Ways to Conquer Your Stage Fright

Public speaking is a fear a lot of people have, even extremely funny ones.  With this article, I will try to help you get over your fear and at least try your hand at comedy.  I myself had a tremendous fear of getting up in front of people.  I hated being called on in class (it didn’t help that I stuttered until the fourth grade), and when I was in the military, it was actually comedy that helped me deliver my presentations in front of my peers.  When I started performing, it was debilitating.  Once I was opening for this guy at Oregon State University, and when I looked out at this sea of people, I seriously thought about giving it up.  I was about to go outside and call the promoter and tell him I was done with comedy, but something told me to do it and I did.

Memorize your material- This is important.  Remembering what you want to talk about can calm your nerves.  We are afraid of the things we don’t know and what we can not control.  The one thing that you can control is knowing your material.  That way you won’t have to fumble with papers or your phone.  When you have the confidence that you at least know what you are going to talk about, it can steady you before you get on stage.

Give it time- If you have your material in your head ready to go, then when your name is called take a deep breath and when you are on that stage, give yourself a second or two to take in your new environment.  That couple of seconds can give your mind the time to see that it isn’t that bad!  Take those couple of seconds to take a couple of breaths and get ready to perform.  Most crowds want you to be funny, they don’t want to have wasted their evening listening to terrible comedy, so you have that advantage.  Now that you are centered and you have let the room in, start crushing.

Use more of the stage-  Pacing can help you redirect those nerves somewhere else.  When you get on stage and you need your notes, put them somewhere that you have to go to.  For instance:  put them on the bar stool and make sure the bar stool is a couple of steps so you can pace and keep your notes within reading range.  Now you can pace and work off the nerves that are built up and your notes are there in case you need them.  If you have your material memorized then use the stage as the nerves hit to keep it from messing with what you are trying to do on stage.

Eyes and hands-  Comics that are afraid will sometime grab the mic stand as an anchor.  That mic stand works as like an antenna and it can alert the entire audience to your predicament.  Comics who are comfortable on stage and are using it as more of a cane have a different posture than someone that is wringing the hell out of it because they are scared out of their minds.  I would suggest against keeping the mic in the stand unless it helps you use both of your hands. Noise can travel through the mic stand so if you are holding on to it for dear life, everyone in the room can hear it.  Put that other hand in your pocket or talk with it.  It’s a bit harder to see your nerves if you have your hand in your pocket or you are using it to add flourishes to your performance.  What I used to do for years to help with my nerves was I would not look at anyone in the audience.  I had my material memorized and I went up and reacted to the laughs.  I would look at empty seats or look right past people. It really helped me get a hold of what I was doing on stage.

Start easy-  An almost sure fire way to settle those nerves is to get the room laughing when you get up.  Start off with a nice, even keeled joke to get the crowd on your side.  If you start by antagonizing the audience it will not help get those nerves down because you know the crowd isn’t hoping you make them laugh anymore.  This is especially true at open mics where the audience doesn’t care as much about your well being.  They just want to laugh.

I hope these steps help you.  They may not work for everyone but there is something there for at least someone.  I would advise against drinking or drugs to calm your nerves.  Now, taking a shot may help calm your nerves, but too much could make you more sloppy on stage.  I knew a guy that could not go on stage without at least a buzz going.  The problem is he didn’t have it down to a science so sometimes he would be drunk as hell when he got up there!  He would antagonize the audience and they hated him.  He would get sober and then feel bad about his sets.  Once he stopped doing that (as much), you could see the real comedian come out of him.  I would also advise against bringing a whole group of friends and family because that is like a drug in itself.  Your family will laugh at anything you say because they want the best for you (unless your family is terrible).  That will give you an inflated sense of what you can do on stage and as soon as they stop coming out (because they will eventually) all it will take is one bad show to strip away that confidence you had built up.  It is best to develop that stage confidence slowly to the point where a bad show won’t cause you to stop doing comedy.  I hope these tips helped.  Thanks for reading!

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Pushing Through No

People are always trying to find out what the difference is between them and their favorite comedians.  I hear it a lot when talking to comedians and they wonder why they have been doing it for five years and still hosting, but some guy they saw on TV has been doing it just as long and…well, they are on TV.  I have written before about the ways these guys are different.  Today I am going to write about one way that stops many people, including me at times, and that is “no”.

See, what separates us from most of the comedians, actors, and singers you see is that they don’t take no as a final answer.  No is more of a stop gap than anything.  If you are a comedian reading this, think of the times you have been told no (in one way or another).  The local booker doesn’t reply to your emails.  Clubs don’t want you for anything other than hosting.  Your family thinks its a phase.  Instead of just letting that get to them and keep them from progressing, these people are pushing.  Why?  Because they know that no isn’t the end all be all!  That is just one person, controlling a small bubble of the comedy landscape.  So instead of letting it eat them alive, they push on past that person and go to another, and another, and another, until they get to the next step in their career.

It is not easy to do this.  If it was, I wouldn’t be at an open mic right now writing this.  When I first started trying to branch out, hearing no from someone would obliterate my self-esteem.  Now, it is just part of the process.  This is the way this industry runs.  Is it fair?  No, but the way I see it is like this:  Everyone is trying to either maintain or make more money and gain prestige.  If they just allowed anyone in that could hurt that without making absolutely sure they could at least keep the status quo, then that means loosing a room, or a valuable client.

Ok.  So you’ve read all that and you think that you are one yes from being Tom Segura.  Wait.  Not letting “no” stop you is just one part of a whole.  You still have to write you ass off and get on stages and maintain relationships with people.  Every comedian out there has another comedian or booker or someone believe in them and help them and you need that as well, just don’t let disappointments get you down.

Are You A Comedian?

Yes.  Yes you are.

 

 

 

Damn.  You want more than just that…alright.  I already told you all you needed to know, but if we must.

I suspect every scene in the country, if not the world, has to deal with this question from time to time.  What makes a person a comedian?  How many open mic nights must you attend to be designated a comedian?  Is it when you get paid for comedy?  Is it when you get paid more than once?  Is it at a certain amount earned a year?  You see how silly this can get, right?  The reason it is so silly is because there is no education or class needed to make people laugh. The title of comedian doesn’t hold the same weight as calling yourself doctor or lawyer, or hell even plumber.  Those people have to take classes and train.  All a person has to do to call themselves a comedian is…well…nothing really.  I haven’t seen too many people just calling themselves comedians because they make people laugh at the monthly meeting, but there is really nothing stopping anyone from calling themselves a comedian, and I think that is what bothers a lot of people.

Think about it.  If you sit down and write jokes and try to work on them, it may seem unfair that someone that comes signs up for a couple of open mics are now calling themselves a comedian.  I don’t know why anyone would be bothered, but people get really upset about it.  That is why some will start placing people in this order so they can classify folk.  You will hear open micer said a lot, usually not in a great way, to describe someone that is mainly doing open mics and not really getting paid work.  Then there are things like MC, feature, headliner, that may be used as positions in a show, but can also be used to place you on a comedian totem pole.  Why do people do this?  Because it places class structure on people in a situation where class doesn’t really exist.  It can be used to separate, and belittle people.  You know, all of the already terrible stuff we are doing everywhere else.  That is why a lot of people get hung up on the notion of what is a comedian.  We want to get recognition for what we do, and we do not want others to claim the same recognition if they have not done as much as us (even if what we do isn’t much).

I said all that and yet I do believe that you have to do something to be considered a comedian.  Yeah, you can set up a Facebook page, and call yourself a comedian without stepping foot on a stage, but that would make you seem like a weirdo.  I don’t care if after one open mic and nothing else, you want to think of yourself as a comedian.  It has no bearing on me and my life and the comedy dreams that I pursue.  I don’t want to get hung up worrying about who is and isn’t a comedian because I still have a dream that I am chasing and do not have time (other than writing this) to consider these things.  I say worry about your goals and leave questions that divide people alone.

Why It’s Hard To Break Into Comedy Clubs (For Some)

I hope everyone had a happy New Years.  Now it is time to get back at it.  With this one let’s talk about the difficulties of getting booked into comedy clubs.

If you think about it, comedy clubs are very unique.  Comedy is the one of the few performing arts that basically has its own space.  There is not a ballet bar, or a poem emporium.  This obviously means that if you want to ply your trade in stand-up this is one of the first places you would look. You would think it would be as simple as emailing the person who books talent at the club and if they see a use for you, then you are good to go.  Well, it is not that easy.  Let us talk about the simple fact that there is only so many comedy clubs in the country.  Sure some cities like Chicago and New York City have several, but a lot of places may have just one club, and that one club has between 48 to 52 weekends (depending on things like when holidays fall and such) in which to fill.  Most comedy shows have a MC, feature, and headliner.  So at most, a club needs three comedians a weekend.  Now I hope you see that there are a ton of people that have the capacity to fill these spots, so that makes comedy clubs sort of a gate keeper.  If they want to have people return, they want to put on the best show they can afford.  That means they have to be a little more picky then say the sardine factory that just needs to fill five canning positions.

Now the above tries to explain why its hard to get booked into comedy clubs on just a numbers aspect.  The thing is you have another hurdle, the booker.  There are men and women all across this country that book these shows and because they are human and have particular tastes, they will make decisions for a variety of reasons.  I have heard them all.  From just not that funny to you live too far away and we don’t want to house you.  Also because they are human, they are not immune from just grabbing what is nearby.  Why book a comedian for a show in Atlanta when they live in Portland?  Why not just look in your immediate vicinity.  Especially for features because there are a ton of people that can perform between 20-30 minutes of comedy.  It is less stress to know that most of your talent is in town.  That is why it is really hard to get booked as a MC or feature the farther away you look.  They can just grab a local comedian to MC and save money and hassle.  They don’t have to worry about comics changing their minds at the last minute because they can’t afford to come perform.  You also have to think about the booker and the amount of inquiries they receive on a day to day basis.  I can only imagine all the emails and packages they get from comedians that want to work their club.  They can’t possibly get to it all.  If you receive 200 emails a day, it will get to a point where you will ignore a ton of emails and base your decisions on what your peers are telling you.  Then there is just plain ole biases.  They may not like musical comedians, or comedians that wear hats on stage.  They won’t tell you this outright, but it could keep your from getting work from them.

Here is another thing.  Comedy clubs are businesses.  They are not non profits that are putting on comedy shows for the good of the community.  They are trying to get the audience to buy food and alcohol, and your quips about Tupperware is what is keeping them there.  These clubs are looking for people that can put asses in seats.  It is not so much how funny you can be, but an as of now undiscovered equation between funny and popular.  Why do you think your local club has that former porn star coming to town next week?  Because they are popular enough, and sometimes funny enough, to put asses in seats and make the club some money.  If you can’t offer them that, then it is hard to break in.  This is not so much a concern of MCs and feature acts because they are seen as younger, less experienced comedians, but headliners have to worry about this a lot.

So, how can you increase your chances you may ask.  Well, the thing you have to remember is persistence. You have to be able to accept that you will get turned down a lot and keep trying to get in contact with these clubs.  You will send out hundreds of emails and you may get one response back.  It’s important to know that you can not guess what is going on on the other side of email.  The booker may be ignoring emails.  They may be seeing it and not responding because you do not fit their place.  I will say this, if you got a response and they say no, then you should not keep sending them emails.  Accept the no and when you have a new headshot or new video for them to take a look at, then you should probably give it another try.  If they say contact again in six months, then do that. I have an spreadsheet (I know!) where I can check off who I have contacted and if they responded to me.  I don’t use it as much as I should, but it is helpful in keeping track.  You can also hit up the club’s open mic.  This is a great way of getting in front of people that can get your booked.  Don’t see it as a guarantee that the booker will be there though.  If I can get there, I like to do that because networking and getting to know bookers and what they are looking for is a great way to improve your chances of getting work in the future.  You can also try booking independent shows in clubs during off nights.  Some clubs will let you rent their spot on a night where they are not doing a proper show and you can show them that you have enough pull in the area to be brought back for a weekend.  You can also try this with a specialty show.  We have a show in Spokane called Drink N Debate, and it is put on at the Spokane Comedy Club every month.  The bookers get to see a lot of comedians and can evaluate them for potential work.

The key is being persistent and remembering that it is an uphill battle, but one you will have to go through if you are trying to get into comedy clubs.

 

Big Idea Comedy Vs. Small Idea Comedy

For lack of better terms, I tend to look at comedy in two very broad terms, that can be elaborated on later.  Big ideas and small ideas.

Big idea comedy, at least in the way that I think of it, are premises that try to tackle the big issues in our society.  Poverty, inequality, women’s issues, race, are what I would call Big ideas.  These are things that people have an idea about, but may not have thought of them in a comedic way.  I think a lot of comedians start out writing material with these ideas in mind. Why?  Because it can be easier to grasp for both the comedian and the audience.  We have been confronted with most of these ideas, so there is not much set up required.  As soon as you start going into the bit, everyone more or less has an understanding of the topic at hand.  This does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, big idea comedy writing is usually the hardest to write effectively.  There is a reason they are ideas that still linger in our society, and there are many different ways to fail an idea you are trying to get out to the audience.  I have sat at hundreds of open mics where the person wants to say something witty about these issues, but instead comes off as offensive or tone deaf.  If that is the idea then, to make it seem as though you have no idea what is going on, then exaggeration is your friend.

Newer comedians tend to want to go  after these topics for another reason, they have seen their favorite comedians knock these topics out of the park.  The problem is that we tend to not see the work that is involved with crafting a joke so it seems easy when in actuality it is quite difficult.  So, how would I advise a new comedian to go after these big ideas?  I wouldn’t.  I would tell them to go after things that others can’t duplicate (this is where small idea comedy comes in).  If they really want to though, I would tell them that saying the same thing that every comedian in the world is already saying is not a good way to differentiate yourself from the masses.  That is why blue collar comedy is what it is.  It says something completely different from what hundreds of other comedians are saying.

Small idea comedy may sound like the opposite, and you would be partly right.  Small ideas, as I am writing them, are things that are happening to you directly.  It is not as big as race relations, but it can be, just as long as it is happening to you.  This seems to be how a lot of comedians progress as they get more comfortable with the way they write. They start off talking about really heavy ideas, and then they look within their own lives to find humor.  To a lot of newer comedians, this seems daunting.  You may be young and thing the things that are happening to you directly would not be funny, but have you sat down and thought about it?  Have you taken time to assess situations in your life that could be funny?  When you start thinking about comedy differently, you start to realize that you can find a lot of good material in smaller ideas.  How does going out in public make you feel?  Do you hate your in-laws?  These are things that do not affect the lives of many, but can still be funny.

How can you get to these small ideas and write effective material about them?  First, think about the things that bother you.  The things that make you laugh.  These are things that a lot of other people may find weird enough to laugh at.  Some of the greatest comedians ever made their names from looking within and being able to articulate it in ways that made others laugh.  What is great about this material is because it is more personal, it is harder for others to duplicate.  This is the material that audiences will remember you for.  Do you have funny stories?  That is small idea comedy!

I hope I was able to get these idea across in an effective manner.  If not please let me know in the comments.  While you are at it, go here to pick up the new book from my friend Andrew Oullette.  Thanks!

You Are Not Owed Anything

This may seem harsh, but I will keep it short so it stings a little less:  You are not owed anything in comedy.  There.  If that surprised you, or got your heart rate up, that means you are the perfect person for this blog post.

I think what happens is we take what we know from other industries, and assume it should work that way in comedy.  Longevity does not equal experience.  Experience does not equal ability.  Ability does not equal employ-ability… None of these things mean you are a shoe in for certain things.  This isn’t like working down at the docks, where if you were there for five years you get promoted.  You don’t get promoted in comedy just because you have been going to open mics steadily for five years.  If that were the case a lot of people would have HBO specials.  When someone tells me that they have been doing comedy for x number of years, it means nothing because you can get on stage once, never get on again for 10 years, and still call yourself a comedian.  Have you been writing?  Have you been performing?  These are the things that I think are more important than just how many years you have called yourself a comedian.

Just because you have been on showcases a bunch of times doesn’t mean you should be featuring at a club.  I see it time and time again.  Someone has been getting spots on shows, and now they think they are ready to feature.  Getting on stage is good experience, but that doesn’t mean you have the ability to perform for 20-30 minutes.  Ask a comedian that has been doing it for about six months to a year how much time they have, and most will overestimate.  Why?  Because open mics and such may give them  the impression that they have a lot of material that works.  That is not the case.  Once you get in front of a paying, attentive crowd, they are not going to let things slide because “everyone is just working on stuff”.  Get honest with yourself.  Do you have 20 quality minutes, or 10 decent minutes and 10 minutes of bonus ramblings.  Getting honest with yourself will help you not burn yourself when you are trying to get work.

So, you have been doing it for a while and have the chops.  You feel you have what it takes to start working.  What’s this though?  No one wants to work with you?  You can’t get booked anywhere even though you are funnier than all the other comedians that get booked?  Have you ever thought that maybe you’re an asshole?  Close you eyes (later, not now), and think of all your interactions with other comedians. Is it you and a bunch of probably skinny white dudes running through a meadow?  Or, is it a bunch of arguments and Facebook post telling comedians to eat a dick?  If it’s the latter, than that is your answer to why you are not getting booked.  You can not expect to be a piece of shit, AND be booked.  It may seem like the world of comedy is this large expansive network, but it is much smaller than that.  There are only so many comedy bookers and the odds that they have dealt with someone that has dealt with you is probable at the least.  If you have a great set, a set that makes bras fall off and guys get tramp stamps, but you can’t be worked with than people will just leave you off of shows.  There is a limit to this though.  If you are in the upper levels of comedy, like the Tom Seguras, and Phillip Kopczynskis  of the world, then you may be able to get away with not being the coolest person to work with, because you are putting asses in seats.  If, however, you are trying to get booked on your local show, and you are a total asshat, then why would anyone put up with that, no matter how funny you are.

Just remember that just because someone was doing it for 6 years and got on SNL doesn’t mean that is the trajectory for you.  Things happen to people differently.  I know comedians that started after me and are all over the country.  That doesn’t mean I deserve to be there as well.  That means that they may have had more connections, or were more personable to people, so they could network easier.  Maybe their material isn’t 80% dick jokes.  You have to be honest and look within when things are not going the way they should.

 

How to Take Advice/Constructive Criticism

Comedians get and give advice all the time.  It is constantly a learning process, and not one person knows everything about comedy.  How you take advice and/or criticism is important if you want to grow.

Advice can come in many forms, but no matter how you get it make sure you understand the source.  I am not saying that only famous people can give advice because a lot of the time it was just blind luck that got them famous!  You have to weight what advice from a certain sources means to you.  I am nowhere near famous, and I have dispensed advice on this blog for three years now.  You reading this are the only ones that will know if what I say applies to you and your career.  If you are headlining clubs every weekend you have no business here.  I will add hardly anything to your overall understanding of the comedy industry.  If you’re an open mic comedian, that is trying to move up the ladder, then maybe you can get something from all of these scribbles.  There is also nothing saying you can’t take bits and pieces of advice and make it something that can help you grow.  If someone tells you, “You need to get on stage more and face the crowd.”, but the persona you are building on stage is one that is stand offish to the audience, then maybe just take “You need to get on stage more.” and leave the rest to the winds.

Criticism is hard for any entertainer.  Who wants to know that you are not making 100% of people laugh? I have been doing this for twelve years, and I still get down whenever I hear someone tell me that.  I will tell you the same thing I told you in the paragraph above:  understand the source! Criticism coming from a drunk person may not be the same as it is coming from your buddy.  Is this person just trying to hurt your feelings?  That is something else to take into account.  I am not saying that anyone that has a criticism about you is a hater, but listen to the criticism.  Is it constructive?  Does it give you a starting point in which you can improve, or is it just tearing you down just for the sake of it? Constructive criticism is almost always trying to negate negativity by instilling a positive aspect. Here is an example:  Someone comes to you after a performance, and says, “I think you should shed some details in your stories.  The end is funny, but it takes to long to get there.” They are telling you that the stories you are telling on stage are too long, but they are giving you a way to change it.  If they approached you and just said, “Your stories suck.” you just have the negative and no way of changing anything for the better.  You also have to understand that there is no way 100% of people are going to find what you do funny.  You are not looking for 100% anyway.  You are looking for enough people that will fill up a room.  I am not saying don’t try to make the person that doesn’t like you laugh, but don’t kill yourself trying to do it.

It is important to note that not all advice and not all criticism is good.  I once had someone after a show tell me, “What you need to do is get on Comedy Central!”  That is advice, but I can not do anything with that!  I had someone just a couple of hours ago say they have never liked my material (the inspiration for this post), until recently.  That’s all they said.  That is criticism, but since they gave me nothing else to go off of, there is nothing I can do to see if it is something I can fix.  There is nothing wrong with going head first with our vision of what you want to do on stage.  The thing is, we are trying to entertain others, and if we are not trying to do the best we can to do that, then we are just amusing our need to be the center of attention when we are on stage.