Archive for the ‘Comedy Writing’ Category

Memorizing material – is it comedy or acting?

May 5, 2019

Hey Dave – Do comedians write down their monologues and memorize it thoroughly? The more I learn about being a comic, the more it sounds like acting. Is there much of a difference? – D.J.

Comedy or acting?

Hey D.J. – Okay, before we continue with this, let me say that I respect the creative art and craft of acting. Make that good acting. It’s not easy being an actor because you have to learn how to express emotions on cue and make it all believable. When you’re in a long running play it involves a lot of repetition; every show, every night (including matinees). When you’re interacting with other actors you must be on the right spot at the right time and say the correct words to cue the correct response.

The words are in the script and need to be memorized to continue the scene as it was written – and how the writer intended it (and how the director interprets it).

Acting also involves the use of lighting, props, entrances, exits and even bows at the end. Plays, TV shows and movies are directed. A good actor’s work is not easy. Actors  use their talent, creativity and training to bring characters to life, while still relying on what directors tell them to do and say what writers tell them to say.

And one last thing – the audience is not usually involved.

People in the seats are there to watch. There is a fourth wall on the stage, which is an acting term for an invisible wall separating the audience from the actors. The audience does not exist in the play or scene. Interaction is between the actors. If it’s a solo monologue, it’s a “private moment.”

The Great Divide

As with just about everything else, there are exceptions. Improvisational acting often involves suggestions from the audience. And Marx Brothers movies (I like the classics) wouldn’t be as funny if Groucho didn’t break out of scenes and deliver a few lines directly to the camera/audience.

And now we’ve set the stage for what follows…

I’ve known some very good actors that were very bad comedians. They’ve written material, practiced (like for a play), but couldn’t buy a laugh once they were on stage. They were acting the role of a comedian but didn’t have the needed “on the job” training.

Working comics know exactly what I’m referring to – stage time.

A comedian (and yes, speakers too) need performing experience, rather than directed rehearsal time. This is because comedians (and yes – speakers) have to deliver funny and practiced material AND deal with an audience at the same time.

There is no fourth wall.

A comedian who only memorizes a monologue and recites it with no regard to audience response is acting. They are basically doing a one-person (acting) show. It may be written as a stand-up comedy routine, but it’s not really stand-up comedy.

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Summer 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Saturdays – June 8, 15 and 22 noon to 4 pm

Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, June 26 at 7:30 pm

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Workshops are limited to 11 people age 18+

For more details and to register visit…

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When I worked in New York, I heard the comics call it “sleep walking through your set.” In a great comedy show, the audience is part of the ensemble.

Again, there are exceptions. I’ve seen standup comedians who write and memorize a monologue and perform it in a comedy club. Lots of comics do it. But unlike acting, a great comedian deals with audience response.

An audience is unpredictable.

They may not laugh when expected and laugh hysterically when it’s not. An actor will continue playing a part while a good comedian will react to the audience. If the material is not going over as expected, a comedian can switch gears. This means they can pull out different material, work-off (talk with) the audience, or change their delivery style, (example; from high energy to low energy).

It involves having a lot of material, an ability to improvise, and lots of on-stage experience. Actors have to stick with a written script and hope the same material works better on a different audience.

If you memorize your comedy routine word for word, it should be conversational. The good ones make it seem as if they’re making it up on the spot and saying it for the first time.

Not everyone will laugh!

Imagine you’re at a family party. The old folks (think older than you) are sitting in the living room. They’re a conservative bunch, but you have a very funny story you share with them. They laugh and you didn’t insult or embarrass anyone who could potentially write you out of an inheritance.

Then you move into the kitchen where the crazy relatives (think of your peers) are hanging out. You want to tell them the same story, and there’s no worry about insulting or embarrassing anyone in the process. How would you deliver it in a way that makes them laugh?

That’s the difference between being an actor and a comedian. It’s the same story, but an actor is trained to rely on a script and direction. A comedian has material (could be scripted) but can base his delivery on audience response.

I’ve seen comics night after night deliver the same set word for word.

Does it work? Yes, because the good ones have valuable on stage experience performing in front of audiences and can change their delivery by reacting off their response. At every show it will look like they’re saying the words for the first time.

For example, there is a VERY famous comedian I’ve booked dozens of times. I won’t give his name – but if you’ve ever taken one of my workshops you’ll know the comic I’m talking about because I tell this story and mention his name.

Get everyone laughing!

At every show he delivered the exact same 20-minute set. We’re talking “word for word.” It took him years to write and develop his act on stage. It was funny and audiences loved it. We would stand in the back of the showroom and recite the act along with him (and we could do that with a lot of the best comics – we knew their acts by heart).

In fact, one night during a very late show with a very light audience, another famous comedian stood on stage behind him and mimicked his act exactly. It was like having a shadow. We were all in the back of the club laughing – and so was the headlining “star” comedian (he has a great sense of humor). But it didn’t matter because his material – his act– was practiced, audience-tested, and each time he did it he made it seem as if it was all brand new.

Each audience thought he was making it up on the spot – and that’s what counts.

Hang around comedy clubs and you’ll see what I mean.

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Watch some of the comedians more than a few times and you’ll see quite a few do the same routine in different shows. It’s memorized, but to make it work they don’t deliver it that way. It’s based on audience response – with no fourth wall.

Other comedians will follow a mental outline for their material. They deliver the same jokes / stories with the same punch lines but allow themselves to improvise and react off the audience. It also keeps the performance entertaining for the comedian and he / she won’t get bored doing the same show over and over.

There’s nothing wrong with memorizing your act if it helps you feel more comfortable. In fact, I just re-read an interview in my book How To Be A Working Comic from one of my favorite stand-ups with a reputation for being a great improviser. He said memorizing his act was the only way he could convince himself to go on stage in the beginning. The key is to make it look conversational and as if you’re saying these words for the very first time.

It’s like going to a different party and telling the same story to a different group of friends. If you did it successfully the first time and want the same reaction at this party, chances are you’ll deliver it in a very similar way. In other words – it’s your act.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading 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 ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian: A Step-By-Step Guide Into Launching & Building Your Career.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

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Working the audience

April 8, 2019

Dave – I’ve noticed that in some (comedy) rooms you can just get up on stage and begin your material. Other rooms are a little stiff, but sometimes these rooms respond well with a more interactive style of comedy – where the comedian talks with the audience. Do you have any tips, questions or strategies one should use for this type of interactive comedy? – B.T.

How’ya doin’?

Hey B.T. – You’re talking about the dilemma comedy club MC’s / opening acts go through every time they step on a stage. Depending on the audience – and experienced comics and speakers already know each audience is different and has its own personality – the MC has to make a decision about how much material he can do and how much he’ll have to work the audience.

The decision is based on audience reaction.

I’ve heard a lot of comedians describe it as, “reading the room” or “finding the level of the room.” Whatever you might call it, the ultimate decision should be quite easy. If they’re not laughing at your material, then a good alternative is to start talking with them.

All comedians start out in the comedy club circuit as a MC, also known as the opening act. They may call themselves a headliner in their own self-booked show at a local venue, but no big-name (legit) comedy club will bring in an unknown as the headliner or feature (middle) act.

Working comics pay their dues.

After a bad set!

The only comics I’ve ever known that will try to headline a show without valuable stage time experience are either kidding themselves into thinking they’re ready – and think legit clubs are wrong – or are already stars. For example, I’ve seen (and in some cases, unfortunately worked with) a few television sitcom stars that wanted to entertain their loyal fans by appearing in comedy clubs. Overnight they think they’re going to become good stand-up comedians, but really have no stage experience away from a television sound stage.

At best they are considered novelty acts by talent bookers and club owners, and are coasting on their television (acting) fame. Clubs will book them because (remember, it’s a business) audiences will pay to see them once (a novelty). But if they’re not funny and can’t deliver the laughs because of lack of performing experience, it’s a good bet the novelty will wear off.

The next time they’re scheduled to headline ticket sales will go down.

To get back to my original point, all good comedians start out as opening acts. It’s the next level up from open mics and how they earn much needed experience in front of live audiences. It’s hands-on learning. And as MC’s, they gain experience reading the room and learn how to work the audience. It comes with the territory. As the first performer on stage MC’s have to set the tone for the show. Once you have that experience, whether a room is stiff or loose won’t matter.

You’ll know – through experience – how to adjust.

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Spring 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Chicago Improv

Saturdays – May 4, 11 and 18 from noon to 4 pm

Performance at The Chicago Improv – Thursday, May 30

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Space limited to 11 people

For details and to register visit…

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There are no magic formulas for doing this any more than there are magic formulas to write comedy material. Using comedy legends for example, imagine putting Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor in the same room and telling them “This is the formula you use to write a joke.

That’s not how it works.

But it’s difficult to ignore the old standard lines or questions performers have used for decades to get an audience involved in their act:

  • “Where’ya from?” And…
  • “What do you do for a living?”

To be honest, if these questions didn’t work in getting an audience to interact with the performer, no one would use them. And I’ve seen both used quite often quite recently. But to make them work in your favor, you’d better be ready to think on your feet and be funny. The best way to do that is through:

  • On stage experience (hands-on learning) or…
  • Take a workshop in improvisation – and then get on stage experience

Every time you go on stage it should be a learning process. If the audience is not responding to your act, direct it more to them as individuals. Ask questions, talk with them, make conversation, interact and (importantly) be funny. If you can get their attention and make them laugh, chances are they loosen up and not be so stiff.

Talk to me!

Here’s an example:

When I was working at the Hollywood Improv, one of the writers for a well-known late night television show was also one of our top comedians. He was – and still is – a great comedy writer. His material on stage never failed to get an audience laughing, until one night…

He was on stage doing his act.

It was a weekend night with a room full of paying customers, so he was giving his best show and not trying out any new material. In other words, I had heard all his material before – and it always worked. But things weren’t going as normal. The audience wasn’t laughing. I thought for sure he was in trouble because his material didn’t seem funny to them. I didn’t know if he had a backup plan because I had never seen him bomb or improvise off a crowd.

Mainly because he never had to. His material was always killer.

Anyway, his proven jokes weren’t working that night. But he didn’t seem too worried about it. He took the microphone out of the stand (I had never seen him do that before) and stopped doing his material. Instead he started talking with the audience and asking them the same two “old” questions listed above:

  • “Where’ya from?” And…
  • “What do you do for a living?”

His responses were very funny, and he connected with the audience. Before too long everyone was laughing. I watched as he continued the conversations, while putting the microphone back in the stand. Then he started – again – doing his material (his regular act).

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The audience loved him. He was in total command and they laughed through the rest of his set.

After he was off stage, I told him I had never seen him perform like that – working off an audience. He laughed and taught me the lesson I shared with you today. He told me it’s how every comedian starts out. He had been an MC at small clubs for years while learning to write great material. He had the experience setting the tone for the shows by reading the audience and knowing how to get them – and keep them – involved. When the material wasn’t working, he would work the crowd by engaging them in conversation.

So, without a magic formula, how do you do that?

Experience.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading 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 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

 

Creating a one-person show

February 12, 2019

Hey Dave – I’ve had some crazy experiences in my life that resonate in my memory and in my opinion are very comical. But also these were very serious moments. It’s hard to bring these stories out on the stand-up stage because they take a lot to build to a punchline. I am still very new to the stand-up world, let alone theater acting. I’ve taken a few classes, but don’t have a solid background yet. I’ve written about these crazy moments in a journal form, but am unsure of how I build a show off them because I am no play write. I guess my overall question is if you have a little experience, how can you start to build up to putting together a great One Man Show? Thanks! J.W.

Theatre stage vs comedy stage

Hey J.W. – The best advice I’ve ever heard from any working comic or writer is to just keep writing. You’re already doing that by keeping a journal and creating stand-up sets. The idea is not to get too far ahead of yourself. A one-person show is a big project – so you’ll want to create a few shorter ones (like laugh out loud five minute comedy sets) first.

You say you’re not a playwright (correct spelling, by the way), but that doesn’t always mean having to sit down at a computer keyboard and “write” a show. As I say in my workshops, some people can do that – most can’t.

Most stand-ups and speakers have to talk it out.

And by this I mean in front of an audience. It makes the material and delivery real. I think this way of working will suit you best. You don’t need to be a playwright to talk and convey your message in front of an audience.

Talk your stories into an audio recorder. Then transcribe – write them out. Edit, make changes, add your humor and tweak the material. Then do it again and write some more. Take it on stage and try it out in front of an audience. Are they interested? Are they laughing? If yes, then it’s working. If not, then you go back to work. Write some more and continue to repeat the process until you get the audience reaction you want.

Keep in mind this is not easy.

Writer’s room

Working writers, speakers and comedians dedicate themselves to these careers. Emotions range from failure to success and every hard knock in between. But if you’re serious, have a thick skin and really want it – then you’ll continue.

Okay, so let’s say you have very funny stand-up sets and get great audience reaction (laughs!). Now you also want to add “serious stuff” so the result is more of a one-person show (theatrical) rather than a Comedy Central stand-up special.

Create an outline for a planned show.

What is it you want to say? Who is your audience? But don’t knock yourself out trying to make it perfect – like a finished and polished script for a successful Broadway show. Everything always changes when you start to do it live in front of an audience. That’s why Broadway shows go on the road for previews in various cities around the country (like stand-up comics) followed by multiple re-writes, re-casting and more previews.

These changes are based on audience response. If audiences don’t like the second act or a certain character, the playwrights and producers fix it before bringing it to Broadway for the definitive make-it or break-it reviews.

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March 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Saturdays – March 16, 23 and 30 from noon to 4 pm

Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, April 3 at 7:30 pm

Workshop Marquee 150

For information and to register visit…

TheComedyBook.com

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Shows, comedy sets, motivational speeches, books, plays, movies – whatever – go through many drafts before they are considered finished.

That’s important to remember so you’re not discouraged after each preview. My first book was re-written a number of times before I had a literary agent accept it. Then she made me rewrite it a few times before she would shop it around to publishers. Then after a publisher bought it, I had to rewrite a few more times before they printed and got it into stores. It was at least a dozen re-writes total.

You will experience the same thing.

But as I said earlier, don’t get too far ahead of yourself. You’re still in the first draft stage of creating your show.

Concentrate on what you’re doing now, which is getting stage experience in stand-up, improvisation and acting. Keep creating short (3 to 5 minute) comedy sets and trying them out in front of audiences at open-mics and in clubs. The comedians I’ve worked with find their comedy voice first. After that they “write for” that comedy voice.

Okay – got that? Now, if you want to continue into one man (or one woman) show-land, let’s visit television sitcom-land for a quick example…

One of my favorite sitcoms in the 1990’s was The Drew Carey Show. The pilot for that show was written around Drew’s stand-up act. In fact, when you watch the first episode you can actually see him doing bits that he did countless times in comedy clubs. The storyline for the episode was written around his comedy voice and what he was already doing on stage.

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It was the same with Everybody Loves Raymond, Home Improvement and many others that starred stand-up comedians.

Take one of your stories and see if you can make into a five minute stand-up comedy bit – as a storyteller. But keep your personality (comedy voice) and don’t try to be an actor. Right now it’s you talking about you. Later as it develops, you might want to try acting out some of the other characters involved.

A night at the theater

The best advice I can give is to realize a one-person show is also a theatrical production.

Creating and starring in a one-person show was a very popular career goal in the comedy biz during the 1990′s and many comedians failed because they didn’t realize that. It’s more than just doing your stand-up act on a stage with a couch and a table. It needs to be more of a night at the theater, rather than a set at a comedy club.

My favorite example of a comedian-writer-actor developing his own successful one-person show is Inside The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron by Robert Dubac. I’ve seen it many times – from it’s earliest first draft performed at The Santa Monica Improv to a sold-out Palace Theater in Cleveland – and highly recommend it whenever I can. If you’re not familiar with it, you can purchase the DVD for under $5 on Amazon.com.

It takes work to write and create anything. But hopefully it’s work you enjoy. Just keep writing and trying out your material out on stage. With talent, creativity, experience and luck you might wind up with something great. You never know unless you try.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading 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 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

The cure for stage fright?

January 27, 2019

Hi Dave – I have terrible stage fright. I think I’m a pretty good writer, but I can’t even think about getting up in front of an audience without breaking into a sweat. Have any cures? – T.

Hey T. – Don’t sweat it (sorry – you set me up and I couldn’t resist opening with that line) because you’re not alone. I’ve read that stage fright, or the fear of speaking in public, has been called the number one fear most people have – even more than death.

And now that I’ve set this bit up, Jerry Seinfeld has a very funny observation about the subject…

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Now that we’ve established that you’re suffering from a very common fear, you need to be told there’s no quick fix. But there is help:

Preparation and experience.

The best advice I have for aspiring comedians going on stage for the first time is to prepare in advance what you will say. Unless you have an innate (natural) talent for ad-libbing and improvising, don’t just try to wing it or hope something funny will happen. You can work on those aspects of your performances later when you’re more comfortable on stage. Do your best to either write out or at least outline a short comedy set – and know it.

When starting out at open mics you can even take your notes on stage or have them in your pocket to use in case of an emergency – like a security blanket. After all, your first times on stage will not be auditions for Comedy Central, so put the odds in your favor of at least getting through what you want to say in spite of any nerves or stage fright.

I’ve talked with comedians about this because as mentioned above, you’re not alone. It can be very scary walking on stage alone in front of an audience for the first time. One thing most (I want to say all but can’t remember for sure) of them told me was that they relaxed (a bit) after getting a laugh. It meant approval from the audience, which gave them enough of a confidence boost to continue talking. So, let’s include that one in the advice column:

Try to get a laugh as soon as possible.

The best way to do that is to open with what you feel is your best chance to get that laugh. It could be your funniest joke, line, bit, prop, story or whatever. I remember a very famous comedian opening his set at The Hollywood Improv by pretending to slip and fall down because he accidentally knocked over a drink on the front table while walking on stage.

Silly? Yeah. Stupid? Some might think so. Did it get a laugh? HUGE!!! He stood up, the audience was still laughing – and he was in complete control for the rest of his show.

Yes, I know he had a lot of stage experience, but that experience told him to open his show with a laugh. And in the comedy biz, laughter can build confidence. If you don’t believe me, imagine how you’d feel on stage without it.

You won’t really know how funny your material is until you try it in front of an audience. But when you’re just starting out the goal is to actually have something to say, rather than opening your mouth and risk having nothing come out. Preparation may not cure stage fright, but it could help take away some of the nerves and make that first step easier since you’ll already know what you will say.

Many experienced comedians have also told me the first laugh they received from an audience is what made them continue going on stage. The word most used is “addictive” (a word that’s been popular in the comedy biz for a long time). When you get that first laugh it feels so good you want to get it again.

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Winter 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

SOLD OUT!!!

Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, January 30 at 7:30pm

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For information about upcoming Chicago & Cleveland workshops visit…

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There’s no guarantee and as mentioned, this is not a quick fix for stage fright.

But one thing I love as a coach (and also when I used to attend countless open mics in New York and Los Angeles) is watching a new comedian get more confidence with each laugh from an audience. Seriously, I can actually see it on their faces and in their delivery.

When they get a laugh – that great addictive feeling – it helps motivate comedians to see if they can make it happen again. It’s the main reason to get back on stage. It builds confidence and dedication to do comedy.

That in a nutshell is the preparation part. The rest of the cure comes through experience. Stage time. The more you do something that is enjoyable or at least somewhat successful, the less you should fear it.

At first you may just have to psych yourself out and do it.

For example, I hate heights but love roller coasters. Yeah, I know… but I don’t have enough money for a shrink…. Some of the tallest in the world are in an amusement park not too far from us and they scare me to death just looking at them. My knees literally shake (like the first time I did an open mic in New York). But I (actually my kids) wouldn’t let it stop me. I may have to ride it once, twice – or even a dozen times with my eyes closed, but eventually I’ll take a look around from the top of the highest hill and watch the rest of the ride while screaming all the way to the end.

Much like the first time I did an open mic.

Consider stage fright as being similar to other fears you’ve overcome.

You might have been scared about a first day of school, moving to a new city or starting a new job. But you kept with it and eventually felt comfortable. It can be the same going on stage and speaking in public.

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I know comedians that have told me they’ve never gotten over stage fright.

They just wouldn’t let it stop them and learned how to deal with it. They say their nervousness keeps them more aware – more real – on stage. There’s no way they could ever sleep walk through their act, which is what you call it when someone goes on stage and just repeats their memorized act word for word in a way that’s old, stale and boring both for the audience and the comedian. The heightened nerves keep them more in tune with everything that’s happening in the room and their minds in the moment.

And that’s where you need to be if you eventually start taking advantage of your innate talent for ad-libbing and improvising off an audience.

As usual, I have one last example. Fans of classic rock should love this. But for the younger comics… well, just humor me for moment.

One of my books is about The Beatles 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium in front of 55,600 fans. At that time, it was the largest rock concert ever held and the Beatles were the biggest rock band in the world. They had played hundreds of shows and performed live in front of millions of viewers on the most watched television programs in the world. But the one common thread I found from all the interviews I did with people that were with them backstage at Shea Stadium was how nervous they were. The Beatles were shaking in their Beatle boots. But after they were introduced and ran onto the stage, their preparation (knowing their act) and experience (hundreds of shows) took over. By the end of the concert they were doing comedy bits between songs and having as much fun (probably more) than anyone else there.

Stage fright? I don’t know of a quick fix or a cure. But I do know if you want it bad enough, preparation will help you get on stage and experience will keep you going back.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading 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 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

Freedom of speech comes with a price

January 1, 2019

Dave – What are the implications of mocking a device or its creator? For instance, I’ve made comments in my act about a medical device that could be construed as less than savory, yet funny. But the backers of this device are my current employers and have been known to be surly regarding their investments. I know of one nurse who wrote a novel about her experiences and was summarily fired. Not that I fear such action, but… well… I still have a mortgage. – M

What did you say?

Hey M – Any topic is pretty much fair game in comedy. But you’ll have to make your own decision about this one since it involves your current employer. I believe in and support freedom of speech. But in practical real-world situations (your mortgage would qualify as one of those) you have to consider the consequences. If you think the material will come back and bite you in the you-know-what and cause you to lose your job, then it’s best to keep your mouth shut.

I like to point out that knowing your audience makes a difference in how far you can go with free speech. If you’re making a living as a comedian and talking about your personal life, then making fun of your former employer (former husband, former wife, former co-workers – you get the picture) is no big deal.

They’re all fair game when it comes to sharing humor.

But to be on the safe side, it’s probably a good idea not to mention them by name. I’ve seen that scenario come back to bite a few comics in the you-know-what.

It also helps that you don’t have to deal with these former associates after your performances. But that’s not a rule written in stone. I’ve watched comics on stage use their current family members, employers and co-workers as the source of comedy material. It depends on the relationships and in many cases these “victims” enjoy being part of the show.

Freedom of speech is the center of the comedy universe.  The topics can include whatever is on your creative mind. How far you take it… well, it depends…

There are comedians who are family friendly and others billed as “for adults only.” And no one can tell you one style is better than the other. It depends on personal taste. And the comics making a living either as clean or dirty can do it because they know their audience.

But on the flip side of this comedy creative universe is the comedy business. What you say can sometimes affect your career. Here are some thoughts…

When I scheduled comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening At The Improv, we gave the performers some guidelines on material. These were strictly for business reasons such as ratings and legalities.

First of all, demographics showed that our largest viewing audience was in the Bible Belt. Therefore, we couldn’t let the comedians make fun of God or religion. If they did, a lot of fans in these areas would stop watching the show. Advertisers would stop buying commercial time because the consumers they were aiming for wouldn’t be watching their commercials anymore. And since that’s how the show made money – everyone involved would risk losing his or her job.

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Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Starting Saturday – January 12, 2019

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Secondly, the producers of the show didn’t want to be sued if a comedian badmouthed a product – like the medical device you mentioned in today’s question. For example, comedians couldn’t say McDonald’s sucked or Taco Bell gave them heartburn. Those companies could come down hard with a team of lawyers to protect their reputations.

Comedians were warned before show tapings not to practice their freedom of speech when it came to these specific topics. Of course some ignored the warnings. But it didn’t matter because they didn’t have any control over the final outcome – it was all business related. That’s why you can watch episodes where certain comics are only on for four or five minutes instead of the standard seven-minute set.

They didn’t follow the “rules” and the forbidden material was cut out before the show was broadcast.

It’s also important to note saying the F-bomb on network television is still forbidden. You can say it at certain times on certain cable shows and all day long on others, but not on the major networks. So as a comedian, you have to play by the rules if you want to sit on a chair next to Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel or Seth Myers.

But on stage in a comedy club, comedians can say those things. You can make fun of companies, religion or whatever you want as long as – and this is the business side talking – you bring in paying customers. Most club owners support the art and creativity of stand-up, but are still in it to make a living.

You call these jokes?

Now in your case, as a beginning comedian who still needs a regular paycheck until your career takes off, you have to protect yourself. How far will your employers let you go before they get offended and fire you?

I’ve had more than a few comedians in my workshops that were police officers. I always found it interesting because some felt they had to use a stage name and never mentioned police work during their sets because they were worried their superiors would crack down on them. Others didn’t care and talked about being a cop and what they did on the job.

It’s a personal decision that I couldn’t make for them because I couldn’t predict the repercussions.

So in your case you need to figure out what or if there will be any fall-out or flack from your bosses if you do this material on stage. You want freedom of speech, but you also have a mortgage.

One last thought. Even “stars” have to be careful in certain situations. Without mentioning names (but if you’re really into the comedy biz I’m sure you can think of a couple), they’ve made headlines practicing free speech on stage by making horrendous remarks about race or sexual preferences. It probably wouldn’t have been that intense or newsworthy if they hadn’t been well known from starring on television and in movies. In some cases there were a lot of protests and the comics eventually had to publicly apologize to salvage their careers.

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I happened to see one of these (no names!) comedians a couple weeks after one of these newsworthy episodes at a popular comedy club. He confronted the situation right away and admitted to the audience he got in a lot of trouble for what he said. He promised he wouldn’t talk about it and was finished with the subject. But as a comedian – he then told the audience he was going to pick on a different group instead and launched into that material.

Some audience members laughed while others didn’t.

But he was practicing the art of free speech and made a choice about how far he would go regardless of what the consequences might be. That’s a personal decision and you have a right to make it. But just make sure you have both your artistic and business thinking caps on when you make it.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading 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 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

Bombing on stage

December 19, 2018

Hey Dave – I entered a local comedy contest tonight and did virtually the same set that I did during a showcase that went very well at The Improv. Tonight I think it kind’a bombed. I had it recorded and did not get the same good laughs. I remember you saying that audiences are different. But as good as The Improv felt, tonight felt pretty bad. I would love to get your feedback… Thanks – MB

Now THIS is bombing!

Hey MB – If a television network ever comes up with another reality series about being a comedian, you’re eligible to move into the house. Welcome to the real world of comedy. Don’t feel bad. Seriously – don’t. Not every single set or every club will be a great experience.

It’s a learning process.

I’m not sure where the contest was, but you mentioned your showcase at The Improv. That’s a real comedy club – as opposed to most local open-mic rooms. Newer comedians in my workshops experience this when they actually get to rehearse and perform on stage at The Improv. Again, this is a real comedy club. The comics are prepared and psyched to perform and already know the audience will be supportive.

And the reason it’s a supportive audience is because when you go to The Improv – or other real clubs like The Funny Bone, Gotham, Zanies, The Laugh Factory and others (I know I’m missing most of them, but you get the point) you’re in a real comedy club.

That’s why the audience is there – to see and laugh at comedians during a comedy show.

Learn what NOT to do!

It’s not like some open-mic rooms where a bartender shuts off the television and announces, “Now time for a little comedy” to a group of beered-up sports fans wondering what funny person is responsible for turning off the game.

When you’re just starting in comedy and going out to open-mics, you never know what you are going to encounter. Compared to doing a workshop or any type of training in a real comedy club, it’s going to seem strange and very different. The audiences – as they are in most live venues – are unpredictable. And the important thing to remember when you’re just getting started is that you’re still very new at doing comedy.

You deserve a lot credit just by going up on stage. It takes nerve and a lot of people can’t do it. They only think and dream about it, but never take that first step.

And BTW every single comedian I know has bombed BIG TIME – and usually at least a number of times – at some point in their career.

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Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, January 30 at 7:30pm

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That’s how the business works. It’s a learning process of many successes and failures in an effort to get it right – or as close to right as you can get as a creative artist. The “star” comedians I’ve talked with about this can look back and have tremendously funny stories about bombing. They will also tell you it’s how they learned to write, perform and make it in this crazy biz. So keep in mind that you’re not the only one to have gone through a bad set.

You’re not alone. In fact, you’re in very good company.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. There’s a great book I recommend for comedians called I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics. It’s by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, who are talented, experienced and funny comedians. It includes stories of bombing by Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock and dozens more. It’s very funny and very true. You’ll also have a good understanding of the learning process and realize what you went through – bombing at a local comedy contest – is nothing to lose sleep over. Some of the comedians in this book were so bad in the beginning they were lucky to get out of the clubs alive. But it didn’t stop them from pursuing their dreams.

You’re goal as a beginner is to keep getting on stage.

Don’t let this experience stop you. You need to feel comfortable in front of an audience and it takes time. I went through that process myself while putting together my corporate and college programs. I was trying to remember what to say and in a panic mode when the audience didn’t laugh or pay attention. There was a lot of sweat.

But you have to keep going on stage. Eventually – even slowly – you’ll start getting it together. You’ll feel more comfortable and that will improve your delivery, which will make your material work better.

Tape your shows and go over the audio and / or video.

It might be painful (I pretty much hated watching mine) but you have to do it. Look for something – anything – that worked (got laughs). That’s a keeper – even if it’s only one joke or bit. As the late Richard Jeni told me for my book, Comedy FAQs And Answers, any laugh you get is a brick to build on. Find out what made it work. Was it just funny? Did you deliver it in a way that made it funny? Was it the wording? Did you have a certain expression? Whatever it might be, build on that. Keep it in your set and come up with another laugh. That’s your second brick and how you build an act.

Write and rewrite. As a comedian, you’re an entertainer. How would you tell this to an audience in a way that would entertain them? This is how you develop your comedy voice.

It takes time.

And finally, if comedy were easy everyone would do it. Because it can be fun, exciting, and creative and – let’s face it – you’re in the spotlight. You’re the center of attention when you’re on stage. Some people crave attention. But for a real artist – a real comedian – it’s much more than that. It’s also a chance to express yourself and tell audiences about life, thoughts and opinions as you see it and experience it.

How cool is that?!

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I’m positive there were people in that audience wishing they had the nerve to get on stage and do what you were doing – even though you thought you were bombing.

Bombing on stage is a big part of the learning process. After figuring out what went right with your earlier set, figure out what went wrong with this one. Make changes and try to cut the chances of it happening again. It will (I promise you – ha!), but as you keep working at it the chances of bombing will go down. It takes experience.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – 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 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.

Going for the “perfect” performance

September 24, 2018

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.

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.

Should I question this?

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 needle in a haystack, (sorry, I had a drive that took me past miles of farm land this week and can’t shake it out of my mind). 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…

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 and is a true John Lennon & Paul McCartney composition. That duo is also sited as the top composers of their generation. So put it all together – and it’s the perfect song. Right? 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…

In one of my comedy workshops at The Improv a number of years ago, 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. 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.

That was so funny!

It was pure frustration and the funniest thing we had seen in that workshop. Myself and everyone else 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 each of our following workshop sessions.

The night of our show at The Improv, I reassured each workshop member they would have a fun set. They had worked hard and were prepared. 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, fell over the stool that was on stage and hit the floor in frustration. The best part was that it wasn’t an act. It was real. It was the highlight of our show and he earned the biggest laughs of the night. I thought it was perfect.

Afterward he admitted he’d had a great time and according to audience response, his set actually worked. But he also 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 just be better next time.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading 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 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 comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.