Saturday, January 23, 2016

Working Without A Net


I'm a part of a Facebook group that is all about how to be a stand-up comedian. It's a mix of veterans and newbies. It's become a great way for a new comic to find out about nearly anything in comedy. Ask a question; no matter how obscure, there will be a comic out there with tons of experience who can give some insight.

It's a necessary thing that has been a long time in coming. There is no school to learn the art of stand-up comedy. I've often compared stand-up comedians to medicine men. Their knowledge was not written down in a book. They passed their knowledge down from generation to generation, the rest had to be figured out along the way. That is the way it works in the world of stand-up comedy.

I've always believed in sharing what I have learned. I made that attempt with a podcast called The Mentorist but never felt like I was able to get the message out to those who really needed it. This group reaches way more comedians than I ever could and I couldn't be happier to be a part of it.

Recently the subject of what to do about pre-show anxiety came up. There was much discussion about how to deal with it, some I agreed with, others I vehemently disagreed with. One of the suggestions that came up was smoking a little pot.

I can't communicate how much I disagree with that idea. In fact, I believe that if you need to use anything to get past your anxiety or, as they're called, "pre-show jitters" you haven't done the work necessary to become a really good stand-up comedian.

The only way to be on the top of your game is to be in in the right place mentally and emotionally when you walk on that stage. Because if you're not, you're going to make a mistake. It could be slight and mess up only one joke. Or it could be something huge that ruins your entire set.

So anything that you "require" to get your head "right" is not a good idea. A stand-up comic needs to be able to do that on their own, without assistance. I used to like to listen to a group of 5 songs before I went on stage. This may sound extreme but I even quit doing that. Not because it had created a problem, I just didn't want any kind of ritual before a show.

The reason is a simple one ... stand-up comedy is an art form that is totally dependent on the performer. There are no instruments (unless you bring one with you) or visual aids required. Through the spoken word you are conveying an idea that has only one purpose, to make someone laugh; a very specific end result. It has a difficulty level that exceeds just about everything else. It takes years to master, and the only way to master it is trial and error.

Not to take anything away from musicians, but as a comparison; a musician can practice his song as long as necessary to make sure it is perfectly played. When that same musician decides the time is right to play that song in front of a crowd it can be done with absolute perfection. There is no guarantee that the crowd will like it, but you have a better than average chance that it will be well received. Mostly because people are conditioned to respond to a song at the end by clapping, and in truth, are able to recognize (even if on a subconscious level) that a song was well executed.

Compare that to a joke. You can practice a joke as long as you like, but technically delivering it correctly really isn't much help. The audience doesn't recognize if a joke is structured correctly. They do not recognize that it was delivered properly, because there is no such thing. A joke is about as fluid as it gets. The audience will not give you a response just because you did it well. The first time you tell a joke, you're hoping for is some sort of positive response.

Once you get that response, the process of honing the joke starts. It's a process that varies; but it involves figuring out the best way to tell the joke. This involves the proper cadence, facial expression, voice volume, position on  the stage, how much body motion should be used, where you are looking and a number of other things that all must combined to make the joke work. The process is literally done by trial and error.

Once the trial and error period is over, a stand-up comedian must then deal with the "audience component" of a joke. No two audiences are the same. What will work for one may not work for the next. It is up to the comic to determine what the audience "vibe" is and then adjust the joke to work with that particular crowd. This is not done by surveying the room before going on stage. This is done while on stage during the performance. To the point of using the response to material that is done earlier in the set to decide whether or not the joke should even be done.

The other component to all this is when you do the material, it all needs to look like it's coming off the top of your head. Even though as you tell each joke you are evaluated how the joke was received and using that information to adjust upcoming material, as well as editing your set list.

To be able to do all this you must have a clear mind and the ability to focus. You are not going to get that smoking marijuana, having a drink or doing some sort of drug before a show. All of those things dull your senses and modify your thought process. The same goes for rituals like when I was listening to music before the show. I didn't have to, but I did enjoy it. When I didn't have the chance, it didn't ruin anything for me, but I did worry that it would eventual it would become too important to miss. The downside on a ritual is that when it doesn't happen it can ruin your mood, which will cause you to lose focus.

That's why it's so important to be in the same mental place every time you step on stage. Because when you can start from the same place you will already be well ahead of the game. It allows you to clearly see your environment and focus on the adjustments you need to make as you perform your material.

It's not easy and it doesn't happen right away. It can be a long journey, but it's well worth the effort.

In my case, I am at an absolute calm as I walk on the stage. It gives me a clarity that is hard to describe. I can only tell you that when I'm performing I can feel the energy in the room and can use that energy to guide me through my set. At times I feel superhuman. I am able to react with very little thought because I do not have anything mentally getting in the way.

It gives me confidence; which removes fear and anxiety. Truthfully, all I feel is joy in its purest form. Something that is not easy to find ...