It’s all in the delivery

Dave – I need to work on my delivery. The time you saw me, you mentioned that it sounded like I was just reading from a magazine (thanks! lol). I see what you mean after listening to my last set a couple times. I’m working out a new bit that I’m taking care not to write out in script form, but in outline form. I’m beginning to get the laughs where I want them, and I know the confidence to ad-lib only comes from stage experience. But working on delivery seems like the next logical step. Do you agree? – DB

What do I say next?

Hey DB – When you’re just starting out in the comedy or speaking biz, having the right delivery on stage is something everyone worries about. It’s up there with getting over any nervousness you might have just standing in front of an audience AND remembering what the heck you’re gonna say.

But you know what?

It’s nothing to sweat about at this stage – the beginning stage – of your career on stage. Wow, it’s not everyday I can use the same word three times in one sentence. Guess I need to work on my delivery…

Your delivery or comedy voice, which is a term I picked up from a major player in the comedy biz while I was working in Los Angeles, will develop through experience.

It comes with getting stage time.

Right now – and again, I’m talking about the beginning stage – I’ll suggest something else to concentrate on that I’ve heard many times from working comics. Write, write, and WRITE some more.

Got that? The idea is to have something – ideas, topics, stories, whatever – that you can talk about and try out in front of an audience. Then you rewrite, edit, come up with new stuff, and repeat the process again and again.

As you do this your material will change and evolve. You’ll also become more comfortable knowing your material AND being in front of an audience. For some people it seems easy, but I’ve talked with many more who’ve said it was damn hard work. It’s doing open-mics and any other gigs as often as possible.

During this process you (should) also develop your delivery. But again, sometimes it’s not that easy. So, I’ll make a suggestion based on your question…

A lot of comedians and speakers start out by memorizing their material. There’s a great story about that in my book How To Be A Working Comic from one of the great stand-up improvisors and ad-libber’s in the business. His many fans might find it hard to believe, but he told me that’s what he did in the beginning. You must find a way to get yourself on stage and if memorizing your material helps, then try it. Then through experience you can gradually develop and grow as a writer and performer and break free of that restraint (memorizing) and have as much fun as the audience.

It takes stage time.

Memorizing your material can be a valuable crutch to use when you’re first going on stage. As you know, all kinds of things – mental and physical – are happening when you’re new at this. It’s not a normal everyday thing to walk onto a spotlighted stage, stand in front of a microphone and start talking to people.

But even if it’s memorized the KEY is to NOT make it sound memorized.

Ad-libbing and working off the audience can loosen things up and help you as a performer and writer come up with new material or learn how to deliver what you already have to get bigger laughs. In other words, you want to sound like you’re making this stuff up on the spot. It’s called being conversational, which is the opposite of sounding like you’re repeating a magazine article from memory.

Now I know all comedians and speakers are not the same. There are one-liners, physical comedy, storytellers, insult comics, prop comics and more. Just keep in mind I’m talking in general – okay?

I don’t know how many comedians I’ve seen over my career, but I know from experience as a talent booker and club manager I’ve seen a LOT during many different career stages. I’m talking about from beginners to household names. And what has always stayed with me is how they deliver their material – their comedy set – to each audience.

The successful ones are very conversational. They make it seem the audience is in on the creative process – like the comic is making it up on the spot. But what the audience doesn’t see is that most times (not all because again, I’m talking in general and don’t want the ghosts of Bill Hicks or George Carlin to do a Christmas Carol bit on me the next time I’m in a deep sleep) the next show can be almost exactly the same.

But it’s still seems different because of the comic’s delivery. They know how to involve the audience and have a conversation with them using their proven (through stage experience) material.

I know I’m repeating this story from one of my books, but I remember years ago when a VERY famous comedian was doing a set at The Comedy Cellar in NYC. It was late – the other clubs were closed, and this was the only one that would put up with us at 3 am. There were only about four “real” customers in the audience and everyone else was a comic with at least a beer or two already in them.

The famous comic was doing his act and another (who would also be famous within a couple years) jumped on stage behind him and did a mimic bit. He silently mouthed the words and did the same physical gestures. The already famous comic knew it (they were good friends) and played along. It was hysterical, but also proves my point that a skilled comedian can do his same act and make it seem new each time in front of different audiences by being conversational.

Again, I’m talking in general terms here. But that story always helps me make a point.

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So, you may know your material frontwards and backwards, but you don’t want your delivery to ever sound memorized. Since you’re still in the beginning stage and searching for your comedy voice, take a few chances. That’s what open mics are for. Try working off just an outline in your head or have a notebook (it’s an open-mic and you can do that) with key words about the topics. This means already having a few ideas you want to talk about – and then just talking about them.

It’s part of the process of finding out what works best for you as a performer. It also helps you become more conversational on stage rather than sounding memorized.

And even though you already know what you’re going to say, for instance jokes or descriptions you’ve written in advance and hope will get laughs, the method you use to get there will make it look like you’re making it up on the spot for that audience.

And as you said, you’re beginning to get laughs where you want them, so keep those moments in your set. That’s why you record your performance every time you’re on stage. When you listen, you’ll know what works (lines, words, emphasis, physical gestures – whatever) based on how the audience reacts. If they laugh, you’ll use them again because you’ll know through experience they should get laughs again from a different audience.

And for anyone who wants to be a working comic or humorous speaker – that’s what talent bookers, club owners and event planners pay for. Proven laughs.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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Shake things up in 2024

Hi Dave – I’m one of those people who will always wonder, “What if?” I’ve fallen behind in my stage fright quotient and will definitely tackle those fears and hit the stage once I get a solid five minutes (of comedy material). I may sink, swim or neither, but it’s time to shake things up. I was just watching what I consider to be the underrated Stardust Memories with one of my favorite lines: “You wanna help mankind? Tell funnier jokes.” Much obliged – P.J.

Hey P.J. – I like your attitude. It’s a new year, which for many people can signal a new change or a new direction in life. Personally I don’t see why changes can’t be made anytime you feel you’re ready and it’s needed, but the New Year’s Countdown and ball dropping in New York’s Times Square can be like a starter’s pistol going off. For some, it’s time to start running in a new direction.

Three, two, one… Happy New Year!

Wait a minute… another year? “What if…?”

How often have you thought that? We’d all like to swim rather than sink, but to do neither sounds like a step backwards to me. So, I’m going to kick-start 2024 with a bit of a challenge:

Let’s shake things up.

Since you’ve read this far AND if you’ve read any past FAQ’s And Answers, I’m assuming you have a sense of humor AND a flair for creativity (and that’s a creative word: flair). You’re either a comedian or a humorous speaker – or both – or aspiring to be one or the other – or both.

How do you stand out from everyone else? What separates you from the pack? Maybe it’s time to shake things up and take a risk.

Taking a risk can mean different things to different people. If you’ve never been on stage for whatever reason (stage fright quotient?) but it’s burning a BIG “What If?” in your brain – do it now. If you’re waiting until the ball drops next year, you risk losing this year. Go to an open-mic, take a class, form a writing group – whatever, there are tons of options. There are also plenty of good books on the market (and not just mine – search around) on how to write, perform and find work in this crazy biz.

Let’s shake things up.

If you’re already on stage doing comedy or speaking and your career is not where you think it should be – make a change. Take a risk. Try something different. It could be different topics, different energy, different venues, or even a different location.

You never know until you try.

One of my favorite stories in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works is from comedian Christopher Titus.

He described himself early in his career as being the “happy-go-lucky comic.” He was funny, but there was nothing that separated him from any other observational comic.

Then his manager challenged him to take a risk. He suggested he be real on stage.

Titus was one person (happy-go-lucky) on stage, but off stage he had a dark, edgy – risky – style of humor. Accepting the challenge, he wrote a bit about stabbing his boss with a letter opener. It worked BIG time. This change in his comedy voice separated him from the pack, made him an in-demand headliner and star of his own television sitcom, Titus.

Now, I’m not saying to write material about stabbing your boss with a letter opener.

If you look back at the above paragraph, it’s been done. Copying someone else’s material is not going to get you anywhere in this creative business. In fact, it would be a step backwards. And it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go in a more edgy direction if that is NOT where your true humor is based. Some comics like more family-oriented material or working in the corporate (clean) market.

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All I’m saying… suggesting… (motivating?) … is to make this YOUR year. Accept the challenge and shake things up.

If you’re waiting to start, take that important first step and get on stage. If you’re looking for help in preparing for that first step, are too nervous, or have a full-blown case of stage fright, take a workshop and let someone with experience help you ease your way into it. If you’re already performing, remember the famous line from Stardust Memories (a Woody Allen film if you need to know):

“You wanna help mankind? Tell funnier jokes.”

Have a happy, peaceful, productive, successful, and laugh-filled 2024.

Your Pal – Dave

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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How tacky is your sales pitch?

Hey Dave – One of the guys I work with was telling me how he does these after-hours networking events where people from all different businesses hand out business cards to each other and get to know each other and see if they can make a bridge to possibly do business in the future. He told me they have entertainers networking at these events.

I want to go to these things when I get my website up and running and try to get bookings for business events and parties. Any advice on what someone would be looking for to get booked at a company event? Would it be tacky to carry around my promo stuff like my bio and resume with me? Or should I offer to send that to them at a later date? – DB

Foot in the door edge!

Hey DB – Why am I having a hard time thinking of anyone in this crazy business who isn’t tacky at least occasionally? You can put on a suit and be a complete professional to represent yourself, but sometimes you need to have a little “edge” to make your presence known if you want to get ahead.

I’m not talking pushy, but hopefully you get the idea. If not, here’s what I mean…

Good promoting can lead to good sales. There are a lot of salespeople that get business by being total professionals with a good “sales pitch” and promotional material. Then again, there are times when a door is starting to close in their face and they just can’t help it… call it instinct, training, experience or determination… but they just can’t stop themselves from sticking their foot in the door and making one last sales pitch.

Tacky?

Yeah, that term has a way of coming up when talking about certain sales techniques. But if you want the business and have a product (in our case we’re talking about your comedy act or speaker presentation) that deserves to be considered, you have to find ways to let the buyer know. If you don’t, you can bet someone else will.

Okay, first things first. 

What would I be looking for if it was my job to book someone (a comedian or speaker) for a company event? I’ve said this numerous times in past FAQs And Answers, but will use the opportunity for a quick reminder…

When I was booking corporate (business) shows we always looked for G-rated material. 

That’s a BIG resume!

Okay, PG at the max – and that only depended on the type of company and what the boss or event planner requested. But honestly, those were few and far between. Everyone else was too worried about someone – anyone, including the boss and employees – being offended during a company event.

The comedians I used the most knew how to entertain these audiences with their regular topics (the material they were also doing in the comedy clubs) but could keep it squeaky clean for corporate events. In other words, the laughs didn’t depend on dropping an F-Bomb, graphic sex jokes, or bathroom humor. The guy at work who stands around the coffee machine telling jokes and the company prude could both be entertained at the same time.

Can you do that? 

If you want to be a player in the corporate comedy or speaking biz, it’s a requirement. That’s the first concern and there’s no getting around it.

Now that we’ve made this perfectly clear, I’ll stick my foot in the door and continue the conversation…

The after-hours business card meetings sound very promising. Your goal is to connect with any event planners and people from the Human Resource Departments. From experience, other than the boss, these are the people that are usually in charge of the company events, or at least have some say in how it will all work. Of course, anyone can put in a recommendation if they have an event or party coming up, so don’t be tacky and avoid anyone who might not appear to be important enough to give you a job. They might just be the break room jokester or office prude the CEO is concerned with keeping entertained and not offended.

Is it tacky to carry your promo material with you in this type of situation?

Yes, I think so.

But here’s the deal, all your promotional material should be online anyway. Do you have a dedicated website? If not – you should.

That’s one way to make it clear you’re a professional. Sending a business client to your Facebook page to find your promotional video between photos of that day’s lunch and your cat is not going to result in too many paid gigs– if any at all.

I recommend you always be prepared to make a sales pitch if the opportunity arises. That’s why every professional still carries business cards that will direct a potential client to your website. You never know when or where you’ll make your next valuable connection.

But again, being professional is the key. And it’s different in the business world than in the entertainment business world – and I’ll give you an example.

When I was at The Improv in New York and Hollywood, there were always a lot of showcases (auditions) for television shows. And not just for shows that used standup comedians. Quite often there was casting for sitcoms or movies and with these types of showcases, if the casting person was looking for a certain “type,” all the auditioning performers would be scheduled because they fit that “type.”

For example, you might have ten comedians auditioning for a specific role. If they were looking for a male – there would be ten men auditioning. Female – ten women. The showcase would be booked around the casting call for a specific type.

But not every comic that fit the desired type could be on the showcase.

There would be only X number of spots to be seen over X amount of time. So usually there were lots of comedians that didn’t get the opportunity to audition. But quite often the professional comedians in NYC and LA had their promotional material with them – or close enough (in their car) so they could have it within a matter of minutes if there would be a chance to network. And a lot of times if they weren’t on a showcase but thought they should’ve been given the opportunity, they’d hang around the club until the casting person was leaving and ask if they would accept it as a submission.

What’s the worst that can happen? Being told NO? You’ve already been told that when you weren’t asked to be part of the showcase.

So, is it as tacky as a salesman sticking his foot in a closing door? Yeah, but like a final sales pitch for a good product, sometimes it works.

The idea is not to waste an opportunity.

But remember, the business you’re talking about networking for – bookings in the corporate market – is different than the entertainment business I was just talking about. It would definitely be tacky to carry around full promotional packages at one of these business card-trading events.

Most promotion today is done online.

So, the bottom line to giving yourself the “edge” without coming off as “tacky” is to always be prepared to network and promote. Today that means keeping your dedicated website updated and don’t forget your business cards.

That’s the simplest business tool for networking and promoting – and makes the effort a lot easier than carrying around “old fashioned” promotional packages that no one else will want to carry around after you hand it to them.

And the best part about networking with only business cards? There’s nothing tacky about it. In fact, in this business it’s expected.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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How Long Should You Do The Same Material?

Dave – How long can I keep doing my current material and how often do comics usually change their act? Since I plan on doing a lot of clubs locally, I wonder if people will be hearing the same act over and over. – M.

Lots of writing!

Hey M. – Your goal is to get your comedy set really, REALLY good. That means you should be working on improving your material – your act – whenever and wherever you can.

Usually, this means you would be working on the same bits over and over and over….  And I know that sounds boring, especially for creative artists like stand-up comedians. But the idea is to treat your act as a creative work, like writing a novel or painting a masterpiece. You always want to “tweak” it and make it better. Make improvements, change words, add, subtract, etc…

In other words, make it funnier.

BUT I also want to repeat myself (boring?) in saying comedians are creative artists. They are not (and should not be) robots programmed to say the exact same thing show after show after show… If that’s the goal, then become an actor and memorize a script. Most comedians have topics or bits they use in their acts because the material is practiced, and audience tested. They know it “works” and can get a good response during a show they’re being paid to do.

And in case you missed an earlier FAQ And Answer, I’ll repeat a good business tip for you.

Talent bookers pay comics to perform sets that “work.” 

What else can I say?

A talent booker’s business depends on satisfied customers. For newer comedians trying to reach that career goal, becoming working comics, they perform for free at open-mics, lower paying gigs, and anywhere they can get time on stage. Once their material has been audience-tested and gets laughs, that’s what talent bookers will pay for.

For this reason, you shouldn’t try to do a completely new set every time you go on stage. Unless the performance is improvisational, no comic does unless they’re hosting a late night (or daytime) television talk show. But you need to remember television hosts have writing staffs, Teleprompters, and cue cards.

The idea is to learn what material works based on audience reaction. Even if you’re only playing in front of a few people at an open mic, find out what gets a laugh every time and keep it in your act.

As the late Richard Jeni said in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers, you build your act “brick by brick” (laugh by laugh / bit by bit). This is how most comedians create their act.

And most entertainers, not just comedians, have an “act.” If you don’t believe me, go see your favorite arena rock band do a couple shows and try to see what – if anything – is different between the two performances. I doubt there would be much if anything.

When I was managing The Improv, we would have three comedians for each show. Often all three would do their same set every show. They were doing their “act,” which is what they were being paid to do. You must remember the audience is different for each show, so it’s all new to them.

Management and staff might be the same, but that shouldn’t worry you because they’re not listening all the time. They might stop and watch a bit now and then, but don’t worry about them hearing your act over and over. If they’ve been working at the club long enough, they know it’s the nature of the business. And besides, they’re also professionals and are there to work and make money, and not to watch your set.

Tweaking and perfecting your act will keep it interesting for you. Like a novelist and painter, you’re making changes – subtle or huge – toward your finished creation. The idea is to keep improving your act. As a creative artist I doubt you’ll ever consider it “finished,” but when your act is regularly earning laughs it might be time to start contacting talent bookers to get paid for what you’ve created.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Using a stage name – can you live with it?

Hello Dave – I am very proud of my name, but for as long as I can remember people have never been able to say it. I’m starting to wonder if I should go with a stage name. Even if you are against them, how do you go about using a stage name? How do you manage introducing yourself and, in the future, how do you handle payment when you go by a stage name? Thanks – K

Hey K. – The question you need to ask about using a stage name is if you can live with it. And if you happen to become successful – can you live with it for a looong time?

It might be cool now, but what if you get tired of it later? If you’re just starting your career and still learning who you are on stage, what if that name doesn’t fit anymore? For an extreme example, using the name Goofy (sorry Disney fans) might get some laughs at an open mic, but somehow I don’t see it enhancing the career of a corporate comedian.

I could be wrong, which is not unheard of. Then again, it’s something to think about.

Let’s put it another way. If you’re just starting out in your career, you might be wearing jeans and a t-shirt on stage. But as you progress, maybe you grow into wearing a suit and tie. I’ve seen it happen. But if all your promo material (photos and videos) shows you in jeans – then you’ll have to update everything.

But one thing that is more difficult to change is name recognition. If all your contacts and clients know you by name, then changing your name means you need to introduce yourself all over again. It’s like starting from scratch.

So if you’re considering a stage name, be sure you can live with it for a looong time.

This topic has come up in my books How To Be A Working Comic and Comedy FAQs And Answers. In the first one, Scott Thompson told me there was already a comic actor with that name. Since Scott was a marketing major in college, he was educated enough to know he needed something that was different and “marketable.”

So he went with Carrot Top. To quote him from the book:

“The first time someone across campus yelled, ‘Hey, Carrot Top!’ I thought, ‘Oh Lord, do I really wanna do this to myself?’ But now it’s second nature.”

The second book example comes from the comedian Earthquake:

“Earthquake was a childhood name. My real name is Nathaniel Stroman. And when you play for an urban audience, it just don’t roll off the tongue. You know, ‘Give it up for Nathaniel Stroman!’ ‘Boo, *#@#*! Boo!!’ That’s right off your name! So I had to get something that would give me a fighting chance.”

A stage name is totally a personal decision.

If you already have a nickname or come up with something memorable, give it a shot. But keep in mind if you start finding success under that name, it’s very tough to change. Just ask John Cougar Mellencamp.

Introducing yourself is another matter.

You can choose to have an entertainment persona and a personal life. There are some very famous celebrities who do just that. The former drummer of The Beatles is known throughout the world as Ringo Starr. But his family and friends call him “Ritchie” since his real (and legal) name is Richard Starkey. To the best of my knowledge, his appearances, promotions and autographs are by “Ringo Starr” and for contracts and payments it’s for “Richard Starkey.”

So in your comedy career, you should promote yourself as your stage name and handle all business as your legal name. When it comes to your personal life, do what you wish.

In the comedy biz I’ve seen more stage names than you might think. And usually I’ve had no idea the performer was using a stage name until their real name was on a contract.


 


So if you don’t change your name legally, you’ll eventually end up using both. It can be confusing sometimes, but for promotional purposes everything is done using your stage name. For legalities it’s your real name.

BUT before I go into this more, it’s important for me to make it clear I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I’m just passing it along based on my past experiences. So before you even think about following the following, make a smart move and talk with a real lawyer.

Years ago when I was managing comedians and speakers, I asked a lawyer and a banker about performers using a stage name. I thought they would be the two most important people to ask if the talent wanted to get paid – and pay me a commission.

The advice was to have a bank account in your legal (real) name. If a talent booker writes you a check using your stage name, you sign the back with your stage name. Then underneath, you sign your real name.

It’s a double endorsed check, which is legal and can be deposited in your legal name bank account.

But if you’re looking at direct bank deposits (rare in the performing biz since most bookers and event planners pay with checks, cash or through an online service like PayPal), then you’ll have to use your stage name for all appearances and promotions, and your legal name on all contracts and other business paperwork.

Using two names has been done a lot before and will continue. You just need to be very clear about everything for contracts, tax forms, and all the other important legal stuff.


 

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Many performers have chosen not to change their hard-to-pronounce names, have become famous, and people learn to say their names correctly because they hear it so often. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an example. I saw him interviewed on television once and he said his goal was to become so famous that Americans would have to learn how to pronounce it.

At first his mispronounced name was a punch line for every late night television and radio host. But eventually, everyone knew it and could say it. Guess his plan worked – all the way to blockbuster movies and the California Governor’s Mansion.

Another consideration for a name change should include any future showbiz career goals. If you ever get into acting or voiceovers, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) – merged since 2012 as “SAG-AFTRA” – only allow ONE name in their membership. So, if you choose something simple like “Goofy” and someone else is already registered by that name in the union, you’ll have to pick something else.

That’s true also if you’re using your legal name.

So my advice is to make the change only if you think it’s really necessary and will further your career. But be sure you can live with it. The only one I can think of who “took it back” after he became famous was John Cougar… uh, I mean John Mellencamp.

More advice?

My last name has been mispronounced every way possible. So when I have a speaking gig, I give the person introducing me a printed introduction (in a larger font than what you’re reading here). On it I have my name spelled out phonetically as “Sch-wen-sen.” That way they can usually say it correctly. Since you mentioned being very proud of your name, I would suggest trying that for a while before making the huge commitment of changing it.

If you still decide to go with a stage name, keep in mind there’s already a Carrot Top and Earthquake in the acting unions. You’ll have to come up with something original and one you can live with – maybe forever.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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