Dave – I need to work on my delivery. The time you saw me, you mentioned that it sounded like I was just reading from a magazine (thanks! lol). I see what you mean after listening to my last set a couple times. I’m working out a new bit that I’m taking care not to write out in script form, but in outline form. I’m beginning to get the laughs where I want them and I know the confidence to ad-lib only comes from stage experience. But working on delivery seems like the next logical step. Do you agree? – DB
Hey DB – When you’re just starting out in the comedy or speaking biz, having the right delivery on stage is something everyone worries about. It’s up there with getting over any nervousness you might have just standing in front of an audience AND also remembering what the heck you’re gonna say.
But you know what?
It’s nothing to sweat about at this stage – the beginning stage – of your career on stage.
Wow, it’s not everyday I can use the same word three times in one sentence. Guess I need to work on my delivery…
Your delivery or comedy voice, which is a term I picked up from a major player in the comedy biz while I was working in Los Angeles, will develop through experience.
It comes with getting stage time.
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Right now – and again, I’m talking about the beginning stage – I’ll suggest something else to concentrate on that I’ve heard many times from working comics. Write, write and WRITE some more.
Got that? The idea is to have something – ideas, topics, stories, whatever – that you can talk about and try out in front of an audience. Then you rewrite, edit, come up with new stuff, and repeat the process again and again.
As you do this your material will change and evolve. You’ll also become more comfortable knowing your material AND being in front of an audience. For some people it seems easy, but I’ve talked with many more who’ve said it was damn hard work. It’s doing open-mics and any other gigs as often as possible.
During this process you (should) also develop your delivery. But again, sometimes it’s not that easy. So I’ll make a suggestion based on your question…
A lot of comedians and speakers start out by memorizing their material. There’s a great story about that in my book How To Be A Working Comic from one of the great stand-up improvisors and ad-libber’s in the business. His many fans might find it hard to believe, but he told me that’s what he did in the beginning.
You have to find a way to get yourself on stage and if memorizing your material helps, then try it. Then through experience you can gradually develop and grow as a writer and performer and break free of that restraint (memorizing) and have as much fun as the audience.
It takes stage time.
Memorizing your material can be a valuable crutch to use when you’re first going on stage. As you know, all kinds of things – mental and physical – are happening when you’re new at this. It’s not a normal everyday thing to walk onto a spotlighted stage, stand in front of a microphone and start talking to people.
But even if it’s memorized the KEY is to NOT make it sound memorized.
Ad-libbing and working off the audience can loosen things up and help you as a performer and writer come up with new material, or learn how to deliver what you already have to get bigger laughs. In other words, you want to sound like you’re making this stuff up on the spot. It’s called being conversational, which is the opposite of sounding like you’re repeating a magazine article from memory.
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Now I know all comedians and speakers are not the same. There are one-liners, physical comedy, story-tellers, insult comics, prop comics and more. Just keep in mind I’m talking in general – okay?
I don’t know how many comedians I’ve seen over my career, but I know from experience as a talent booker and club manager I’ve seen a LOT during many different career stages. I’m talking about from beginners to household names. And what has always stayed with me is how they deliver their material – their comedy set – to each audience.
The successful ones are very conversational. They make it seem the audience is in on the creative process – like the comic is making it up on the spot. But what the audience doesn’t see is that most times (not all because again, I’m talking in general and don’t want the ghosts of Bill Hicks or George Carlin to do a Christmas Carol bit on me the next time I’m in a deep sleep) the next show can be almost exactly the same.
But it’s still seems different because of the comic’s delivery. They know how to involve the audience and have a conversation with them using their proven (through stage experience) material.
I know I’m repeating this story from one of my books, but I remember years ago when a VERY famous comedian was doing a set at The Comedy Cellar in NYC. It was late – the other clubs were closed and this was the only one that would put up with us at 3 am. There were only about four “real” customers in the audience and everyone else was a comic with at least a beer or two already in them.
The famous comic was doing his act and another (who would also be famous within a couple years) jumped on stage behind him and did a mimic bit.
He silently mouthed the words and did the same physical gestures. The already famous comic knew it (they were good friends) and played along. It was hysterical, but also proves my point that a skilled comedian can do his same act and make it seem new each time in front of different audiences by being conversational.
Again, I’m talking in general terms here. But that story always helps me make a point.
So you may know your material frontwards and backwards, but you don’t want your delivery to ever sound memorized. Since you’re still in the beginning stage and searching for your comedy voice, take a few chances. That’s what open-mics are for. Try working off just an outline in your head or have a notebook (it’s an open-mic and you can do that) with key words about the topics. This means already having a few ideas you want to talk about – and then just talking about them.
It’s part of the process of finding out what works best for you as a performer. It also helps you become more conversational on stage rather than sounding memorized.
And even though you already know what you’re going to say, for instance jokes or descriptions you’ve written in advance and hope will get laughs, the method you use to get there will make it look like you’re making it up on the spot for that particular audience.
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And as you said, you’re beginning to get laughs where you want them, so keep those moments in your set. That’s why you record your performance every time you’re on stage. When you listen you’ll know what works (lines, words, emphasis, physical gestures – whatever) based on how the audience reacts. If they laugh you’ll use them again because you’ll know through experience they should get laughs again from a different audience.
And for anyone who wants to be a working comic or humorous speaker – that’s what talent bookers, club owners and event planners pay for. Proven laughs.
Okay, once again this is pretty general and based generally on DB’s question. There’s really no specific answer, as there never is when dealing with creativity and performances. But I’m sure many of you have your own thoughts and suggestions about this, so leave a comment. I’ll be happy to share them in a future FAQ And Answer.
Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!
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.
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