Getting on stage as a stand-up comedian has taught me a whole host of things. Many of these learnings didn’t just help me on stage, but translated into other areas of my life; from my social interactions to my work and personal development.
These learnings have helped me a lot and I’ll write a quick summary of how they can help you non-comedians out there too.
1. GET OUT THERE
The magic happens on stage.
I have sat in my room for a whole day, writing a joke out word for word. Then I take it to the stage and discover that this thing, this perfectly crafted gem of a joke, just doesn’t work.
The only way to know if something works is to try it for real.
When Dave Chappelle writes new material for his next Netflix special, he doesn’t go straight on stage, cameras rolling. No! He goes to an open mic, just like everyone else and tests it out on a live audience.
What if no one laughs? You’re right, bad idea. Stay in your room.
No — everyone dies. You soon get over this comedic existential crisis and that’s when the real crafting starts. You go home, tell your parents you love them, rewrite the joke and try again tomorrow.
It’s the same for anything you create: that app, a song, a new cake recipe or any half formed idea. If you don’t share it with the world, your friends or your boss, you’ll never get their valuable feedback.
2. FAKE IT
I’m a hippo, I’m a hippo, I’m a hippo.
I’ve always been the clown but it wasn’t till I began telling jokes onstage that I felt comfortable calling myself a comedian. And soon as I did, my whole world opened up. I began acting like one, and people started treating my like one too.
Fake it until you make it maybe over used but it’s powerful. If you say you do something as a hobby, it will always be a hobby.
If you say you’re an X then you’ll gravitate towards being X, people will start treating you like X and you’ll become comfortable with being X.
3. DON’T FAKE IT
Who can relate to someone who isn’t being themselves?
Yup, I’ve just contradicted myself, but let me explain.
When I started stand-up, I had a little notebook full of silly ideas. At each open mic I picked out a new joke to try. Some worked, some didn’t. I’m a weird and dry kind-of-person and that makes for a weird and dry comedic persona — but I didn’t know that at first.
I tried to be edgy with offensive jokes, quick with one-liners and even tried to do my sets clean (fuck that, right?) But ultimately, the audience wasn’t buying it because it wasn’t me.
Once you’ve given it a crack, you’ll soon work out your natural voice — stick with it. Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t test out new things or deviate, but the audience is smart — they can smell inauthenticity a mile away.
There may not be an audience to sniff-out inauthenticity but that’s where your gut comes in. It’ll let you know what feels forced and what feels good. ‘Good’ might not be what everyone else is doing, or what’s cool right now but being yourself brings true confidence.
4. IT’S HOW YOU SAY IT
Your weirdness is crucial
Microsoft vs. Apple, Coke vs. Pepsi, 2pac vs. Biggie — each pair do the same thing, but what separates them is how they do it.
In comedy your voice will separate yourself. To illustrate my point, let’s look at two jokes side-by-side. Both of which use the premise, After going to the moon, the earth is boring.
Would you accuse either of them for stealing the others’ joke? Heck no! It’s the same idea, but the way each comic sees the premise and delivers the joke, makes it, not the idea itself.
The likelihood of parallel thinking is huge. Just because someone is driving in your lane, doesn’t mean you can’t drive next to them. With your own voice, your own unique way of seeing things, there’s enough room for everyone.
5. RIDE THE WAVE
Let the universe guide you, brah
Some of the best parts of my jokes, I’ve never written down. When I performed them in front of the crowd, I let go of what I’d planned to say and allowed them to unfold.
In improvisational comedy, there’s a concept called “Yes, and”. The idea is that every suggestion from your fellow performers should be embraced and expanded upon — nothing should be shut down.
With a room full of people, the potential for off-the-cuff-weirdness is huge.
By using the “Yes, and” philosophy, you embrace the unknown and open yourself up to all sorts of impromptu gold.
Let’s say you’re trying a new joke, the premise being “your mum calling you while you’re having sex”. In the middle of the joke, a woman in the audience gets a phone call.
Now what? Do you carry on with the joke?
Everyone in the venue has undoubtedly noticed the coincidence and is giggling to themselves. Take the opportunity!
By simply asking the woman if it was her mother calling, will get a laugh. You could even press further — who did call her? She could shut you down but if she shares that’s potentially another opportunity.
There are also internal influences that can affect the trajectory of a joke. Instead of a phone going off or an audience member hijacking your set, now it’s you.
Whilst telling a joke your mind suddenly shoots off on a comedic tangent — a new add-on, a new way of telling the joke, etc. You take it! The audience has no idea what you’ve done here. They don’t realise you’ve changed the plan. But you do, and if that new addition works well, your joke ends better than when you started telling it.
Whether it’s internal or external influences -there’s a real energy and magic in improvising on stage. The new tangents may not always work, but it’s worth the risk. Otherwise you’ll never know how good of a laugh it could get. For me, nothing beats it.
In life, all sorts of strange and unpredictable things can happen. By using the principle of “Yes and” you embrace them. Things that could potentially derail you become a source of inspiration. A bum-note at band practice turns into a new song, a printer on the fritz sparks a new art movement -there’s such thing as a happy accident.