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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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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