You’ll never work in this town again

July 22, 2014

Hi Dave – I’m fairly new to this newsletter, so I don’t know if you’ve addressed this topic but I think it could be a good one. How to prepare yourself in the event of a car breakdown and what to do when it does. I was driving home from a gig last night and it happened…at 2 AM…with not a town in sight. I drove the car onto an exit, not realizing it was a merge ramp for a state highway. Ended up following the ramp around and saw a 24 hour gas station in the distance. It just so happened that a couple cops pulled in a little later. I told them what was going on, they paged another cop who’s a grease monkey, and he fixed it up. I have no idea what I would have done otherwise! – J.N.

greasemonkey02_animalFC

Throw a monkey wrench into the works!

Hey J.N. – Nope, we haven’t talked about this topic, so thanks for asking. I don’t have any solutions about what to do in your particular automotive case, so I’m glad to hear you have a grease monkey for a fairy godfather. As long as you made it TO the gig, what happens AFTER is all potential comedy material.

But I will comment on the importance of getting TO gigs…

Unless you’re near death, someone near and dear to you is near death, or you have this important stipulation – “due to an act of God” – written into your contract (and you should!) you never miss a paid performance. What the heck – I’ll say it – you also don’t want to miss an un-paid performance if you’ve promised a booker, club owner or event organizer you’ll be there, they’re planning on having you perform, AND it has the potential of leading to paid performances.

It’s your career and it’s a job.

Make sure your car has gas and is tuned-up, the flight’s not over-booked (if so, arrive early so you’re not the passenger getting bumped) or have an updated public transportation schedule. Unless you can show a photo of you in a hospital or standing next to your totaled doublewide house trailer after a tornado, you’d better show up and be ready to perform. If not, don’t expect a second chance re-booking from the same person.

Case in point…

When I was the talent coordinator at The Los Angeles Improv, one of my favorite NYC comedians was flying out for a television audition. She’ll remain nameless because she’s quite famous and I consider her to be a true friend in this business and would never write anything to make you think less of her. She called me and I told her to come to The Improv on Melrose Avenue and I’ll get her a few sets. Then I mentioned this to a higher-up (also nameless because he’s still my personal comedy hero) and he said no way. He liked her, but she had stood him up a few years earlier by canceling a benefit performance at the last minute. And without a near death photo or evidence of a destroyed doublewide, she had committed the worse sin in the business. So instead of watching my friend on stage at The Melrose Improv, we met for lunch at a deli next to The Laugh Factory.

Being a no-show is worse than ignoring the light while on stage and going over your performance time. Remember that.

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In my experience, you don’t miss gigs – period. It’s a business and you need to treat it like a business. I’ll tell’ya right now, all talent bookers want to work with professionals. If you don’t handle your career like a professional – then don’t bother contacting professional talent bookers.

Another case in point. In fact, here are a couple…

A few years ago I was booking a club about an hour outside Cleveland. There was a girl who came through my comedy workshop who really had promise – decent material and good stage presence. She really just needed stage time to get better. I had given her a few MC gigs, she did well – and since this club was only running a two person show, it was a good chance for her to do a longer set.

So even though she didn’t have a lot of experience, I told the owner she would be great and we booked her for the paying gig. It wasn’t so great when he called me about 15 minutes after show was supposed to start and asked when she would arrive. I called the phone number I had for her – and never heard back. I worried that she was stuck on the highway, got lost or suffered a near death (or worse) experience.

The show went on with only one comedian, but I lost a chunk of my fee for booking it since half the talent never got there.

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The next day she called and said she had gotten my message. She couldn’t call back because she had taken a WAITRESS job and had to work the night of the show! No warning and no, “can you find someone else?” She just never showed up. BUT (if you can believe this) she then asked if I could re-schedule her for the gig when she had a day off.

That was the last time I spoke with her.

Another example? Okay… This one is about getting lost.

200288279-001I had a comedian I was representing in the college market. He had showcased through NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) and I scheduled him for a number of good paying gigs. One was a Friday night at a campus in Pennsylvania. Not long before the show was scheduled to start, this idiot called me to say he was hopelessly lost.

I would think – and maybe this is just me (I say sarcastically) but if I were supposed to drive to a good paying gig, a GPS, MapQuest printout, or even a road map would be a good business items to invest in. He told me he THOUGHT he knew ABOUT where the college was – so just headed in that direction hoping to see signs to help him find it.

He missed the show – and again, I missed a booking fee. Do you think I ever booked him again? Yeah, I’m laughing (sarcastically) that you would even consider that one…

So this week’s message is simple. Don’t miss a gig if you plan to work for that talent booker again in the future. And if you do, just hope he sees you on the television news explaining how the tornado interrupted your rendezvous with the aliens who’ve been visiting the trailer park – and who were supposed to give you a lift to your comedy gig. If you’re lucky, he might buy that excuse – or find it entertaining enough to give you a rare second chance.

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop:Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Comedy contests offer stage time

July 16, 2014

Hi Dave – I did a Tuesday Amateur Night and saw the club was hosting another round of their “Best Amateur Comedian” contest. I want to enter, but not sure I’m ready. What’s the deal with comedy contests overall? – L.P.

Hey L.P. – Here’s a big chunk of personal opinion. I like comedy contests in clubs for one simple reason – stage time. Otherwise I’m not a big fan. Winners are usually decided by audience applause and the person who packs in the most friends (voters) will win. I’ve seen this happen over and over and can’t remember ever seeing the funniest comedian (another chunk of personal opinion) actually win one of these contests. Whoever can coax in the most paying customers will be awarded, “Funniest Comedian.”

If I only had one more friend!

If I only had one more friend!

Doesn’t seem fair – does it?

Of course the club owners and management have no problem with this because they make money from paying customers. And you know what? I also have NO PROBLEM with that because it’s show BUSINESS and if the club doesn’t make money, then comedians have one less place to perform. That’s the business part that comedians and performers in general need to understand. So from that point of view – I’m a BIG fan of comedy contests.

But since you’re a comedian, let’s stick with the comedian’s point of view…

There are other ways to decide contest winners. Like on American Idol, there might be a panel of judges making the award-winning decision. That seems fairer than performing in front of a loaded audience, but then you need to impress the judges. Depending on what they personally enjoy (clean comedy, dirty comedy, etc…) this might compromise your comedy voice and material.

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This is also true if you have to play by their rules. For instance, I’ve seen comedians disqualified from contests because they accidently dropped the F-Bomb (against the rules) or went 10 seconds over their allotted time – even though the only reason  they couldn’t get through their set in the allotted time was because of audience applause and laugh breaks. But again, you need to follow the contest rules and if you don’t – then you just blew it in front of the judges.

Again – doesn’t seem fair, does it? The losers will tell you that, while the winners will add the award to their resumes.

1295028566-big-deal-logoHere’s the real scoop about comedy contests. A BIG name, BIG time comedy contest is a BIG deal and will open up BIG opportunities for the BIG winners.

Think BIG – like Last Comic Standing or contests associated with a major city or festival like Montreal, Boston, New York, Las Vegas or San Francisco. Win one of those and you not only will be seen by many important entertainment industry  movers and shakers, but you could even wind up with your own sitcom. No BS – I’ve seen it happen.

Of course there are always two sides to everything. Some of the best comedians I’ve worked with and respect the most never won a local comedy contest. And you know what? I don’t think any of them really care. They were simply dedicated to being good comedians and losing a contest never stopped them from working toward their goal. They also would never have considered changing who they are on stage and instead develop material that the judges would approve of next time. That’s not why they got into the biz in the first place.

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I’ll also make an assumption and say that during the early days of their careers they MIGHT have entered a local contest or two. But I’m sure they only did it for the same reason I’ll tell you to do it – STAGE TIME. I remember a few comics at the NYC Improv going to other clubs for contests and not even staying to see who won. That wasn’t important – getting on stage was.

tumblr_n7opk9sbkw1sh1435o1_500Any time you have an opportunity to get on stage and work on your act, grab it and use it to your advantage. As you should know, improving as a comedian (humorous speaker or performer in general) can only happen through performing experience. And you know what comedy contests offer? STAGE TIME.

Yeah, they may also offer cash prizes and more stage time – so of course you want to win to reap those benefits. But if you don’t, there’s no reason to sweat it or feel bad.

By the way, that’s why I’m not a big fan of comedy contests. Not everyone starts out in the business with a thick skin. That has to be developed if you ever plan to be serious about a comedy career. Newer comedians might put too much weight behind a comedy contest and feel if they don’t win, they’re not talented. No – it just means you didn’t bring enough friends, didn’t cater to the judge’s sense of humor, or haven’t had enough stage experience, (there are no short cuts – sorry!).

But you still win – you get stage time. So contests are good for that reason.

If you win the contest – that’s great! I hope it leads to more stage time. But if you don’t…

Like I mentioned, a lot of top comedians have never won a contest and never lost any sleep over it. They took advantage of the stage time and used it to become better comedians.

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Promotional video length for club, corporate and college gigs

July 8, 2014

Hey Dave – I’m real serious about doing stand-up comedy and I wanted some info on making my audition tape. How long should it be? Are bookers looking for something specific? If u can help me out please write back – B.T. / The Future of Comedy

Back To The Future!

Back To The Future!

Hey B.T. – The future of comedy relies a lot on the past. A dynamic, attention-grabbing and (most of all) FUNNY audition tape. BUT we don’t want to live TOO much in the past, so let’s start talking about this in terms of online videos and DVDs.

I don’t know anyone that’s using “tape” anymore…

Actually, that’s – just a technicality. But I want to make sure we’re using same terms and are on the same page… uh, “screen” here in 2014.

When I talk about relying on the past, I’m talking about how long your video should be. That hasn’t changed since I wrote How To Be A Working Comic and quoted comedian Bobby Collins, who was talking about video “tape” at that time. It should be 3 to 7 minutes long, with 7 minutes being probably the most common. That gives talent bookers a “taste” (Bobby’s term in the book) of what you do on stage.

Keep it moving!

Keep it moving!

Most talent bookers are pretty busy. You wouldn’t believe how many videos they’re asked to view every day. Since there are only so many minutes in a day – they can’t sit around and watch an hour, half hour or even 20 minutes of performance footage from each comedian. That’s why most only watch the beginning or hit the fast forward button and stop at random places.

When I booked the TV show A&E’s An Evening At The Improv, I would watch anywhere from 20 to 30 videos at one sitting.

No lie.

I couldn’t take (because of time – not interest) more than 5 minutes with each one. So the comedian had to come on strong from the beginning and prove they were already a working comic. If not, then I’d stop the video and move on to the next one.

Another thing I’ve always said is that a good talent booker will know 30 seconds into a comedian’s act if he wants to hire that comedian or not. Experience and talent shows (or should) right from the beginning of the set. You can try to fake it, but people in the biz can usually tell right away.

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Now, if they watch 3 to 7 minutes and are interested but not sold on hiring, they can contact the comedian and request more. That’s when you can send something longer (usually 15 to 20 minutes).

I once worked with a club booker that (seriously) said he wanted to see a full one hour video before he would hire an act. I thought that was a bit extreme, but if that’s the way he does business, well… it’s his club and it’s his time. I never met another booker who had that much time to watch videos.

It also depends what market you want to get into.

I’m talking mainly about clubs and television with the above advice. If you want to work in the corporate market as a comedian or as a humorous speaker, your video will be much different. That should be a production – rather than just an example of your live performance.

This means corporate videos can be edited showing not only segments of your act, but also audience comments, your credits scrolling across the screen – or any other techniques that make the comedian or speaker look professional and in demand.

Again, short and dynamic is best. The corporate videos I’ve been sent or have edited for myself and others are always five to seven minutes in length.

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The college market also plays out differently. When you’re involved in NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) and APCA (Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities) the college booking organizations I talk about in the book Comedy FAQs And Answers, they only want 3 minute videos. BUT the catch is if the college students like that 3 minutes and want to see more, you should have at least two additional 3 minute segments on the DVD so they can continue to watch until they:

  1. Give you a live showcase (explained in the book).
  2. Keep you in mind as a maybe.
  3. Move on to the next comedian.

And finally, what’s different now than in the days of using video “tape” is the method of delivery. Everyone now can watch online videos or will request DVDs.

I always thought it was funny that the last holdout for video tapes was the college market. Believe it or not you would think they’d be the most progressive, but they seemed to hold onto the older techno techniques long after the clubs and corporate bookers were requesting only DVDs.

On the cutting edge of technology

On the cutting edge
of technology

There was also an agent I used to work with who long after everyone else had made the switch, still insisted he only wanted video tapes. I don’t work with him anymore. If an agent can’t stay up on how the business is done today, then I doubt he will be doing much business. I heard through the grapevine that he finally has an email address, so maybe he’s been reading this newsletter and finally getting it

In 2014, everyone in the business has the technology to watch promotional video online. If not, then they’re in the wrong business.

YouTube is still the most popular, but I know there are also other sites that can allow bookers to watch your video immediately. The key is to have it available to them either embedded on your website or linked to YouTube.

* Last bit of advice about this.

I recently talked to a booker who said he expects comedians to have a website. It’s more professional. He told me he won’t even go on Facebook or other social media sites to watch. If the comedian doesn’t have a website, then he feels that comedian is not professional enough to work in that club.

I’m just passing that thought along because I know you’re interested…

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Going for the perfect performance

June 30, 2014

Dave – I’m working to get the whole stage fright thing out of my system. (My first time on stage) I was so nervous because I didn’t know the material that well. The problem my friends and I noticed is I am too much of a perfectionist. I understand things won’t be perfect but for some reason I feel the need to make it perfect. – T.D.

Hey T.D. – A lot of comedians and speakers are perfectionists. They struggle over finding the right word or phrases. For instance in the comedy world, they always want to know what word is funnier than another.

Banana Suit

Bananarama

Example: Cucumber or banana. This debate will go on forever…

That’s why they continue to write and test out material (words and phrases) during live performances. They record their sets and listen to audience reaction. When an audience laughs – it works. If they don’t laugh – then the comic needs to edit or rewrite the material and repeat the process until it does work. If it still doesn’t get a laugh from the audience, then the comic needs to discard that bit and write something else.

Of course there’s more to it than just that simple explanation.

Stage experience, your comedy voice, delivery, timing and the make-up of the audience will also determine what works and what doesn’t during any performance. But even when everything is working in your favor, will it ever be perfect?

In a creative artist’s mind – probably not.

You might debate this, but I believe that creative artists always think they can do better. It’s a creative person’s curse. It’s also what drives them to constantly do better work. The goal is perfection, but it’s like trying to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It’s a never ending journey to a place impossible to reach.

Let’s put this into musical terms, as I tend to do when coaching comedians and speakers. And since I’m a “classic rocker,” stick with me while I use a classic example from the mid 1960s…

Staying cool in the recording studio

Staying cool in the
recording studio

Sited as one of the greatest songs by The Beatles is A Day In The Life. It closed the legendary album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and is a true John Lennon & Paul McCartney composition. That duo is also often sited as being the top composers of the decade.

So put it all together – and it’s the perfect song. Correct?

Well, it could have been better. Listen closely as the final chord fades out. Someone forgot to turn off the air conditioner in the recording studio and it’s heard in the background.

Perfect? Close, but not quite.

Comedians can walk off stage after an exceptional performance and say they “killed,” which is the comic’s term for having a great show. But I sincerely doubt many would say they could never do better. They could watch a video of their set and probably have no problem finding a gesture or a facial expression – or a line or phrase or whatever – that might have been done differently and gotten a better audience response.

It’s the creative curse. There’s always room for improvement.

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So my point is not to worry about being perfect. Just do your best. Film and television actors – and musicians in a recording studio – get to do multiple takes and use editing in an effort to make the end result perfect. But just like with A Day In The Life, a creative artist will probably think they could have made it better.

In fact, the imperfect result could even be better than you’d planned. And in case you haven’t caught on, this is another excuse for me to share a great story…

A number of years ago in one of my comedy workshops at The Improv, an aspiring comic wanted to be “perfect” – his exact word. (And if T.S. is reading this – yeah, I’m talking about you!). He wrote and memorized his set word for word and went on stage prepared to deliver it that way.

Perfectionist

Perfectionist

He was doing an okay job of it, but a few minutes into his set he forgot his material. He suddenly yelled, “Oh ****!” and THREW himself against the (fake) brick wall, fell over a stool and landed on the stage.

It was pure frustration and the funniest thing we had seen in that workshop. We all cracked up in laughter. It was a GREAT comedy performance!

We all tried to convince him that he had found his performing style. It was honest and real. It was comedy and funny. But he didn’t believe us. It was not his idea of the perfect set and he would never allow himself to do that in front of an audience – even though it happened during every one of our workshop sessions.

The night of our show at The Improv, I talked with each workshop member and reassured them they would have a good set. No worries. But when I got to T.S. – I told him that I hoped he would screw up and forget his material. He looked at me like I was nuts – “Are you serious?” He said there was no way. He had been practicing for days and would do the perfect set.

Do I need to continue with this? Okay…

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He went on stage – got a few minutes into his set and WHAM!!!! He forgot what he was going to say next.

He threw himself against the wall, over the bar stool and hit the floor in frustration. It was the highlight of our show and he earned the biggest laughs of the night. I thought it was perfect. He had a great time, but thought he could do better next time…

The bottom line is to be creative and have fun. Every opportunity you have on stage or on the speaker’s platform is an opportunity to grow as an artist. You want to experiment and take chances. Creative people need change, which is why comedians write new jokes and speakers spin off their messages into different programs for different audiences.

You can try to be perfect on stage, but don’t sweat it when you’re not – because nobody is. The idea is to be even better next time.

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Experienced advice on getting hired as a comedy writer

June 23, 2014

With last week’s FAQ and Answer about getting hired as a comedy writer I asked if anyone had further advice to please share it with us. My not-so-subtle request reached one of my favorite writers in the comedy biz and I’m happy to pass along his words of experienced wisdom.

Sleeping with your GynecologistMarc Jaffe is a stand-up comedian with numerous TV appearances, author (Sleeping With Your Gynecologist), playwright (Side Effects May Include…), producer/writer (Bonk – the live game show), and with his wife Karen started Shaking with Laughter, an organization that helps support The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. Marc is also known to many of us as a writer for the legendary TV show Seinfeld.

So for some very worthwhile – and again, experienced – advice on writing for other comics, here’s Marc Jaffe…

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Dave,

Re: How to write for others. Good advice given. For what it’s worth here are a few things I would add.

Tremendously important to have the voice of the person you are writing for as you said, but I would point out that often you’ll have a better chance of getting the comedian’s voice if you like their act, so go after people who make you laugh, not just any hot comedian.

Paul_Reiser

Paul Reiser

The best time to get an opening if you haven’t been a hangout pal is when the comedian you want to write for is busy or in transition and are taking the next step. I approached Paul Reiser just as he was getting hot and was doing Tonight Shows and Letterman regularly. He wasn’t doing sets on those shows, he was already a name movie star, but he was a regular guest and didn’t have enough material to “waste” on panel on those shows. So he was happy to have someone work on new things for TV that wouldn’t eat up his club act.

Seinfeld needed someone because he got a TV show and I think he felt this was something new for him and he needed to find someone other than a friend to help him.

So, much like comedy, timing is everything. Timing and being funny and prolific. If you do stand-up, you know the percentage of stuff you write that actually works and stays in your act is minor – 10% would be great. You have to churn out a lot of stuff because that percentage will probably hold when you write for others.

Be honest with yourself as a comedian too. I always knew I was a much better writer than performer. If your act is working because you are a great performer who can get away with mediocre writing, don’t try to write for others. When I got the opportunity to write for top name guys, it was phenomenal because suddenly 20% of the stuff I was writing worked. That was because the people I was writing for could always make what I wrote better. They also had a higher standard than I had so that even though 20% worked, it was back down to 10% that made it, because it had to be killer.

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Be ready before you seek out an opportunity. If you are good for that first guy, they will recommend you. Reiser recommended me to Seinfeld and then I got other jobs because Jerry’s management was happy with my work for Jerry and they had a roster of other great comedians that needed help at various times.

Also, one of the great things about being a writer is that you can just call yourself a writer. Go to the clubs and give comics a line or two after their show. If they like them, tell them you are a writer, and you’d be happy to submit some stuff to them if they need material.

seinfeldYou never know who has something going on and is in need of some quality help. Reiser did a guest set at a club I was at in Pittsburgh and I asked him afterwards if he needed any help on anything and he had a Letterman coming up that he was too busy to work on. I got the Seinfeld gig because I went up to Jerry after a show and asked if I could submit some stuff right at the time he was looking for someone on staff for his just picked up sitcom.

I gave him some great pages and he loved them. And got a good word from Reiser, but if I hadn’t approached Jerry, I would have never gotten the job.

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Thanks Marc. This is not only great advice, but also experienced advice. I’m sure everyone appreciates you sharing this. Now go get a real job… HA!! Okay, okay… I know… that just proves I won’t be writing comedy material for anyone in the near future.

Shaking with Laughter 200

One last thing – I want everyone to check out the website for Shaking with Laughter at this LINK. You’ll be one of the first to know about a MAJOR fundraising comedy show starring a MAJOR stand-up comedian at Cleveland’s Palace Theater on September 27th. Believe me, you won’t want to miss this show!!

Thanks again Marc and as always… Keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

 

Getting hired as a comedy writer

June 16, 2014
As I was saying...

As I was saying…

Last week’s FAQ ended with a promise for Part 2 – since the original question was not only about hiring a comedy writer, but also about being hired as a comedy writer. To repeat…

“I am a writer and I’d have to admit demand for my services has crashed in recent years. Although I’m writing for a major TV ventriloquist and for an instantly recognizable female comic, I’d struggle if I had to make a living.” – CA

That’s where we had left off and where I planned to pick up this week. But in the meantime I received another email from CA that makes the direction I want to go with this a little clearer…

*

Hi Dave – Thank you for taking the time to reply to the question I asked. In fact, I was suggesting it as a topic for the newsletter because it’s a question I’ve been asked before. However, your answer was full of insight I didn’t have.

I didn’t think about comics writing for comics, for instance – and the drawbacks that entails. I’ve heard comics say they couldn’t write for certain comedians because they couldn’t get the style. But that didn’t bother me. My feeling was if the gag was good enough he’d find his own way in. Of course I learned how to adapt my material for style, but mainly I just wrote the best gag there was. – CA

*

CA’s email went on longer – and the good news is that he scheduled a meeting with an agent to write for two of his clients. But his key word for us today is style. And if you want to get hired as a comedy writer, you need to write for that comedian’s style – or to use my favorite term, comedy voice.

* But before I go off on my thoughts about the topic, I’m asking for your help and advice….

How did you do that?

How did you do that?

I’ve worked with comedians that have used writers – and I’ve worked with writers who wrote for other comedians. I’ve talked with them and know how they got into the position of being hired as comedy writers – and I’ll share what I’ve seen and learned. But if you have any insider experience or advice that you’d like to share – I hope you’ll email it to me (dave@thecomedybook.com) or leave a comment at the end of this article so I can share with our readers.

I know we’d all like to hear about your success – and how you did it. Thanks!

But in the meantime…

The comedy writers I knew in New York and Los Angeles seemed to get the jobs because they knew the comedians. And I don’t mean just as friends – but also knew their comedy style (comedy voice). They had come up through the open-mic circuit together, or had performed with them so often they knew first hand how to craft a joke for that particular comedian.

Oh yeah – and a lot of times they knew that comic as a friend. Comics hang around together. That’s no secret. That’s what happens in just about every career – you hang around with people you like and who have the same interests. It’s human nature.

If a comedian looking for a writer already knows you and your skill as a writer – and knows you can write for his style – you have a good shot at being hired. Again, it’s like any other career where a friend recommends you for a job.

Here’s an example…

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When I was talent coordinator at the Los Angeles Improv, Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show and Jay Leno took over as host. Johnny’s writers left with him – and Jay filled the staff with writers who knew him. They were mostly friends (from what I remember) who had shared comedy club stages with him for years. In fact they knew him so well that they knew how to write Jay Leno style jokes.

It made a lot of sense to hire them rather than spending time sorting through countless submissions from comedy writers who might – or might not – know how to write material for Jay to deliver.

Another example…

When I was managing the The Original Improv in New York, Jerry Seinfeld was the top comic in the city. Hands down – no arguments. The comics who had come up with him through the open-mic scene and into the major clubs were some of his best friends. One was Larry David – and together they created the legendary sitcom Seinfeld.

Larry wrote almost all the scripts from the beginning. I want to skip the word “almost” in that sentence, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, they had a tight group of comedian friends in NYC and shared a lot of laughs. I always said the best shows were not always on The Improv stage, but at The Improv bar where everyone would hang out before and after their sets.

If you watch the credits at the end of the later episodes of Seinfeld, you’ll see a who’s who list of stand-up comics from this group. Why? Because when it came time for new ideas and laughs, they went with writers who already knew what would work for Jerry and the show.

I could give similar examples for Everybody Loves Raymond and The Drew Carey Show, just to mention two more of my personal favorites.

Just do it!

Just do it!

My advice is to be involved with the comedy scene. If you want someone to know you’re a funny writer - get on stage and prove it. Get to know the other comics and let them know you. A lot of this business is networking and it’s much easier to have a personal connection, rather than sending out blind submissions and hope someone actually takes the time to read them.

BUT as I said earlier – there’s soooo much more to this that experienced writers could tell us. There are talent agents and managers who work specifically with writers. Again from my experience, I believe most of these writers are discovered by proving their talent on stage.

They are seen because they are part of the scene.

Do you know another way to get hired as a comedy writer? Let us know…

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Hiring a comedy writer

June 3, 2014

Hello Dave – Here’s a question: You advise us to get writing or keep writing. How do you feel about hiring a pro writer? And how would I go about it? I am a writer and I’d have to admit demand for my services has crashed in recent years. Although I’m writing for a major TV ventriloquist and for an instantly recognizable female comic, I’d struggle if I had to make a living. And I write for my comedian son, but that pays about as well as you’d think.

Gag for you: There’s an old tradition in show business, but I prefer girls. Your pal – CA

Hey CA – I see three parts in your question:

  1. Hiring someone to write for you.
  2. Being hired as a comedy writer.
  3. Trying to sell me a gag.

Okay, the third one is my effort at being funny. I’ll use it (just did!) and follow another old showbiz tradition by promising that a check is in the mail – ha!

Comedy act for hire

Used joke salesman

1. Hiring someone to write for you – depends on your (comic or speaker or performer) career level. If you’re just starting out it doesn’t make any sense – to me anyway – to hire someone else to write your material. What’s the point? If you want to memorize another writer’s script and repeat it – become an actor.  If you want to be a comedian or a speaker – then there has to be something YOU want to say.

It’s all about sharing YOUR humor, YOUR thoughts, YOUR ideas, YOUR observations, or anything else YOU want to tell an audience.

To me (again) it’s a creative art AND a talent. That should be the stimulus to get into this crazy biz. Otherwise get a head shot, memorize someone else’s monologue and start auditioning for acting gigs.

Here’s a story…

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 Years ago I had a guy take my comedy workshop.  The first day everyone takes a turn on stage to talk about their ideas for a comedy act. When it was his turn, he did an “act.” Five minutes of stand-up comedy. But it didn’t seem real – if that makes sense. It was just telling jokes that really didn’t pertain to who he was or what could possibly be going on in his life that would even interest him.

Let me explain what I mean…

Rodney-Dangerfield

One of the best!

I love funny jokes and great joke-tellers. I’ve also been fortunate to work with a few of the best joke-sters. For instance, Rodney Dangerfield made regular guest appearances when I was at both the NYC and LA Improv comedy clubs. He would tell jokes – of course – but they fit who he was:

  • No respect
  • Nervous
  • Underdog
  • … well, Rodney!

I get no respect. My wife said she wanted to make love in the backseat of our car. But she wanted me to drive!

Get it? I can think of dozens of great joke-tellers that I used to watch on TV when I was a kid. What made them great was that their jokes fit their personalities. Think Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Redd Foxx, Phyllis Diller, Jack E. Leonard (one of my personal favorites) and Jackie Mason if you need a history lesson.

Their jokes worked because they fit the comedian’s on stage personality.

Okay – back to the guy in my workshop. He did his comedy act – but nothing fit who he was. It was just some guy telling jokes. Plus I’d heard a couple of them before – which is never good when you’re striving to stand-out in a creative business.

Why do you ask?

Why do you ask?

When he finished I asked who had written his material. He swore he did. When I said some of it sounded familiar and quizzed him more about his writing techniques, he finally admitted he got the jokes from a writer he found online – and had paid 50 bucks for them. I told him there were undoubtedly a number of other aspiring comics who had also paid 50 bucks for the same jokes.

He really wanted to be a comedian. The problem was that he really only wanted to be a famous comedian and was willing to pay for a shortcut.

That’s not how it works.

Since he had never actually done stand-up anywhere, he had no stage experience. He hadn’t even given himself the opportunity to find out who he was on stage.

Comics call that your comedy voice. To find it – it takes on stage experience. Lots of it – which also takes time. And since he hadn’t discovered his yet, how could he expect to find anyone who could write material for him? That writer would have no idea – except to peddle him jokes almost anyone else could do.

I told the guy in my workshop he had to start writing. That’s the first step – and the key to becoming a comedian or speaker – or even a writer for someone else.  There are plenty of styles such as joke-telling or story-telling, along with techniques, structures and different creative ways creative people write.  He needed to find out what ways worked best for him – and what subjects interested him enough to write about.

Holy cow - I think he's gonna make it!!

Holy cow – I think he’s gonna make it!!

The next week he came in with the basis of an original comedy bit. I remember it was about playing in a pick-up softball game when he was a little too old and a little too out of shape compared to the guys on the other team. It was based on something that really happened to him – and filled with his personal thoughts, opinions and descriptions of events.

Oh yeah – and it was funny. AND it was a bit only HE could have written.

He realized he had wasted 50 bucks on words that didn’t mean anything to him. And he had replaced it with something he couldn’t wait to share with an audience.

So the point is – why would anyone want to get into a creative business without being creative?

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* Important announcement: I’m not knocking actors (remember what I said above about memorizing someone else’s script). No way. That is also a very creative and demanding craft. I know – cuz I tried it. I respect creativity in all forms and efforts. I’m just focusing today on the comedy and speaking biz.

That wasn’t as eloquently put as a Shakespearean monologue, but I hope you catch my drift.

And to complete this drift, it’s not a smart idea to hire someone to write for you – until you both know who they will be writing for. Your comedy voice.

When you get to be Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman – or anyone else that burns up material at a breakneck speed – then you can hire writers. Good writers already know who these personalities are and their style of humor. Good writers can write a Jay Leno joke. But writing for someone just starting out – well… they’re just writing words.

Okay all this writing has proven once again how long-winded I can be. We’ll go on to #2 - getting hired as a comedy writer – next week.

As for #3 – the check’s in the mail.

Stay tuned…

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about Summer 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago (starts June 7) and Cleveland Improv (starts July 12) Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

When should you start promoting your career?

May 27, 2014

Hey Dave – Last week I was in a comedy festival. It was a 13 hour drive, but it was a good chance for networking. I was talking with another act who said she’s too impatient about getting her comedy career going. I said that my problem is that I’m too patient. After finishing second at another comedy club’s contest and being accepted at the festival, I should be contacting clubs and bookers all over the area instead of waiting until I actually win a contest. Do you agree? – J.G.

Clark Griswold

The Road Warrior

Hey J.G. – First of all, if I drive 13 hours for anything, I’m going to make sure somebody knows about it. That’s not exactly a Sunday afternoon drive for me, (which is why every seasoned road comic is calling me a wimp right now), so I’d like a little recognition for the achievement. If my kids happened to be in the backseat, I’d expect an award.

How different people react to my successful lengthy trip depends on how they view such an effort. If I told a student driver about my journey, he may look at me as The Man. If I walked into a truck stop and made my announcement, I’d probably get more laughs than doing a clean act at a biker bar open mic.

Being accepted to perform at a respected comedy festival and finishing second in a club’s contest are worthy additions to the resume. Each step in your career is a great opportunity for promotion and it’s important to take advantage of it, which is an important subject we’re driving up to next.

For sale

Will headline cheap!

But before we head down that road, the question of patience should be answered by common sense. You have to be honest with yourself to know when you’re ready for the next level of your career and not push yourself too fast into a position where you don’t have the experience or material to back it up. In other words, if you’re relatively new to comedy and just breaking into the MC role, it’s wise not to promote yourself to the top clubs as a headliner until you’re ready.

What you don’t want to do is sit back and wait for any word-of-mouth to find its way to the bookers. James Bond has a reputation that precedes him, but when finding work in the entertainment business you need to promote yourself. If you have the credits, chances are better that the bookers will find out about it if YOU tell them.

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Visit WEBSITE for details and to register.

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You have to be honest with yourself as a comedian, (or humorous speaker). There are various steps to consider before you actively promote yourself for paying gigs…

Are you ready for paid gigs?

You absolutely must have experience and a comedy set or speaker program that has worked successfully during live performances. These can be open mics, benefit shows – whatever. Let’s put it this way. If someone is paying you to do 20 minutes – you’d better have a good 20 minutes or they’ll find someone else who does for the next booking.

Also understand where you fit into the business. Are you an opening act or a headliner? New acts will always be considered openers until they prove themselves worthy of a better position in the show. Think about it. Even Jay Leno was an opener when he started out and worked his way up. He wasn’t given The Tonight Show after a few successful open mic performances.

But let’s say you know that already. You’ve worked hard at writing and performing and you honestly know you’re ready. That’s when it’s time to get the word out to talent bookers, event planners and anyone else who might hire you.

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That’s when you need to start promoting – and it can be a full time job.

Whenever you have an achievement, (accepted to a comedy festival, runner up in a contest, a paid booking in another venue, etc.), make sure the bookers for the clubs where you want to work or the event planners for associations you want to work for KNOW about it. Send them your news via an email, a postcard, add it to your website and resume, and post it on the Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks you use for business (not the ones you use for family photos or wild escapades).

Does that come with fries?

Does that come with fries?

You may not get hired right away, but it will add to your name recognition in the future. That’s the idea behind promoting – networking and marketing. Businesses use branding and logos to keep their products in front of potential buyers. Entertainers do the same with emails and postcards.

As good salesmen say, you need to run a product, (you as a comedian or speaker), past a client, (booker), on the average of SEVEN times before they buy. So when is a good time to start building credits and promoting your comedy career? If you truly believe you’re ready – I’d say right now.

Portions of this article are included as FAQ #31 in Dave’s book, Comedy FAQs And Answers.

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about Summer 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago (starts June 7) and Cleveland Improv (starts July 12) Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Customize material for different audiences

May 20, 2014

Hey Dave – When comedians talk about “knowing your audience,” does that mean you should have entirely different acts for different audiences? – S.A.

Hey S.A. – That depends on a few things. For instance, the material itself and how the bit is delivered. A lot of comedians are experts at “crossing over” and playing to a wide range of audiences. Others have a niche – an audience they focus on – and know better than to take it where they may not be wanted. For two extreme examples…

  • Not funny comic

    Was it something I said?!

    An x-rated comedian is not gonna do church shows. On the other hand…

  • A Christian comedian probably won’t be included in an adults only, down and dirty x-rated comedy show.

That’s pretty much a no-brainer in the biz. Comedians should know that. If they don’t, then an experienced talent booker will and schedule performers that fit the desired audience.

Comics also have to stay true to themselves.

Many have no interest changing who they are on stage – their comedy voice – just to play in front of an audience that won’t relate to them or laugh at their performance. Others know that a few simple changes in their material and delivery can open the possibility for more bookings.

How you want to play it depends on you. I’m just telling you there are ways.

Experienced comedians and humorous speakers often customize their shows. There are a couple benefits in doing this:

  • It could lead to more paid bookings and…
  • It could lead to charging a higher fee for your performance

Let’s tackle that second one first. I know the term higher fee has the ability to raise the interest of some readers. Especially in the higher paying corporate market when an event planner might contact you to discuss a corporate show booking.

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You could have a set fee just for your regular performance. BUT if they would like you to customize it for a specific audience – say a group of financial investors, gourmet chefs, flight attendants or whatever- you could personalize the material toward that audience for a higher fee.

The selling feature is that it will take extra work researching who they are (your potential audience) and writing new material (or tweaking what you already bring to a corporate show). But you explain to the event planner that it’s worth it because your performance would be specifically for that group. For instance, you would actually use the name of the company in your performance, what they specialize in, their clients or competitors, where employees hang out after work, the city where they’re located, and even mention the names of a few key people in the company.

What you come up with and can offer is up to you. The idea – as always – is to be creative.

More money guy

Extra work = Extra bucks

For all the extra work and research you put into preparing for the customized gig, you could ask for extra money. A lot of comedians and speakers do this. If the client says your fee is too high for their budget, you have room to negotiate. Explain they can still book you for the event at your regular (lower) fee and you will do your regular act – which is what they called you about in the first place.

Customizing your material means to personalize it toward the audience. But it also doesn’t mean you need a completely different act. It’s all about knowing your audience.

A very good friend of mine in the comedy biz – and I won’t mention his name here, but as a hint he’s interviewed in How To Be A Working Comic – is a master at this. He has decades worth of material and can do a different act every night if he wanted to.

But he also has a definite comedy voice. He probably doesn’t know anything about investment bankers, gourmet chefs or flight attendants – but put him in front of an audience of investment bankers, gourmet chefs or flight attendants at an event and he’ll make them laugh.

That’s what he gets paid for.

Not gonna get the family audience...!

Not gonna get the
family audience…!

This comedian can do a midnight show in a booze-filled comedy club and be as raunchy as any x-rated comedian in the biz. A lot of his material is about growing up with a large family in an inner city and all the characters in his life. His language can be filled with “F-bombs” and other choice words and I’ve seen him – many times – bring down the house with the bluest (adult) comedy you can imagine.

But the next day (and he’s done this for years) he could be wearing a suit and doing a clean, G-rated corporate show for a group of… say investment bankers, gourmet chefs or flight attendants. Since this is not a typical comedy club venue or audience, the x-rated “F-bombs” are definitely not welcomed – or tolerated.

But the comedian’s job requirement is the same. He is being paid to make them laugh.

So what does my comedian pal talk about?

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The SAME topics he talked about in the booze-filled comedy club the night before. His large family, growing up in an inner city and the characters in his life.

But he customizes it based on the audience. He simply takes out the raunchy stuff. His punch lines and descriptions don’t rely on “F-bombs” and other choice words. The material is just as funny without the added adult language emphasis – which seems to always be welcomed and tolerated in most late night, booze-filled comedy clubs

He doesn’t have two completely different acts. He has two completely different audiences.

  • He knows his audience and plays to his audience.

Would this work for you? It depends on who YOU are on stage as well as WHO your audience is. Could your current set – with a few changes – work in front of very different audiences? If it does, then you don’t need two completely different acts. If it doesn’t, then either write a separate act (club, corporate, college) or find your niche and stick with it.

The choice is completely up to you. Some artists could care less about the money – they’re more interested in the art of creating, performing and expression. Others find a good corporate set helps fund the raunchy madness at a late night booze-filled comedy show. How you want to play it is all up to you.

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about Summer 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago (starts June 7) and Cleveland Improv (starts July 12) Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Getting laughs is an incentive for getting on stage

May 12, 2014

“I would love any input on public speaking. I am a very timid person and it shows in presentations I have had. Could you give me any advice?” – J.P.

Hey J.P. – When you say timid, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re talking about a lack of confidence on stage. You didn’t mention if it’s because of stage fright or just a case of being shy, but there are many ideas and techniques on how to overcome this and improve as a public speaker (or a comedian that might need a push to get onstage).

But right off the bat I’ll say one I’ve never subscribed to as a method to build confidence or overcome stage fright is picturing an audience in their underwear. I’m assuming once again, but when you’re on stage as a public speaker I would think you’re concentrating on what you are saying – your message – and don’t need anything else to think about.

Tanning Team All-Stars

Tanning Team All-Stars

Plus there are always gonna be too many people in an audience that I wouldn’t want to see in their underwear. Of course I’m sure a lot of speakers and comedians would have a different opinion if they were booking gigs every day for The Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Team, (there are both girls AND guys teams – so pick whichever one works best for you).

So instead of suggesting the extra brain work that comes with underwear picturing, a great way to get over a lack of confidence is to do what the comics told me when I first got interested in this crazy business:

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Visit WEBSITE for details and to register.

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Use humor.

You may be timid, shy or nervous when you first walk on stage. But as someone who’s been around behind the scenes a LOT, I’ve seen a LOT of people in that tongue-tying, dry-mouthed, hand-shaking condition suddenly break out and come alive once they experience their first laugh from an audience. It’s a life-changing event, spiritual awakening, shot of adrenaline and the same feeling as love at first sight – all rolled up into one big sucker punch to the gut.

That’s why comedians and humorous speakers say laughter is addictive.

I'm next?!?!

I’m next?!?!

I’ve watched many people from my workshops make their stage debut in front of large audiences at The Improv. Some were full of confidence, some were faking confidence – and some were just flat out nervous and scared. Members of this last group would fit into the category of timid – and the main reason was because they lacked experience on stage. They had never done it before in front of an audience and didn’t know for sure what to expect.

They needed that sucker punch to find out for themselves.

Nothing can truly change having a lack of confidence until you have the overcoming experience for yourself. In this case, the experience of making an audience laugh. It’s powerful enough to make your first time onstage fun, memorable and… well, addictive. Getting laughs can usually lure a timid person to try it again… and again… and again…

During my workshops I watch our shows from the back of the room. I can see if someone is going up on stage with a fearful look in their eyes. But as soon as they get that first laugh, it’s like a veil being lifted from their face. The difference is like night and day – from black and white to color.

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The same is true with speakers. Humor engages an audience and keeps them interested in what you’re saying. Even if you’re giving a political speech, a technical training seminar, a sermon, or anything that’s not a stand-up comedy act, a good speaker will mix up his delivery a bit. It can be subtle or BIG. They’ll go from soft to loud, or from high energy to almost standing completely still to make a point. Everyone’s different. Watch a (good) speaker on TV or during a lecture and you’ll know what I mean.

BoringFor a journey to the other side of this, think about the most boring teacher you’ve ever had. Would the class have been more interesting and would you have stayed awake longer if they had just added even a speck of entertainment value? I need a nap just remembering some of the boring monotone instructors we had to sit through in lecture hall… yawn…

Basically, it’s really tough to hold an audience’s attention by using only one emotion all the way through a presentation or performance. That is why even a lot of eulogies include funny memories about the deceased. Humor is one of the delivery techniques that engages the audience and can seriously offer an interesting change of pace – even during a boring lecture or sad eulogy.

George Carlin

George Carlin

The late (and great) George Carlin told me during an interview for my book Comedy FAQs And Answers that he used language, (we were actually having a conversation about dirty words), to keep his audience’s attention. And when he had their attention it meant he was in control and could take them verbally anywhere he wanted. When Carlin performed, his audiences were practically sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear what he would (dare) say next.

Humor does this. Make someone laugh and they’ll want to see if you can do it again. And while they’re waiting, they’ll listen to what you have to say next.

That means you’re in control. And that makes it a confidence builder – get it?

A great way to get over a lack of confidence (being timid or nervous) on stage is to use humor. Comedians go for as many laughs as possible. But as a humorous speaker (public speaker) go for a laugh. When you have their attention, follow it up by delivering your message. The combination of addictive laughter and an audience interested in what you’re saying should be the needed confidence boost you need to do it again… and again… and again…

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An 8-week online course

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about Summer 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing


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