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 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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Living in a “relatively” small comedy town

Hi Dave – How do you possibly adjust your comedy act or speaking focus on abstract concepts of humor, when you are in a relatively small town that has a large amount of pressure on people to not stand out, nor to think things that are upsetting to persons with high social titles? – Regards, Ric

Where is everyone?

Hey Ric – I have all kinds of thoughts going through my mind based on this question. You say “relatively” small town – but it sounds “very” small to me. Different areas regardless of size have unique lifestyles and tastes that sometimes don’t mesh with others. I’m not knocking it – I’m just pointing out what I’ve learned from my own relocations and working with various entertainers.

For example, we used to talk about New York comedians vs. Los Angeles comedians. There were obvious differences that might include topics, language, attitudes, and stage presentation. And when I started working in the Midwest, I learned what might “fly” on the east or west coasts sometimes didn’t get off the ground with the local audiences.

Everyone knows I’m a name-dropper in my workshops and books (with the performer’s permission), but not in these articles. But I’ll say here I was quite shocked when four headliners (three appear in my books) that had packed east and west coast clubs appeared in front of half-filled audiences at clubs in Cleveland. It didn’t mean they weren’t funny because all four went on to become major comedy stars.

But at that time the focus of their material didn’t appeal as much to audiences in this area.

Don’t say that!

There are all kinds of reasons for this. Some areas are more open to diverse lifestyles and ideals than others. Again, I’m not knocking it – I’m just pointing it out. When I booked comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, I told them our biggest demographic (audience) was in The Bible Belt. So don’t go on stage and make fun of God or religion because that segment of their set would be edited out.

That “rule” wasn’t true for comedians performing in New York or Los Angeles.

Those cities had more diverse audiences than those tuned into The Arts & Entertainment Network. And I could give other examples of audience demographics concerning various markets such as colleges, corporate, and cruise ships, but that’s not addressing your question. It’s just making a point.

A hot topic in the entertainment world is how to address today’s political, social, and yes, humor climates. But I don’t see it as anything new. If you look back at the history of comedy – from monologuists, through Vaudeville and silent movies – you’ll find some audiences had laughed loud and hard, while others were outraged and called for censorship over what was meant to be “entertainment.”

Sort of like the banning of books that is happening today.

Some people are offended by the written words, while others will recommend “those” people just don’t read “those books”, but don’t stop others that want to. Like a television show you might find offensive – just turn the channel. But when you go into someone’s home (area) they have the right to make the decisions what books, shows or comedy are welcome. There’s no point in arguing – they’re the boss of their own domain (same as you).

It sounds to me like a similar situation to what you’re dealing with. You’re the minority in a “relatively” small town that might not accept your abstract concepts of humor.

My advice is to find an audience that does.

Professional comedians and speakers travel. That’s part of the gig and if you want to be successful, you’ll need to get used to it. You can’t play in front of the same audience over and over. They’ll tire of you, and you’ll tire of seeing the same faces as you try to grow as a creative artist.

Where else can you go? Is there a town nearby that is not so “relatively” small? How close is the nearest city with a diverse comedy scene? Your goal should be stage time and you might need to travel to find it.

I know from working with many aspiring performers that day jobs, families, school, and other responsibilities might have kept them from pursuing their desired careers. But you know what? That’s true with just about every comedian I’ve worked with that has “made it.” What is the closest “not” small town within driving distance that has open-mics or other venues to perform? You might need to sacrifice some of your personal life right now to travel, but it could be an investment in your future.

As I’ve been known to say in my workshops: You might have to skip finding out who gets the final rose or Mirror Ball Trophy (TV shows for the non-viewers) for a long drive to do three minutes at an open mic. If you don’t, keep in mind someone else will.

I have examples of this in both my books, How To Be A Working Comic and Comedy FAQs And Answers. You’ll need to read them to find out the names I’ve dropped, but here are the lessons…

One comedian realized the travel requirement needed to develop a quality set. He cold called every comedy club he could find until someone took a chance on hiring him as an opening act. It was a long drive; the pay was minimal, and he ended up sleeping in his car. Sounds tough, I know but many comedians have similar stories. In this case, that week’s headliner recognized his desire and talent, and asked if he would like to open his next week of shows. It required another long drive, but he was dedicated to giving comedy his best shot.

He ended up being “on the road” for over three months. But when he returned, he was ready to do it all again – only this time with the experience and credits to book better (and higher paying) gigs.

Another comedian worked her way up to being a solid opening act in her area (a bigger city). But the talent bookers kept her pigeonholed in the opening slot and wouldn’t consider bumping her up to feature. So, the answer was to find another audience.

She moved to a different city, and it happened. She also had to follow the same scenario to become a headliner – which she did. The funny part (think comedy) was when she returned to her hometown as a known headliner, but her original bookers still wanted her to open shows.

She wasn’t about to let that happen – and didn’t. She took a chance and found other areas to perform.

Even though I don’t know your situation as far as access to larger and more diverse audiences, all I can tell you is to follow the experienced advice from many working comics. Look beyond your area. It’s a large world out there with a lot of people looking to be entertained. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to get there.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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