-10 minutes from the very beginning. 5 minute sets are simply the most common length of an open-mic set. If you don’t have 5 minutes, it’s not a big deal at all.
In fact, I often suggest new comedians start out telling only 1 or 2 stories on stage… whichever ones they are most passionate about. Every open mic booker understands that first-timers need to take the plunge. They won’t require you to have 5 full minutes. In fact, they’d respect you if you said you only wanted to do 2 or 3 of your best stuff. That’ll take pressure off of you.
Also, don’t worry about perfection. During the first few sets you perform, your brain is likely going to be in over-drive. So many new things to try to master at once, all while having an audience stare at you. It’s a lot to take in all at once. After awhile, you can get into a creative flow while you’re on stage as well.
My best advice is to start small and keep it fun. The free Faster & Funnier videos will help you create an initial structure for your first set and give you tips for your first performance. Find a venue near you and pick a date. It's that simple.
I totally understand the challenges of balancing multiple projects. I’ve juggled various jobs (often simultaneously), getting my Master's degree, and entrepreneurship throughout my career. That said, I don’t comedy has to be an either/or decision. When I was teaching live classes I always had a handful of people that never cared about a career in comedy… they just wanted to play around with the art form.
Comedy may seem daunting at first, but it’s really simple to begin. I think your main goal should simply be to have fun. Screw working hours and hours to hone material or find the perfect word. Just go on stage and tell a story that you’re passionate about… even if that story is only 2 minutes long. Almost every open mic would allow a complete newbie to do two minutes on stage, and you’ll be amazed at how supportive audiences are of comedians there first time out.
Natural humor is a great place to start, but it’s a starting point. Remember, the stand-up comedy industry is filled with self-selected "funny people." Being naturally funny doesn't guarantee success in comedy, it only guides you to the industry.
Like any art form, there are specific skills and knowledge needed to segue from one art form to a similar one. I was an paid improvisational comedian before graduating high school. I assumed that’d mean an easy transition, but it wasn’t the case. I had to learn a few new skills to get proficient on stage as a stand-up comedian. After that, my improvisational background became extremely useful in becoming a unique and memorable performer.
Highly creative people excel at two things. First, they submerse themselves in their industry. They understand all the rules, principles, mechanisms, etc. Then they go beyond those rules. They figure out which ones are holding them back from achieving ultimate success. There isn’t a more powerful combination than deep understanding of the rules and a willingness to break or bend a few. It’s how Carlin and Pryor became the top two comedians of all time.
My suggestion: take your natural ability and nurture it. You won’t regret it.
Writing Stand-Up Comedy Questions
Often, new comedians have difficulty translating their natural humor onto the stage because they place a whole host of rules of what they "think" they should either do or sound like on stage (this can be conscious or unconscious).
When you’re with friends, you don’t care about the structure of your “material.” It allows you to be entirely authentic. What's more, if you knew in advance what story you were going to tell your friends and practiced it beforehand, you'd undoubtedly tell the story WORSE then when you're authentic. Simply focusing on the story instead of the “lines” will instantly make your material flow better and come off more naturally while writing and on stage. You want to be writing from the same state you’re in when your just dying to tell a friend a crazy story.
In a funny conversation there’s a give-and-take… but there are also periods where you or they dominate the story. Stand-up comedy is similar. You still want to form an interpersonal connection… you’re just telling stories that have been refined.
My advice: treat your writing and performing like those moments when you’re telling a funny story to a friend.
I NEVER write from a neutral mental state. If I'm not passionate about what I'm doing, I'll revise some of my old material prime the pump until I get into a creative flow. Once that happens, it's extremely easy to divert that creative flow towards writing new material.
Get Out of Your Head and Start Writing
When I threw out my material, I started fresh right at the bottom doing open mics. My confidence didn’t come from the audience (in fact, it came IN SPITE OF the audience). My fellow comedians were very supportive cause they saw me trying to do something new and different. I had nothing to prove to them because I’d already killed shows before. We all knew that, if I bombed, I was doing it by choice. It was one of the most inspired moments of my life.
I remember the first time I tried the new style. I bombed pretty hard, but I was so relieved after the show. I knew that I could always figure out how to get the quality up. I was relieved because it just “felt right.” It felt like it was really me on stage. I felt authentic.
The confidence came because I knew that being unique was my only shot at becoming the kind of comedian that I wanted to be… never mind whether it was the best path to getting the money or success. I was miserable trying to play by conventional comedy rules.
It’s difficult to get a good read on your material from other comedians. Honestly, they’re usually not going to give you accurate information. Comedians know comedy is personal and subjective, plus there’s the political side of comedy. If you tear down a comedian it can come back to bite you. Even if a person thought another comedian is "objectively" not very funny, that comedian could become a successful producer and begin booking other comedians. Few comedians are willing to burn these potential bridges.
Don’t worry about fellow-comedian approval early on. The more you desire their approval, the less creative your going to be. You’ll start thinking about “what they might like” and editing your writing to better fit to it. While it’d give you short-term benefits, it’d take away from your ultimate goal of becoming a unique and memorable performer, which is where the ultimate success is. By all means, pay your respects to fellow comedians. But when push comes to shove, you’re in this to be successful… that means blazing your own path.
Fellow comedians won’t feel slighted if you don’t perform like them. The pathway of success is actually quite predictable: first they’ll see you as “an odd-ball.” As you become proficient at your unique style, they’ll start seeing you as a comedian with a legit shot at success. Finally, they’ll start seeing you as a leader.
Voice is a lengthy topic. I go in depth on it in my training courses. In short, voice is evolutionary… not revolutionary. It comes from consistently taking small steps away from your peers. My material started out the same as everyone else’s. It's a necessary part of the creative process. First you emulate (study the masters and figure out what works) then you create (take a step into the unknown and stake a claim to your own uniqueness).
I’ll give you an example of how tiny changes end up making a huge difference:
About 6 months after I threw out all my material and started again, I did some work with TJ Miller (from How to Train Your Dragon). He was incredible at coming up with off-the-cuff humor and being present with the audience. Whether he was doing a comedy club or an open mic, he always seemed to be entirely authentic and real… never doing material from his head. I didn’t know how to replicate this in my own material, so I started small. I challenged myself to do at least “some” audience-work each set. I’d hit a quick off-the-cuff line then retreat back to the safety of my material. When I realized that off-the-cuff humor was an amazing way to open the show, I upped the challenge to “How long can I do audience-work without using ANY of my material."
It forced me to be really in the moment with the audience from the very beginning instead of in my head thinking about the next joke. First couple times out I lasted about a minute. Then I built up to doing about 7 or so. I thought “Wow. That’ll be my personal record for a long time.”
That is, until I got booked for a helluva hell gig.
About 6 months or so after beginning my audience-work challenge, I was booked as the headliner for a benefit show in Colorado. The booker told us that there was a bike race that day and that the bikers wanted a beer afterwards. Bicycle races are huge in Colorado and I’m a triathlete myself, so I thought “sounds easy enough." When we all got there the “bicyclists” weren’t there… there were about 60 hard-ass Harley riders completely drunk. I watched them eat every comedian alive. It was obvious from watching them that the audience didn’t want to hear jokes. They seemed to have two rules: a) I’m drunk b) I want attention. So my new rule for the show is “whatever I end up doing on stage… it CAN’T be material.” I was the single craziest show I ever did in my life (a guy that I later found out was nick-named “crazy Jack” took off his pants, rushed the stage, and pole danced on my mic stand during the middle of my set). That tiny biker show was one of my proudest experiences as a comedian. I showed me that I can handle anything. I ended up crushing that show. When I went back and listened to the recording, I learned that I had gone a full 26 minutes before doing a joke (which didn’t work, so I quickly went back to the audience).
This is just one example of acquiring a new tool in comedy. A part of my “voice” is being great at off-the-cuff humor… but I didn’t start that way as a stand-up. I evolved that way. The same is true for my usage of POV humor. Watch any material from me and you’ll likely see me create humor based solely off of someone’s POV (that is, there is no “real” punch line in a conventional sense). This is my “voice,” but that voice evolved over time through conscious choices to step away from what others were doing.
My suggestion: let your style evolve. Don’t try to be completely unique and different your first time out. To be an effective comedian you need both uniqueness and effectiveness (i.e. the ability to get laughs). Effectiveness is most important very early on. Uniqueness is most important afterwards. There are A LOT of comedians that can get laughs on stage… but only a few that can be unique enough doing it to gain a following.
All artists go through two periods of their career: imitation and creation. During the imitation phase, they’re learning the “rules of the game.” They’re not significantly different from any other artist in their field. After gaining experience, they move into creation. Sometimes it’s a revolt (i.e. they throw out all their old material and start again) and other times it’s evolutionary (i.e. they take many small steps away from the crowd to become unique). Even comedians that threw out material evolved to get to that point, so uniqueness, at it’s core, is evolutionary.
Resisting the urge to judge your material right after you write it down can be difficult. Usually, a new comedian will write down something funny they said and unwittingly lose the context it was said in. It becomes words on a page, disconnected from the emotions and context. When you go back to it later, the material seems flat because it's lost most of what made it so funny in the first place.
Try concentrating more on the “fun” of the story. You want to be writing from the same “mental state” that you’re in when you think up these ideas. When you’re in a playful state, you’ll be more playful in your writing. The words will no longer seem flat. Not only will you’ll feel more confident about the material, but you’ll also perform that material better because you’ll be more engaging and authentic on stage.
There are two common issues that cause that kind of difficulty translating your humor onto the page/stage.
The most common reason is because new comedians place a whole host of rules about what they "think" they should either do or sound like on stage (this can be conscious or unconscious). If you’re writing down material you really think is funny, but then feeling the what was actually funny didn’t make it onto the paper, it’s probably because of this. These rules also make writing deeply unsatisfying because no matter how hard you try, no material ever seems to “perfectly fit” into the rules.
But writing and telling great stories IS satisfying. When you’re with friends, you don’t care about the structure of your “material.” It allows you to be entirely authentic. What's more, if you knew in advance what story you were going to tell your friends and practiced it beforehand, you'd undoubtedly tell the story WORSE then when you're authentic. Simply focusing on the story instead of the “lines” will instantly make your material flow better and come off more naturally while writing and on stage. You want to be writing from the same mental state you’re in when your just dying to tell a friend a crazy story.
Second, it could be that you’ve accidentally stripped the emotion out of the material when you wrote it down. You lose the playfulness you were feeling when the idea came to you and now you’re analyzing it from a completely new perspective. Remember, it’s not how it looks on paper, it’s all about the STORY.
Personally, my goal in developing and honing material is to create an amazing story. The story leads the jokes, not the other way around. Stories are engaging and allow you to do a lot more as a comedian than is ever possible by simply focusing on the words.
My advice: treat your writing and performing like those moments when you’re telling a funny story to a friend. I NEVER write from a neutral mental state. If I'm not passionate about what I'm doing, I'll revise some of my old material to prime the pump until I get into a creative flow. Once that happens, it's extremely easy to divert the creative flow to writing new material. How to do this is covered in Tapping Your Comedy Muse, Faster & Funnier, and Creativity For Comedians… but each program/eBook tackles the topic from a different perspective.
To hell with joke formats. Never trade your authenticity for mechanical, hacky comedy. Joke formats are only supplementary, they should never play a major role in your writing process. Whether a joke fits into a joke format or not is unimportant if you’re telling the audience a captivating, humorous story. I can’t honestly remember the last time I took a step back from writing material and thought about joke formats.
Here’s the problem with joke formats: they’re completely inauthentic. In order to write one (even a good one) you have to step back from the story you ACTUALLY want to tell and insert a joke formula that, at best, feel disjointed and, at worst, come off as hacky and inauthentic. While one or two well used formulaic jokes can be effective at times, if you string several of those formulaic jokes together the material will come off very disjointed and hacky… nothing like how you’d actually sound telling a funny story to your friends. In short, you're inauthentic, and the audience is going to know it.
Techniques are very specific ways of creating a specific outcome (i.e. you can do a “three count” joke). Most new comedians love them because a) they often work to get “a” laugh (not a good one, but something is often seen as better than nothing) and b) it’s very comforting to new comedians to be able to identify exactly where the “joke” is. You can look at a 3 count and point to the exact word that makes it “a joke.” That gives new comedians more confidence while performing. All of that is good (and I do believe it’s a necessary part of developing as a comedian), but it leads you down a road you don’t want to go down.
Q: "My brain doesn't work the "formula" way"
Nobody’s brain works the formula way. Creativity thrives under “optimal” constraints. Formulas provide WAY too much of a constraint on writing. However, just shooting from the hip with no knowledge of what you’re aiming for (“no constraints at all”) is bad as well. Ideally, you want to give your brain just enough of an idea of what direction to go within telling it exactly what to do (“some constraints”). This provides the brain with enough focus to "get to work," but enough freedom to be creative.
Comedy topics aren’t suppose to be original. If you read my topics it’d look something like this: communication, dating, sex, reading out loud, wal-mart, friends in love, … etc. (those are written in no particular order (the reason being that, on any given show, I don't know what order I'm going to do them in). It’s not the topics that are unique, it’s the way you go through those topics.
I struggled with that as well. I’m a perfectionist at heart, so I use to obsess about small details in my material. I didn’t realize it until I got to a breaking point in my career, but my obsession with word choice was actually killing my material. It’s difficult to come off as authentic and real to the audience if you’ve carefully structured and rehearsed every word your going to say. When you step out from behind those words and, instead, focus on the actual story your telling the audience you’ll gain far more in authenticity and performance flow than you’ll ever lose from a few misplaced words. And bonus, when you're crushing on stage and make a mistake on a word, the audience roars with laughter. You become a real human being, not a talking head.
Fun example. I was crushing a show a few years back and launched into some improvised material about the Declaration of Independence. I did about 5 or 6 jokes (i forget exactly) before an audience member (politely) told me that I was talking about the Constitution. I'd mixed up the 2 most important documents in American history in front of a packed house. The audience busted out laughing. Not only was this a "real" and "authentic" moment, but I then had the opportunity to do crowd-work ("Are you telling me out of EVERYONE HERE... that THIS GUY, is the only person who knows the Constitution- Your a lawyer aren't you? ...").
Capturing ideas in everyday life is important, but being about to flesh-out those ideas in your writing is where you take single jokes or joke premises and turn them into great material. Generally, I try to either incorporate an observation into my current material (put it in with anything that has a common theme) or try to develop it into its own story. If neither work, I have a document on my computer where I put all my half-ideas in case I find a useful place for them later. Most ideas die there, but a few have found the perfect spot.
There’s an extreme over-reliance on dirty humor. Personally, I have about 3 or 4 cuss words in an hour-long show. The only reason they’re there is because if I use a synonym, the joke would fall flat.
Clean comedy is where comedians get paid the best money. Brian Regan and Jeff Dunham are two of the top earners in stand-up comedy right now. Jerry Seinfeld actually IS the top earner… and he’s 100% clean. Jeff Foxworthy has spoken publicly about being a Christian/clean comedian. You might be able to find an interview on YouTube.
You’d be surprised at how well you can engage audiences with clean material. If you give them reason to trust you, you can talk about anything you want.
I once took my students out to an open-mic after comedy class to show them how to work hell gigs. We got there late and the booker put me on the list. All the comedians before me used sex as their primary topic. The audience laughed sporadically, but nothing major. The comedian directly in front of me used ONLY raunchy material (I’m being very ambiguous, but picture the worst thing possible and then add something worse humping that picture).
I jumped on and took the audience in an entirely different direction. I started off by saying “So… I thought I’d offer you guys a choice… do you want to talk about sex… (I paused a heard sporadic applause from the drunken people in the back)… “or… do you want to talk about semi-colons?” There was a long pause. I can only assume it was because the drunken audience was trying to remember what semi-colons were, and then how on Earth they could ever be funny. They “called my bluff” and overwhelmingly applauded for semi-colons. I did several minutes on grammar and spelling (some of which is posted publicly on YouTube), then segued into partially related stuff like texting. All of it was 100% clean. After the show, it wasn’t the dead-baby jokes people at the bar were talking about. It was “the crazy guy who talked about semi-colons and grammar.”
You want to be 100% clean? Yes, there will be some frustrations. But so it goes with trying to be unique in ANY WAY. Uniqueness is what builds great comedy careers and creates a fan base. It's worth it.
Use your age as your ally. As an “old guy,” you can say things that younger comedians could never get away with. You have an opinion that is different from the masses. You can’t beat young comedians on their own ground… but you don’t have to. In fact, all else being equal, you have the advantage over young comedians.
Making an educated guess from my experience, I’d say there’s about 75-100 young comedians for every “old” one at the open-mic level (obviously, the demographics change as you move up the food-chain). Your state might be different, but I’d still bet it wouldn’t be off by much. You have a unique point of view that young comedians can’t offer without sounding hacky or inauthentic.
One of my friends I had starting out was an 80+ year old lady in a wheel chair. We hit many of the same open mics together. You might be surprised, but she was far dirtier of a comedian than I was. She could get a lot of shock-humor that’d be impossible for a young comic. If I said a cuss word, nobody would blink an eye. When she said one, the audience was in absolute shock. I’m not saying this is the only tool (or even that I’d recommend this one), but it illustrates some of the advantages of old age.
I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of “tried and true” punchlines (i.e. “conventional punches”). I think they’re extremely hacky. If I write humor that looks funny for the page (a conventional one), it’d better be a damn good joke. In a 45-60 minute set, I’d probably do only a handful of them… usually they're simply ways of linking material (i.e. I don’t “like” the joke, but it links well between bits, so it’s functional). 2 are there because they get an applause break almost every time. But both are analogies I wrote using my own strategy of “parallel writing,” which is a "technically" a joke formula, but it’s more much complex than your average plug-and-play formula… it takes a lot of work to get it right, but the results are incredible.
That said, a simple story isn’t enough. I like to keep comedy where (I think) it belongs, as a sub-category of the art form of storytelling. Storytelling pre-dates written history. Plays have been around 1000’s of years. We comedians are only an off-shoot of something much larger/greater. We also tell engaging stories, we just do it with an emphasis on humor. I see no legitimate reason to throw out everything that has worked to engage audiences in the past simply because we came up with a new label called “stand-up comedy.”
That doesn’t mean every comedian should be a storyteller. One-liners can be seen as yet another evolution of the art form. But regardless of the specific style, our job is to entertain audiences. (I believe) that means hitting them on every level we can.
Sometimes bitchy can be really funny (think of Roseanne Barr). But I feel you on trying to find a balance. I like to write from different moods. When I’m in a really positive mood, my writing comes out really fun and light. When I’m in a negative mood, I can write some bitchy stuff.
I find I’m better at identifying joke premises when I’m upset, but I’m better at making those premises into something funny when I’m in a lighter mood. It’s kinda a built-in checks-and-balances system.
Could be several different things… but if I had to take a guess, I’d say you’re changing your mental state. Creativity is as much about emotions as what (and how) you think. When you write down your material, you’re doing it from some type of emotion (depends on the type of person you are or what your opinion is on the observation). When you sit down to write, I’d bet that you’re not in the same “mental state” as you were when scribbling down the idea. Essentially, you’re taking an idea generated from one perspective and then scrutinizing it or trying to flesh it out from a completely different one.
My suggestion: When you sit down to write, don’t turn it into a purely mechanical chore. Keep the fun in it. Allow yourself to be playful. Get into the same mental state you were in when you first identified your joke premise.
It sounds like you need a better way of capturing ideas and/or translating them onto the page. One trick I’ve used in the past is having a voice recorder in my pocket. You can discretely turn it on when a conversation starts getting funny and then review what was said later.
Also, don’t worry worry about the exact words you used to get a group laughing. All you need to do is recall the topic. From there, you can start playing around with many different ideas. Some of the ideas will be identical or similar to what you said, others won’t. Both are ok. The purpose of capturing ideas is to provide the entry point into writing. From there, you’ll want the ideas to evolve. That way, one joke you told to a group can end up as several jokes or even several minutes of material.
Performing Stand-Up Comedy Questions
There are a lot of variables that go into a performance. Some of them you can control and some you can’t. If you’re performing on the same show, it’s likely that a portion of the problem is coming from having the same audience each week. Comedy is ethereal. It’s not as funny the second time through. If this is the case, then welcome to the world of open-mic comedy :p
The key early on is figuring out how to be consistent as a comedian. Sometimes you get an audience that will laugh at anything and sometimes you get an audience that makes you work hard for it. At an open mic, it’s really a crap-shoot (that doesn’t mean you’re powerless, it just means you have to learn new skills on engaging the audience). Once you get to booked/paid shows, it gets much better (though the skills you learned earlier will still play an important role). The audience has actually paid money to have fun so you’ll have their full attention.
Best advice moving forward: spend some time in reflection. Try to identify what variables might be making you inconsistent. There are likely many variables causing inconsistency since you’re still very new. The variables will be in one or more of the following areas...
- within your material
- within your performance and
- in the context of the show.
Totally feel you on the drive. When I first got into comedy heavily, I was in Greeley, CO, an hour drive from Denver. I think I was still into the single digits for stand-up comedy performances, so I had practically no experience.
I realized that I couldn't compete with other comedians by performing more than them, so I decided that I'd beat them by learning far more from each performance. I probably averaged only 1-2 shows a week early on, but I spent countless hours analyzing great comedians and rewriting material to test out what I learned.
I attribute a lot of my present success to that initial strategy. If you always have a show coming up soon, you're more likely to try to write MORE... If you only have a few shots on stage a month, you'll take a step back and think through your material a lot more.
So your distance from the nearest show is an asset, not a liability... but only if you allow it to be.
Comedians have a lot of different styles when it comes to kicking off a show. Most new comedians will launch directly into material (or say “hello” and then start their material). I suggest trying to be as real with the audience as possible.
A lot of new comedians have success using a one-liner as their opener. One-liners are nice because they’re super-simple to remember. Often, you can find a line or two that can be used to segue into your regular material from there. However, in practice, I find that they're hit-or-miss. One problem is that they're so quick. In the first few seconds of your performance, many of the audience members won't be paying attention. They'll be looking at the drink menu, commenting on the last comedian to a friend, etc. By the time they're focused on you again, they might miss part of the setup. That means one of your best lines might fail simply because the audience wasn't engaged yet.
I've had more success with this strategy on bigger shows, like college gigs. But I've always found authenticity to be the best leadoff. While I was developing my crowd-work skills, I challenged myself to never think about material before I actually had the mic in my hand. It was scary at first. I caught myself "cheating" many times. But eventually I loosened up. I'd be telling a joke in the greenroom while the emcee was giving my intro. I'd try my best to finish the joke and then rush onto the stage. Oddly enough, the quality of my openers actually increased. When I wasn't worry backstage I allowed myself to get into a fun, playful mood. Once I got on stage, all I had to do was "continue being myself.' That's FAR easier than going from "zero-to-funny" as you walk through the curtain.
Great question. The short answer is yes, the long answer is much more interesting:
Relaxing on stage is kinda tricky. Honestly, I went about it the completely wrong way. The perfectionist in me came up with a strategy "if I practice 8 hours for every stage-minute, there's NO WAY I can forget a line." I stuck to it for several shows but still would choke and forget. Simply put, I was placing too much pressure on myself during the performance, which caused me to choke on stage.
When I was teaching live comedy classes in Denver, I’d try to teach students that bombing an open mic isn’t a big deal by offering to go on stage at a real open mic and bombing on purpose. None of my students every took me up on the offer (kinda a shame), but I was always 100% willing to intentionally bomb a show to show students that it doesn’t mean anything.
Most people take bombing personally because they believe it reflects something about how good they are as a person. That’s not true. There are A LOT of factors that go into a performance and open mic are notorious for being hit-or-miss. Watch the documentary “Comedian” with Jerry Seinfeld. It’s about his return to stand-up after taking years off to do his show. You will see Seinfeld totally bomb on stage, and he provides great insight into his own (and other great comedians’ psychology on performing).
My breakthrough came from a shift in psychology... not from experience. It came from releasing control on stage and being present with the audience. Once I gave myself permission to be myself (instead of "a comedian") then I started having more fun... But the audience started having A LOT more fun.
Let me tell you about the last time I experienced stage fright.
The first time I did a 1000+ audience it was stressful. I'd done a few 300-400’s before, but I jumped straight from that to 1400. This was a time when I was still considering anything over 200 to be “huge.” 1400 seemed incomprehensible.
Adding to the pressure, it was my first time opening for Kyle Cease on his tour, so I had to bring my best. I had already opened for Kyle at comedy clubs, but this was the first tour show. I was obviously nervous, and Kyle called me out on it. He asked me why I looked nervous and I looked back at him like that was the most ridiculous question I’d ever heard. But as we talked, I started to realize why he didn't feel the pressure. My initial reaction was "if I don't care enough to be worried, I'll fail." His response was "If you care too much, you'll fail. You know what you're doing... just do it.”
I had a good set that night, but I wasn't at 100%. As was common at that point in my career, I had stage fright before the show and for the first 1-2 jokes of the set (once you hit that first great punchline it's very easy to relax… ). 2 nights later we were at the University of Wyoming auditorium doing another huge show. I knew Kyle well enough to know that he’d have far more respect for me if I bombed trying to push my skills to the next level then if I killed and didn’t learn anything, so my goal was only to apply the new lesson. I literally pretended like there was no show (which is easier said then done). But it totally worked. We ate Subway and chatted about our raw-food diet (I'd accepted a challenge he put out to do a 90 day raw-food diet) and other stupid stuff. We were laughing our asses up to the point I walked onto the stage (literally, we were still having fun on the side of the theater stage). I carried that fun mood with me onto the stage and crushed like I’d never done before. I did roughly the same material, but the response was a night-and-day difference. I was proud of the victory on stage, but far more proud of the victory off-stage. The first thing Kyle said to me was "Dude... Fuck yeah.... Did you feel the difference?"
After the tour I applied the lessons further. I created a challenge for myself: Never worry about the set and don’t even think about it until you’re literally holding the microphone. My goal before a show is to be having so much fun backstage that all I have to do when I get on stage is to continue having fun. The crazy thing is, the quality of my performances actually increased. I freed myself up to be completely authentic on stage… to tell stories exactly how I’d tell them to friends. I’ve never felt uncomfortable on stage since. I’ve done creativity seminars (4-6 hour speeches) and radio interviews and had the same great results.
That said, I should note that I don't recommend new comedians go on stage unprepared. I had performed that set so many times that everything came off as it was suppose to. There’s an important difference between being “unprepared” and being “present” with the audience. Unprepared means you have no idea what you’re doing. Being present means that you have the material, but you refuse to hide behind it.
My suggestion is to do whatever you can to be prepared (the free videos you received for signing up will help you) … but once it’s showtime… have fun. That’s the point. When you have fun, the audience will have fun.
I’ve always found small shows of a few people as more challenging. Large audiences can develop momentum more easily. Small shows can be tons of fun too because of the close proximity to the audience.
My best advice: coffee shop or stage… the whole point of stand-up comedy is to have fun. When I have to perform on a show I’m not thrilled about, I always look for reasons to enjoy it (which is difficult when you’re in places like Wyoming or Nebraska). It might seem odd that I start with my own enjoyment first, but I’ve learned from experience that the more fun I’m having the more fun the audience has. If you watch videos of me on stage, you’ll see me laugh a lot. I don’t plan laughs. All I do is enjoy my time with the audience.
Showing your material to other people is always a risky bet. I discuss it (and alternatives) in Faster & Funnier, but, in brief, when you ask people for their comments they don’t view the material the same way a real audience does. Your friends will most likely view it from a judgmental point of view (i.e. they’re trying to help you by spotting any weaknesses… so instead of viewing the material the same way an audience does, they analyze everything… which kills the humor).
Even with my material, if I went up to a friend and asked them “do you think this would work” and either said it or performed it for them… it’d probably bomb. Comedy can’t be taken out of context like that. Only an audience can tell you what’s funny and what isn’t.
If you approach a fellow comedian, you’ll get a little bit better of a reading on your material, but nothing that I’d really take as the final word. The only reason I’d get help from another comedian is in tweaking material. They can help with word-placement and small changes.
I’m a storyteller myself. I’ve always enjoyed building momentum throughout a story. They provide a common thread throughout your set.
That said, I always advocate for being your most authentic self on stage (audiences can see through BS very easily). If you like to tell stories, like I do, then you should tell stories. If you enjoy one liners, then that’s what you should do.
You don’t have to choose one or the other, you can mix and match them throughout a set. Most of my material consists of stories, but I incorporate several one-liners in various places… sometimes because they link two stories together, other times because they work best when they stand alone.
It’s perfectly acceptable to play around with different styles early in your career. I tried many different styles early on. Stories always felt better to me, so I spent more time telling stories. When you find the right style for you, you’ll feel the difference. Until then, play around with all the styles. There’s nothing to lose.
I completely understand the self-doubt. When I started, I was a complete perfectionist. Not only did I want to write perfect material, but I wanted to say it perfectly with perfect voice inflection, etc. I’ll tell you right now, this isn’t the way you want to go.
The more rules you have about what a “great performance” is, the more self-doubt your going to have. Today, my only rule is that the audience has fun. That’s it. I don’t care if I’m doing material or riffing with the audience. I don’t even care if I say my jokes correctly. It’s not that I lowered my standards. Both the audience and I have more fun when we’re being real with each other.
I like to use a dating analogy here. If you were on a blind date, you could either be filled with self-doubt or be yourself. If you are yourself, the girl may or may not like you. If you’re filled with doubt, she’ll almost certainly NOT like you because you won’t be real and authentic.
There are several reasons I overcame stage-fright (I talk about them at length in Faster & Funnier), but one of the big ones is that I get excited before show time… By that I mean that I consciously “decide” to be excited. I start focusing on all the fun things I CAN do. By the time I get on stage, my only job is the CONTINUE having fun. It’s far easier to carry a positive attitude with you then to try to go from a neutral or negative emotional state and then instantly change it for the audience.
An audience will pay attention if you give them a good reason to, regardless of your stage persona. Whether or not a comedian can hold an audience, even if it's a dive-bar at 1 am, comes down to engaging the audience... not stage persona, energy, or speaking volume.
There are many reasons why an audience can become disinterested in a comedian. The 30-60 seconds of a set is very important because that’s when the audience is making their initial judgement about you (sometimes you don’t even get the benefit of the doubt and you have to earn attention in the first place).
Questions About Faster & Funnier and Creativity For Comedians
No. We do not ship any physical products.
Faster & Funnier videos are streamed online. We use Vimeo Pro to stream our videos.
The audio-version of Faster & Funnier is a downloadable .zip file containing MP3's of the main course. After the download, you can listen to the audio-version of Faster & Funnier on your computer or mobile device without an internet connection.
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Creativity For Comedians is a downloadable .zip file containing MP3's you can upload to your computer or any music device. Bonuses are all downloadable.
It was originally designed to take current comedians and help them break out of open-mics.
However, the majority of students in my live comedy classes had never performed before. I was concerned that the material would be too advanced for them. But they (and each new class afterwards) proved that fear wrong. I was amazed at how quickly they built great material. A few of my students even booked paid gigs after graduating from the 8 week course. After the first class graduated and started succeeding all around town, I thought they were a fluke. But then the second and third class achieved the same results.
I later realized that the reason they were able to quickly develop great material and a natural stage persona was because we side-stepped the "conventional rules of writing comedy." They learned from the beginning to write from an authentic, natural point-of-view. The "system" I gave them for writing turned out to be exactly what they needed: specific enough to provide guidance throughout the writing process, but "loose" enough to minimize writer's block.
Faster & Funnier evolved over the several years that I taught the live version of Faster & Funnier. Being able to tweak ideas and see how it impacted my students' success was invaluable.
The current version of Faster & Funnier includes everything a comedian needs to write, perform, and market himself as a comedian. It's been used by aspiring comedians who have never performed before and by long-time professional comedians who were looking to take their skills to the next level.
Creativity For Comedians is about how to develop your own unique style and generate highly creative ideas. The course is complimentary to Faster & Funnier. It's designed to take the skills you have learned from Faster & Funnier (or from personal experience on stage) and enhancing them. It takes the principles of high-creativity that I learned getting my Master's in Creativity & Innovation and applies them to writing and performing comedy. However, the skills taught in CFC are applicable to any creative field, not just stand-up comedy.
The program that’s best for you depends on what your goals are in comedy. If you’re looking for the quickest path from point A to point B, you’ll want a different program. They can get you from point A to point B faster than I can. But I’ve been to Point B, and it sucks. Even when your cranking out material and getting laughs, nobody remembers you. The assumption is that you just need to work harder, write more, etc. It’s an easy, but incorrect conclusion.
Here’s the most important lesson I give students: Material can always be improved to increase laughs… but your material can NEVER be made more original. You cannot take unoriginal content and tweak it into something unique. Faster & Funnier isn’t about how to write jokes. It’s about how to be remarkable as a comedian.
There are two main points of differentiation between me and others. I get different results (Faster & Funnier doesn’t shoot for point B) and I get the results differently. By “get results differently,” I mean that the program aligns with all the creativity theories I studied getting my MS in Creativity & Innovation.
Just to give you a taste of what that sentence means. Here’s a snippet of a FB conversation with a past student:
“It's early days yet Jared, but I've got a feeling your system may be the breakthrough I've been looking for. Without even jumping to the horizontal writing stage yet, I'm already producing some usable material. I was thinking over some of my freestyle writing during my run this morning, and fully formed jokes were pouring out of me faster than my sweat.” - Adam
I believe I discussed a little of “the how and why” of creativity in an article I posted about reclaiming the Golden Age of Comedy. Whether you buy my product or not, you should definitely read it. Unlike my courses, I chose to keep the article more "academic" so that readers can see that it’s not me throwing out wild opinions. It’s me connecting the dots and highlighting an important problem stand-up comedians face today.
That said, you're right. There are important similarities between Faster & Funnier and other teachers/courses. Being highly creative isn’t about rejecting all the rules just because you can… it’s about being smart enough to reject the ones that are holding you back. I didn’t reinvent the wheel with Faster & Funnier. I built off of what was working and stripped away the falsities to make way for something new.