Standup Comedy - No Substitute For Stage Time
Updated: Oct 6
Are you one of those people who've always wanted to try standup comedy, but feel like you're not quite ready for it yet? Do you want to do it in principle, but when you go to write some material, all you see is a blank piece of paper staring back at you, taunting you? Do you think you're funny but don't know the best way to convince a room full of strangers of the same thing? If you're involuntarily nodding your head to these questions then read on.
Back when I was in school, I was the class clown. I struggled to take anything seriously, and being funny became a core part of my personality. Though I eventually learned that there was a time and a place for humour, it was always a core part of who I was and a key component of my self-esteem. No matter what else anyone thought of me, at least I knew I was funny.
Like many people with this background, I would often hear from people "You should do standup comedy!". Internally I agreed with them, but I always found an excuse that it wasn't the right time. It was something that I wanted to try, but I never knew how to go about getting started. I always found excuses to put it off, it was always something for the future.
Though I didn't want to admit it, the main reason I stalled wasn't because I didn't have time, or that I wasn't inspired, but it was because I was scared. All my life, being funny had been part of who I was. Whatever other negative things were happening, it was the one thing I knew I had going for me. It's one thing to try something new which has no reflection on your personality, like archery or dressage. It's another to open up a side of yourself to strangers and let them judge you for it by your own choice.
Eventually, I got tired of putting it off and took a standup comedy course, which forced me to create my first "tight five". I spent hours on that material. I wanted it to be the best it could possibly be. I came back to it time and time again, second-guessing the audience reactions, trying to work out the perfect place for pauses. I practised it in front of the mirror. I recorded an audio version and walked around listening to it on my headphones trying to memorise it. I did everything I could to ensure it was perfect.
When I eventually performed it was nothing like I had planned. Despite all of my planning, all of my writing, there were so many elements I hadn't expected. Some parts I was convinced were hilarious were met with nothing, some parts I'd considered transitional ended up getting the biggest laughs. Though I was happy enough with how the set went, the experience of performing the material had been so different from my expectations.
70 to 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal. The same line can have entirely different meanings depending on the delivery you give it. You only have so much control over that delivery. As a performer, you can only discover whether or not the material works for you by putting it in front of an audience. You will learn things about your material from putting it in front of an audience that you cannot find out any other way. The feedback loop you get from a real audience will teach you about timing and expectations. It will teach you about yourself and how people react to your unique delivery.
I don't finish material on the page now. I create outlines with touchpoints that are important to the material and improvise in the places that I haven't fully worked out yet. That's what open mics are for. An opportunity to try out new material and take risks. If you're not taking risks, then you're not growing as a performer. There is no substitute for stage time. The more you get, the more you learn about the material you've written audiences and most importantly, yourself.
I never did perform any of the material I wrote from the first set again. It wasn't that it was awful, it's just that it wasn't me. It took a room full of strangers for me to realise that.