Preparing For Your First Time On Stage

Hi Dave – First off, I am not a professional comedian. That being said, it is my dream to be one. I know that I am a funny person and I realize what it takes to pursue a career in comedy. I guess my big problem is that I’m afraid of taking the first step. I am afraid of going onstage and everyone just absolutely hating me. I am aware that bombing is a learning experience. But I always want people to like me. So, as you can guess, I haven’t really done much stage time because I’m scared to do so. I guess my question is, and this may sound stupid: Is it OK to be scared about taking the first step? Thanks for your time – SM

Hey SM – Let me give this some thought… (I’m pausing for dramatic effect) … YES – it’s okay to be scared about doing comedy the first time! It’s public speaking and to quote the much over-quoted Jerry Seinfeld bit:

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

There’s a great example of truth in comedy and why Seinfeld is a master at it.

Another fear factor for a lot of people thinking about going into this crazy biz is, as you so eloquently put it:

Bombing.

You’re right in saying that bombing is a learning experience. Every time you go on stage should be a learning experience. Once you accept that, it shouldn’t be a goal-stopping event. Another thing to remember is that anyone who wants to be a performer (and not just comedians) needs to develop a thick skin. It’s not always going to go as perfectly as you might imagine.

When (notice I didn’t say if) you bomb, you need to use it as a learning experience.

It’s like going to school. Record your set, listen to it and figure out how it could have been better. Make changes, continue to write and try it again. All the comedians I know have gone through this process starting with open-mics and free shows. If someone tells you that they haven’t then they’re not a great example of truth in comedy. In other words, they’re lying.

It takes nerve and determination to walk on stage the first time.

It’s not easy. If it was, then just about everyone would try it because… well, it sure looks like fun, doesn’t it? Standing on stage in front of an audience and making them laugh seems like a pretty good job. If all it took was to fill out a job application and lie about your work experience during an interview, a lot of people would be asking where they could sign up.

But it’s not that easy.

Along with nerve to go on stage and determination to continue, it takes a lot more to be successful. It takes talent and experience, and an understanding of how the business works. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about taking that first step on stage.

The advice I’ve heard from a many of the comedians I’ve interviewed for my books is that the best way to get started – and to get over being nervous or scared – is to be prepared. Know what you’re going to say before you go on stage and don’t just try to wing-it; hoping you’ll just open your mouth and something funny will accidentally fall out.

If you only have three to five minutes on stage, which is the amount of time beginning comedians are usually given at an open-mic, have what you are going to say – three to five minutes of material – prepared in advance. Write it and be familiar with it. Practice it and get used to saying the words out loud.

Memorize if you have to. BUT as you continue to develop through on stage experience, the key is NOT to ever sound memorized. But again, we’re just talking about taking your first steps here, so the goal right now is just to get on stage.

To help calm your nerves, it’s also acceptable to take notes with you on stage so you don’t forget what you want to say.

There’s nothing wrong with that because doing comedy is a step-by-step learning process that doesn’t happen overnight. When you’re just starting out, the first step is to get on stage and learn how to converse with an audience. That’s enough pressure, so you don’t need to add more pressure by worrying about memorizing your material word-for-word.

Like your stage presence and delivery, your material will also change as you get more experience. Doing an open mic is not auditioning for Comedy Central, so don’t be afraid to rely on your notes while you are still learning what to do. I’ve seen many big-name comedians take notes on stage when they’re working on new material. Want names? George Carlin and Jay Leno to mention only two – and you can’t argue with their success.

So, don’t let anyone say you can’t do that. You can.

Another way to make that first step is to have help in being prepared.

I don’t know where you’re located. But a lot of comedy clubs offer workshops or classes (if feel there is a difference). Pick the best club in your area, call and ask if they have workshops and who runs them. Look at their experience, credits and whenever possible, what other comedians in the area are saying about them. If they have positive reviews, you should find them posted on a professional looking website. If not, then keep looking.

In a good workshop or class you should get experience on stage and helpful feedback about your material and delivery. Also, to ease the fear factor, make sure you’re given an opportunity to work with a microphone and in front of the spotlights before facing a “real” audience.

It’s all about preparation.

The first step will always be a BIG one. If you’ve prepared it will still be BIG, but hopefully more fun(ny) than scary.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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Creative writing on the fly

Hey Dave – I travel a lot, which I often use as an excuse. But I will confess that my biggest hurdle is that it’s such a challenge to sit down and just be creative on the spot. Putting something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, although being funny on the fly is a breeze. Do you encounter that question a lot? – R.M.

Taking Notes!

Hey R.M. – Yeah, I do get that one a lot. But in a way, you’ve already answered your own question. You’ve creatively written out the solution and only need someone (in this case – me) to point it out for you. I could do that in just a few sentences, but that would make a very short FAQ and Answer for this week.

So instead, let me be creative for a moment…

I remember taking an advertising class in college. Everyone in the class knew when the final project – a creative advertising campaign – was due. But instead of working with the professor’s schedule, (come’on – it was college and homework wasn’t always on my schedule!), I waited until the night before to start the project.

Talk about having to be creative on the spot, that was the ultimate. I cleared my desk, cleared my head and sat staring at a blank computer screen most of the night. I came up with some nonsense that got me through the class, but it could’ve been a lot better if I had done it on the fly when I was truly feeling creative.

It’s tough to write when you have to. 

There are writers that can do it, and I’ve known a few in Hollywood. They’re called professional writers and get paid a lot of money for what they do. They can come up with a Tonight Show quality comedy set or a treatment for a sitcom episode almost on demand.

Working on new material

But notice I said a few. Most of the comedians and speakers I’ve worked with are better writers when they feel creative – not when they have to be creative.

There’s a great story in my book How To Be A Working Comic from a very well-known comedian about comedians taking laptops on the road to write new material. She did the same thing, but when she sat down in her hotel room at a scheduled time to write, the creative inspiration wasn’t there. That’s not how she writes. She lives – then writes about it. She closed the laptop, went out, and then wrote about it when she returned.

To use your term, she learned the best way for her to write was on the fly. So, to give your question a specific answer…

You’ve got it all wrong.

For example, when you travel a lot, you should be getting material by the plane load (or carload – whatever). Writers, whether comedians or speakers, carry a notebook or audio recorder at all times. When they feel inspired (creative) that’s when they write. It could be an experience, a thought, an overheard conversation, opinion from a magazine article, an observation – whatever. It could be an entire bit, a premise, or just a couple words.

Then later you would go over these notes. Do they still inspire you to write more about a certain topic? Can you combine some of these various ideas to make an outline for a story or comedy bit?

But even then, you’re not finished.

Creative writing, whether it’s for a comedy routine or a humorous presentation, can be an ongoing process. If you have a good idea, continue making notes about it when you feel inspired. You can add details, descriptions, punch lines or whatever whenever the ideas hit you. And the best part is that your material can be filled with truth and/or lies. It doesn’t matter.

It’s called creative license.

An expert example of this is in my book How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian. I’m not trying to make another sale (well… okay, maybe a little, but I took an advertising class in college and sometimes can’t help it). The advice comes from the legendary comedian George Carlin who practiced this method using notebooks, audio recorders and computer files. It’s truly genius stuff and as he told me during our conversation (which I recorded because I always carry an audio recorder and notebook):

“The material would eventually write itself.”

You can find it in the chapter called The Best Comedy Writing Advice Ever. And believe me, I wasn’t using creative license when I named it that.

Okay, so maybe I’m more long-winded than creative with this answer, but I’m sharing advice with you that works. You could be like legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys who once put his piano in a sandbox (in his living room) so he would be inspired to write songs about surfer girls and dudes.

Or you can just go out and live it.

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So, to point out the answer you already had in your question:

If sitting down and trying to put something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, then do it when you’re being funny on the fly. Take notes as you’re living it and write about it later. If it worked for Carlin and countless other creative writers, it could work for you.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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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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