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I didn’t start doing stand-up until my mid-thirties. I had a lot of experience speaking to audiences by that time, however: I had been performing for nearly two-decades as a comedy juggler. When I started hitting open-mics in Denver and elsewhere working on my first five minutes of stand-up material, I would walk on stage with a highlighter pen, a slap bracelet, two half dollars and a billiard ball neatly concealed in my pockets and a host of other time-tested accouterment. The moment I lost trust in (or, just as likely, simply blanked on) my stand-up material, I’d hit the eject button and break-out the props from my pocket and then could coast from there.
Sometimes I’d bail on the stand-up if I if I had the least little memory lapse. Not wishing to be seen looking at my crib sheet, if I had one, I’d simply bail and boom! my variety act would inflate in seconds and I was gold again.
When I stopped working with a crib sheet on the stage stool – it all seems so shabby now – is when I really progressed in terms of memorization (a facet of the job which was much less onerous than I feared when I realized I only have to memorize as I write, not commit to memory a 45-minute set.
Crib sheets are a crutch, not to mention an unwelcome distraction to the audience to see you pouring or – sometimes worse – glancing over your notes. Stand-up comedy is a conversation between the audience and the comedian. Why give them even a brief invitation to end the conversation?
Anyway, if I bailed on the stand-up (or just had more time to fill) I’d produce a highlighter pen from my pocket and and noticed an unmistakable increase in focus from the audience: the comedian is doing something unexpected and suddenly everyone’s curious about what’s going to happen next. That was a powerful thing to harness for me and has been ever since.
I learned the importance of being interesting at all times. I wish lecturers and teachers would learn this from the best comedians! It’s pretty simple: engage the audience and start telling jokes.
I learned to resist any urge to be explicit with the audience about demanding their attention: I pretended to just assume it. “Never let them see you sweat” became my mantra, if not my motto.
In terms of developing material I would have been better off without all those props, as all it did in the end was postpone my emergence from hypersensitive in terms of audience reaction to sort of a “Trust, but verify” approach: I don’t sweat any given moment but keep my eyes on the big picture.
And for the love of God, don’t be loud. What’s that? You have to “sell” the material? Please. Have you stood in the back of the room beneath the speakers and shouted into the microphone as you do? It’s horrible.
My friend and one of my favorite comedians in Jeff Wayne. He taught me a lot of valuable things. Among them was “Of course if a joke gets absolutely no response, you have to comment on it. But as long as you’re getting something – anything – from the audience, you’re best bet is to smile and get on with it.
A lot of it is the overall impression you leave with the audience during the show. Little things can undermine your credibility or like ability. Sometimes jokes stop being funny for no apparent reason. Easy come, easy go!
Many of my fellow open-mic comedians were the exact opposite. They seemed to be utterly oblivious to the audience’s non-reaction. I’d see the same guys week after week sharing onstage the same stories, telling the same anecdotes (rarely did they tell “jokes”, i.e., “As a comedian married to a German I sometimes have to go outside the marriage for laughs…” ). The hacks plow through their material like bloodthirsty wolverines, utterly indifferent to the audience’s reaction
I was the other way: I had to learn to resist my tendency to be hypersensitive and made even more so because I had in my pockets the comedy equivalent to the military’s meals Ready To Eat.
Another good rule of thumb I learned from Jeff: if you hear or see something from the stage that the audience can’t hear or see, forget about it. They don’t know what you’re talking about. Get back to the jokes.
It takes discipline to sit down and write daily, whether it’s a stand-up comedy bit, a blog or prose or fiction of any length. Writing what comes to mind throughout the day is easy: jokes, like trouble in New York, find me. I write throughout the day (except on those not-infrequent days when theres no signal) so that I can get on with my day. Staring at a blank screen while standing over the joke hole just doesn’t work for me. If I am going to transition to longer-form writing – maybe take baby steps with some two liners? – then I will have to learn to sit down and organize my thoughts. Just learning to be not-necessarily funny when writing is a challenge.
In the meantime, I have succeeded making my bed most days. The good Admiral McRaven is right: one of the satisfactions of making your bed each morning is repairing to it each night. Here’s my made bed.
Anyway, this signal I’ve been receiving makes my job mostly clerical: sorting the jokes by category (I keep every joke in a single document and hashtag it with one of the above routines that would likely provide cover for it. For example, a joke about my wife would be tagged with #family). I then gauge the jokes onstage with my patented “Tell joke, listen to audience reaction” stand-up comedy system.
I learned I wouldn’t write anything funny until I found I was performing it regularly. Looking back at my first notebooks I literally wonder: “What was I aiming at here?” The notebook was quiet and comfortable and never tested me. So the problem was I wasn’t going out there to perform stand-up enough. You have to be a writer and a performer – a rare combination.
At real gigs I’d throw in a line here or there during my show, but the audience wasn’t expecting stand-up and if they had, they would have been disappointed. A couple of reliable lines here and there, yes, but nothing qualifying as an actual bit.
I had to begin performing as a stand-up regularly to figure out who I was really writing for. My only clue to answer the question “What’s my persona gonna be?” was the from observing the patter and speaking-style I employed in my comedy juggling act. There was surely a lot of overlap in in my stand-up persona and my variety act persona – but whatever rough transition remained I hope I have polished into something deemed seamless.
I knew it important to meld the two modes together stylistically, especially since it became apparent that my juggling days were numbered. I have the advantage, too, that audiences tend to get giddy when my kind-of nerdy, boastful comedian personae suddenly gives way to this nerdy, boastful juggler persona who’s kicking a billiard balls into his eye socket and stuff.
Stand-up comedy also made me at once more self-aware and less self-conscious. I learned that I was kind of clever, not to mention preoccupied with TSA guidelines. Stylistically, I strive to be a pretty cool customer who manipulates the audience onto his wavelength without appearing to be striving do so. My motto is “Never let ’em see you sweat”.
When I finally started performing stand-up regularly – in-and-around Denver – I had an interesting perspective. Backstage, I’d be surrounded more-or-less relaxed open-mic guys who had more experience than me in stand-up but whose overall performing experience was dwarfed by my own (having performed some iteration of my comedy juggling act my whole adult life). I remember at one venue in a relatively small but beautiful old stone theater in Arvada we were told shortly before the show that the microphone wasn’t functioning and we’d simply do without.
Well, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. For the other guys it seemed a minor detail. Holding a microphone in my hand was for me a welcome thumb to suck and served as a small equalizer between a novice like me, who had long grown accustomed to speaking with both hands free – and guys who had been hitting the open mic for months or years. In other words, holding a microphone was comforting luxury for me and deprived it I felt distracted. For them, it simply meant they’d have to do their act the way they’ve done it many times before: at other open mics, at home in the shower, driving, or whatever.
Memorization and desensitization were other big factors: memorizing my material and desensitizing myself from constantly checking the pulse of the audience and learning to simply charge on.
The microphone looms larger in the mind of comedians than most audiences will believe. What’s the big deal? Remove it from the stand and put it back when you’re done! But my friend and arguably world’s funniest man Phil Tag likes to rehearse his stand-up when possible on the stage with the lights under show conditions and the microphone on. For a guy who’s been doing it for decades and with appearances on The Tonight Show, you’d think he’d enjoy the comedian’s unique privilege of not requiring much, if any, tech rehearsal.
Over time, I would learn the lesson which I still apply to so many aspects of life: that most things that happen during a show are as big a deal to the audience as they appear to be to you. If doing your set without a hand-held microphone is no big deal to you, it will be a non-issue to the audience. The same goes for your bald head, paunch, cleft lip, whatever.
Mentally, I divide my stand-up into a handful of routines, or, to save time, I call “bits”. They are, in the generic order I do them, whatever that means:
family; drinking; work/little man; S.F. vs. L.V.;/gambling; dad; headlines; nude cruise; reading; credit/ID theft; stimulus/ hair gel/flying;
I did not write out any of these routines in anything close to a linear fashion. As outlined above, I just wrote stuff down throughout the day and over the above themes emerged and coalesced as I cherry-picked jokes like these.
By not straying from my comfort zone I’ve been able, over time, to generate a stand-up comedy act which aesthetically and temperamentally suits me nicely enough. If I am going to write anything of any length, though, I’ll l have to leave my comfort zone.
When I’m ready, I’ll let you know about it.
Thanks for reading,
Return to www.daviDDeeble.com
I was riding my bike to the hardware store about 20minutes from our home in Germany. It was a sunny afternoon and there was little traffic. After stopping at a quiet intersection, I quickly resumed riding through the red light. Shortly thereafter I looked behind, saw a police car trailing me and knew immediately that I was being pulled over.
I’m good with cops in these situations. I’m 100% cooperative, humble and, most importantly, open: I admit guilt without stint. Doing so has enabled me to get out of tickets about the last six times I’ve been pulled over. This time, however, I felt I would not be so lucky. These guys, I sensed, wanted me to be ticketed.
I had never been pulled over on a bike before. I had never been pulled over outside the U.S. before. Both officers were younger than me – a depressing milestone. They seemed like the type of young men who spend most of their time lifting weights in their parents’ garage then throwing back beer at Germany’s equivalent of Hooters. When the first one stepped out of the car I said (in German) with the ingratiating tone of an experienced comedian: “I can’t speak German very well”. He replied (in German) “You can’t ride a bike very well either!”
He asked me where I live and said “On Kirchstrasse, with my wife”. “Show me your identification.” German authorities never ask questions – they make demands. I showed him my American drivers license. “Do you have something that shows you live at Kirchstrasse?” “No,” I said. Then, “Well, I do at home.”
His partner at this time was sitting in the vehicle with my drivers license and speaking on the phone – lots of back and forth. From the other officer the questions to me continued and I continued to answer. It became apparent that they were having some difficulty.
After about ten or fifteen minutes the other officer exited the car and approached me. “Okay. You will take us to your home to show us a document proving you live at 161b Kirchstrasse.”
“Oh, OK” I said, genuinely surprised and delighted (I suffer from clinical boredom and revel in such detours from the expected). There was a pause. “Um, do we put my bike in your car or do you follow me?” I asked.
“No,” said the cop. “You lock your bike and we drive you to your house.”
“I don’t have a lock” I said.
If things were going badly for these poor fellows before, this, I sensed, might be a knockout blow. The other officer returned to the car and the phone while his partner and I chatted about my background (American, comedian, etc). Another ten minutes passed. Finally, the officer exited the vehicle and they spoke to each other incomprehensibly.
Finally, I was handed back my drivers license and addressed in that scolding tone that suits German particularly well: “You ran a red light and the fine is 100 euros (about $130). Whenever you are in Germany you are required to have a proof of residency on your person at all times. Because you don’t have your proof of residency we must drive you to your home to get it. But because you don’t have a lock on your bike we can’t drive you. In the future you need to have your proof of residency with you at all times and have a lock for your bike. Only by doing so you will be able to receive your 100 euro fine.”
He didn’t really say that last sentence, although he may as well have.
Here are some simple tips for those who wish to try their hand at stand-up comedy.
1: STOP SNUGGLING UP TO THE AUDIENCE
People love to be told how wonderful they are, but they don’t usually find it funny. To the extent that your attitude toward the audience is a factor, contempt is far better than genuflection. Better still that your material be directed outward, without apology, than inward. Be honest – it’s refreshing, funny and the easiest thing to remember.
2: TAKE CHARGE
The audience wants someone to take charge and they want it to be you. Like the pilot of the plane, it helps to look like you know what you’re doing. You should have an air of authority. Think of George Burns and his cigar or Ron White and his glass of bourbon. I always wear a suit onstage – a nice one. And all things being equal, who do you think the audience will side with – a guy in a sharp suit or the guy in the Corona visor and the tribal armband tattoo? Remember, the audience is looking at you far more intensely they are listening to you when you first come onstage. It’s often said that “A haircut and a shoe shine will only take you so far.” True, but at least they start you off in the right direction!
During the zenith of male peacockery – the 1970’s – Steve Martin was relatively subdued in an all-white three-piece suit. Why? He knew that if he looked wild and crazy and acted wild and crazy that he would be like a lot of other comedians. But if he dressed normally and acted wild and crazy, well, then he would stand out (not to mention allowing him to tap into the regular Joe’s dream wish to become the life of the party).
3: NOTHING SHOULD FAZE YOU
What’s the worst thing that can happen onstage? Far from a rhetorical question, it will serve you well to imagine the worst-case scenario taking place on stage and you, the hero, dealing with it with preternatural calm. (In reality the worst thing that usually can happy onstage is a non-functioning microphone). If it’s a highly unusual situation, you don’t even have to be funny: 9 times out of 10 if you’re calm and can still form complete sentences, well, then you da man!
If you wish, write and rehearse some stock lines for commonplace scenarios such as a broken glass, a chatty table or a heckler. Remember, the audience aches for you to take charge.
You might find it useful to recite a simple mantra before you go onstage. I have a handful of different mantras that I sometimes use before a show and one of them is “Nothing fazes me”, which I repeat over and over (I’m pretty sure that’s what a mantra requires). Other mantras I use are “I’m having fun up here” and “My zipper is up”.
4: YOUR VIBE IS CONTAGIOUS
If you’re calm, the audience will be calm. If you’re irrepressible, the audience will be irrepressible. If you’re worried about what your next joke is, so will the audience. Can you fake your demeanor? Of course you can – you do it all the time. If you’re the meditating type, consider doing some before each performance. If you have any doubt about your ability to memorize your material, spend extra time committing it to memory. Do whatever works for you so that moments before you go onstage you can take a deep breath, inhale and tackle your job without looking over your shoulder.
5: TALK ABOUT WHATEVER YOU WANT
One of the nice things about stand-up comedy is that the world is your oyster. Do you really have so much material that you’re going to limit yourself to relationships and Lindsay Lohan? On the other hand, don’t try to stem the tsunami of material you’ve been writing about egg whites. Sure, maybe you risk being pigeonholed as “The Tool Guy” like Tim Allen, for example, but I’ll wager that it’s the kind of pigeonholing most would benefit from. Think of it as your hook!
6: BE VERSATILE BY WORKING BOTH CLEAN AND DIRTY
None of this is mean to persuade those with moral or religious objections to adult humor, but most people understand that versatility is generally a good thing. I hope this doesn’t shock you, but there are decent people in this world who would like to see a show that’s unsuitable for children. In fact, there’s a burgeoning U.S. city unabashedly dedicated to entertainment for grown-ups called Las Vegas. President Reagan even emceed a floor show there for a while. If you are capable of doing stand-up using language and themes that the vast majority of adults use everyday among their peers, don’t be afraid to do so! If you can work both clean and dirty then its’ no different than Starbucks offering both hot and cold coffee, thereby bringing more value to more people. Ka-ching!
I only ask one thing: if you work clean, please don’t engage in that obnoxious form of moral exhibitionism that requires that you point out and celebrate it with the audience, i.e., “In today’s world where so many people feel you have to tell dirty jokes to be funny, it’s so refreshing….”) It’s like carrying a drunk girl to her bed and bragging the next morning about how you didn’t’ put a move on her.
7: LISTEN TO THE AUDIENCE
I’m self-deprecating on stage. Very self-deprecating. Extremely self-deprecating. I hate myself. All of this is fine, except that I also tend to be overly-sensitive and insecure and when I add self-deprecation to the mix, I sometimes get in trouble. The best advice I ever got in this regard was from a wonderful comedian and my good friend Jeff Wayne. He said “Unless a joke gets no reaction whatsoever, you should just continue on without commentary.”
It’s sometimes tempting to call attention when a joke gets a weaker response than that established by the audience’s “laughter baseline”. The majority of times I do so, however, I end up only alienating the audience. I can hear the audience thinking “We’re having a ball here – why are you micro-analyzing our every response?” If you work quickly onstage, you can often get away with with a joke that falls completely flat by segueing immediately to the next joke.
But if there’s an elephant in the room and you work slowly like me, you’ve got to say something. Be prepared to win them back with a hilarious impromptu line (which you carefully crafted years ago on the back of a cocktail napkin).
Remember, it’s a war, not a battle. So listen to the audience, but don’t be in be in thrall to any one moment on stage.
8: PUT YOUR WORST FOOT FORWARD
Comedians are not generally known for their looks. On the contrary, stand-up comedy is one of the few professions where good looks are considered an occupational hazard. Take me, for example. I am a handsome man, there’s no way around it. I take no credit for it, it’s just the way it is. You don’t think I see the way audiences look at me when I walk onstage? It’s always the same: the women looking at me and beaming, the men looking at their women and frowning. I haven’t even spoken into the microphone yet and I’m already behind the 8-ball with all the guys in the audience and, in a way (and for the same reason) many of the women, too. But I’ve got one great thing going for me: I’m 5’5″ and 117 pounds. In other words, I’m a little man. And I don’t mean in a shorter-than-the-national average kind of way, either: I practically represent the lollipop guild.
My diminutive stature has been a gold mine for comedy. Forget all the material it generates – it mellows what otherwise might be perceived as a threat. I’m no longer just smart, funny, good-looking and successful: I’m smart, funny, good-looking, successful and small enough to do my shopping at Baby Gap. The same phenomenon is at play when I do material about married life. I can’t count the times I’ll see a holdout in the audience – usually a woman – with a look of consternation on her face. Then I begin telling good-natured jokes about married life with kids and I can practically hear a collective sigh of relief.
So remember, talk about those aspects of your life that are unsatisfying: winners are boring.