Hey Dave – I have terrible stage fright. I think I’m a pretty good writer, but I can’t even think about getting up in front of an audience without breaking into a sweat. Have any cures? – TZ
Hey TZ – Don’t sweat it (sorry – you set me up and I couldn’t resist opening with that line) because you’re not alone. I’ve read that stage fright, or the fear of speaking in public, has been called the number one fear most people have – even more than death.
And now that I’ve set this bit up, Jerry Seinfeld has a very funny observation about the subject…
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Now that we’ve established that you’re suffering from a very common fear, you need to be told there’s no quick fix. But there is help:
Preparation and experience.
The best advice I have for aspiring comedians going on stage for the first time is to prepare in advance what you will say. Unless you have an innate (natural) talent for ad-libbing and improvising, don’t just try to wing it or hope something funny will happen. You can work on those aspects of your performances later when you’re more comfortable on stage.
Do your best to either write out or at least outline a short comedy set – and know it. When starting out at open mics you can even take your notes on stage or have them in your pocket to use in case of an emergency – like a security blanket. After all, your first times on stage will not be auditions for Comedy Central, so put the odds in your favor of at least getting through what you want to say despite any nerves or stage fright.
I’ve talked with comedians about this because as mentioned above, you’re not alone. It can be very scary walking on stage alone in front of an audience for the first time. One thing most (I want to say all but can’t remember for sure) of them told me was that they relaxed (a bit) after getting a laugh. It meant approval from the audience, which gave them enough of a confidence boost to continue talking. So, let’s include that one in the advice column:
Try to get a laugh as soon as possible.
The best way to do that is to open with what you feel is your best chance to get that laugh. It could be your funniest joke, line, bit, prop, story or whatever. I remember a very famous comedian opening his set at The Hollywood Improv by pretending to slip and fall because he accidentally knocked over a drink on the front table while walking on stage.
Silly? Yeah. Stupid? Some might think so. Did it get a laugh? HUGE!!! He stood up, the audience was still laughing – and he was in complete control for the rest of his show.
Yes, I know he had a lot of stage experience – but that experience told him to open his show with a laugh. And in the comedy biz, laughter can build confidence. If you don’t believe me, imagine how you’d feel on stage without it.
You won’t really know how funny your material is until you try it in front of an audience. But when you’re just starting out the goal is to have something to say, rather than opening your mouth and risk having nothing come out. Preparation may not cure stage fright, but it could help take away some of the nerves and make that first step easier since you’ll already know what you will say.
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Many experienced comedians have also told me the first laugh they received from an audience is what made them continue going on stage. The word most used is “addictive” (a word that’s been popular in the comedy biz for a long time). When you get that first laugh it feels so good you want to get it again.
There’s no guarantee and as mentioned, this is not a quick fix for stage fright. But one thing I love as a coach (and when I used to attend countless open mics in New York and Los Angeles) is watching a new comedian get more confidence with each laugh from an audience. Seriously, I can see it on their faces and in their delivery.
When they get a laugh – that great addictive feeling – it helps motivate comedians to see if they can make it happen again. It’s the main reason to get back on stage. It builds confidence and dedication to do comedy.
That in a nutshell is the preparation part. The rest of the cure comes through experience. Stage time. The more you do something that is enjoyable or at least somewhat successful, the less you should fear it.
At first you may just have to psych yourself out and do it.
For example, I hate heights but love roller coasters. Yeah, I know, but I don’t have enough money for a shrink…
Some of the tallest in the world are in an amusement park not too far from us and they scare me to death just looking at them. My knees literally shake (like the first time I did an open mic in New York). But I (my kids) wouldn’t let it stop me. I may have to ride it once, twice – or even a dozen times with my eyes closed, but eventually I’ll look around from the top of the highest hill and watch the rest of the ride while screaming all the way to the end.
Much like the first time I did an open mic.
Consider stage fright as being like other fears you’ve overcome. You might have been scared about a first day of school, moving to a new city or starting a new job. But you kept with it and eventually felt comfortable. It can be the same going on stage and speaking in public.
I know comedians that have told me they’ve never gotten over stage fright. They just wouldn’t let it stop them and learned how to deal with it. They say their nervousness keeps them more aware – more real – on stage. There’s no way they could ever sleepwalk through their act, which is what you call it when someone goes on stage and just repeats their memorized act word for word in a way that’s old, stale, and boring both for the audience and the comedian. The heightened nerves keep them more in tune with everything that’s happening in the room and their minds in the moment.
And that’s where you need to be if you eventually start taking advantage of your innate talent for ad-libbing and improvising off an audience.
As usual, I have one last example. Fans of classic rock should love this. But for the younger comics… well, just humor me for moment.
One of my books is about The Beatles 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium in front of 55,600 fans. At that time, it was the largest rock concert ever held and the Beatles were the biggest rock band in the world. They had played hundreds of shows and performed live in front of millions of viewers on the most watched television programs in the world. But the one common thread I found from all the interviews I did with people that were with them backstage at Shea Stadium was how nervous they were.
The Beatles were shaking in their Beatle boots.
But after they were introduced and ran onto the stage, their preparation (knowing their act) and experience (hundreds of shows) took over. By the end of the concert, they were doing comedy bits between songs and having as much fun (probably more) than anyone else there.
Stage fright? I don’t know of a quick fix or a cure. But I do know if you want it bad enough, preparation will help you get on stage and experience will keep you going back.
Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!
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