Four Things I’ve Learned As a Comic
I’ve been a comedian for well over a decade now, even headlining some shows, and I always have people come up to me and say “I just don’t know how you do that – it’s so terrifying, the idea of being on stage and trying to make people laugh! You are so brave!”
Well, thank you. I do like to think of myself having superhero levels of bravery. In fact, though, at night when I take off my spandex super suit, I am nothing magical or different than anyone else. There are some things that I’ve learned from my time as a comedian that are useful skills and tricks for everyone, especially in the workplace.
1. Don’t script everything out, but have a solid basic plan.
If you’ve ever gone to an open mic night for stand-up comedy, you have probably seen a rookie comedian making one of the biggest mistakes you can make in stand-up comedy: having a word-for-word script of their jokes. They know exactly what they want to say and exactly how they intend to say it. This is great in theory, but live comedy is an interactive thing, and the hecklers in the audience, the lights that are brighter than the sun, the sweat trickling down your face, and the inevitable – forgetting a word and losing your place in your comedy script, make this an impossible way to be a truly successful comic. Plus – big negative – you’ll look stiff and unengaged in the moment, and the audience will feel your discomfort, and then they aren’t engaged in your success anymore – they are disappointed.
So what do you do?
Come up with your jokes as you would say them in an ideal, vacuum-sealed environment, then break them down to the most important pieces, and go on stage knowing and prepared to throw out those Most Important Pieces – the spine of the joke. The rest will fill itself in at that moment, and being flexible enough to not read from a script allows you to be in-the-moment, engage with the audience, enjoy your time on stage, and dodge the bullets thrown by hecklers.
This is good advice for everyone – don’t over-plan your job hunt, that conference call you are leading, your day, your one-on-one review with that member of your team. It’s good to prepare for exactly how you want it to go, but then boil it down to the pieces you really need to happen. Then, allow for flexibility, the unexpected, the human element that can’t be controlled, and your own happiness. The whole experience will be better for you and for the people you interact with, as well.
2. “Yes, And” can get you through almost any conversation.
The “Yes, And” is a central concept in improvisational (or “improv”) comedy – at its simplest, you take whatever has come before, accept it, and build upon in. Quite literally, when you start in improv comedy, if the person before you says “I’m a squirrel,” you would follow with, “Yes, And” and then whatever you want to do to follow that, so something like, “Yes, And your giant bushy tail is tickling my nose!” The actual saying of the “Yes, And” falls away with practice, but the concept – taking what has come before and building on it with a positive bent – stays the same.
I hated this concept when I first started doing improv comedy; I didn’t want to have to always build on what had come before. I gave it a try, though, and found that the “Yes, And,” is almost miraculous.
Improv, when in its applied form, can give us skills in communication in all situations, flexibility, creativity, leadership (over 700 applications, according to the Applied Improv Network). You can try it in your everyday life – it helps move any and every conversation forward. Use it when networking – take whatever the person has said and build upon it. All of a sudden that conversation is not stilted or awkward, and the other person feels that you are really listening. Try it in an interview (this is a fantastic technique for interviews) – whatever the person says, accept it and follow it with something positive. For example:
Them: “Our company has a proud history of environmental innovation.”
You: “Yes, I saw the article on your use of solar energy posted on your website. Furthermore, I myself am actively engaged in environmental innovation – I built my house out of used soda bottles.”
And if you are really intrigued about applied improv, let me know -- we can discuss ways to fold it into your workplace or group.
3. Sometimes, you need to mentally shake yourself.
The key to really being able to engage in the production of something live and funny is to leave your fear and reservations off-stage. This is something I really learned doing improv comedy – I couldn’t be an active part of any activity or scene unless I wasn’t afraid of the outcome – I just had to give it everything.
In order to make that happen, prior to a comedy class or a show, I would have to mentally shake myself. I would think about all of that anxiety I was feeling and just decide to let it go and really participate. Once I did that, I was able to perform.
I recommend trying this before job interviews, meetings you are scared of, the phone call you don’t want to make – any of these things. Really focus on the feeling of your anxiety, actively decide that you can’t take that anxiety with you into the activity you are going to perform, and consciously decide to let it go. It can come back later, sure, but you will give your best performance if you can put it aside and actively engage.
4. Confidence makes a world of difference.
The final point, which isn’t said enough in my opinion, is that confidence makes a world of difference. If a comedian is onstage and doesn’t believe a joke will work, they don’t think they are funny, they don’t feel good about being in front of people – it probably will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But how, you may ask, do you get confident? Fake it until you make it. Pretend you are confident. Decide you are confident about the thing you are doing, saying, the joke you are telling. In work situations, this means deciding that, even if you have some internal questions about your suitability for a job, walk into the interview thinking: “yes, I am awesome and perfect for this job, let me show you why.” The same goes for the presentation you have to give, the meeting, even picking up the phone – be confident in your ability, or at least pretend you are. The person or people on the other side of that will believe you and have confidence in you and your joke, your presentation, your ability to do that job. And, after you have proven to them and to yourself that you can do it, you will notice one day that real confidence has moved in.
Give these four elements of comedy success a try in your everyday life, the workplace, anywhere, and see the big difference they can make. Maybe I’ll even see you at the next open mic!