Comedians are obsessed with their acts. Whenever we have a minute, we want to discuss a new bit or a tag, could be with a parent, producer or plant. The act takes precedence over everything.
To large extent, this makes sense. The perfect act is the ultimate dream and all else pales like an open micer hearing that his parents are in the crowd. But there are a whole bunch of things that we can do off stage to improve our chances of being a better comedian, or professional, or for that matter, human being. Here are some mistakes comedians make (off stage) when starting out.
1. Bad Green Room Etiquette
There are two types of green rooms. One that’s encouraging, and one that is completely and utterly soul-sucking. And gossip is the resurrected mummy with its toothless mouth open. Gossiping is a sure sign of jealousy and lack of respect for artists and the art form. To use a meme you’d understand – “Sure, mocking other comedians feels great, but have you tried giving a compliment?”
Be a professional. Watch what you say, reach on time, introduce yourself to the other comics, respect the producer—he or she may be responsible for your future spots. And turn the volume down when someone is on stage. There’s plenty of time to chat about your new needlessly expensive headphones later.
The people in that green room are your potential spokespersons for a future big opportunity. Change the vibe, be supportive—we’re all fighting the same battle here.
2. Waiting For Inspiration
As William Faulkner once said, “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”
There is nothing that can replace the discipline of writing every day. Ideas may come at any time, but exploring the idea to its fullest needs work. Whether it’s a fresh concept, or editing an old script, sitting and giving each bit some extra thought opens up many more possibilities.
Pro tip: If you’re used to writing a particular way, also experiment with different methods of writing— on paper, on computer, out loud in a voice note, at a coffee shop, different time of day etc. You’ll find yourself accessing different parts of your brain.
3. Not Living a Life
The best bits come from real life incidents. Spending all of your days hopping from one mic to the next or following the same dull routine damages creativity. Go out there and live a little. Gather experiences that you can talk about on stage—skydiving, skating, the latest diet, helping someone renovate their house, or even that thing you take for granted like scrubbing the bathroom or cooking. It’s all potential material. This is an investment in your creativity.
The same goes for reading. Try a new genre of books or TV shows to open the breadth of your knowledge, and therefore your creativity. Yes, consuming and discussing comedy is good and even essential, but your good content will come from life experiences.
4. Giving Up
Comedians put their thoughts, feelings and entire selves up for judgment. So, it’s a hard knock when the audience doesn’t laugh, “because it means that they don’t like you.” But we also get better with time. Ten years into this thing, and I’m still learning to be a better writer and performer. Giving up too soon can be a devastating error because some of the best insights come from people who’ve had to dig really deep to get the good stuff.
Thick skins are hard to grow, but when that exoskeleton appears, it’s a suit of armor. Keep going. The stage is just another horse. Learn to get back up on it. You don’t need to give you, you need to work harder.
5. Leaving After Your Set
Contrary to popular belief, you can learn from your peers.
Some of us hop from one room to another and get as many minutes on stage as possible. This is great! But watching others also adds value. You’ll be surprised how many things you can learn by watching another comic kill on stage. Or bomb.
Watch the sets of your colleagues with an open mind, even those acts you dislike. You may just learn something about delivery, crowd work or stage ethic from someone you least expect.
6. Not Rehearsing Out Loud
I think most comics are guilty of this. We think we’re superheroes who do not need to study for an exam because we’re not in school anymore!
Muscle memory is your friend. When you haven’t gotten on stage often enough, then a rehearsal or five will do the trick. The value is tremendous, because when you know your set inside out, you leave space on stage for your mind to do other things, like improvise or add tags or handle that otherwise life-threatening heckler. But if you’re struggling to even remember your lines, where will your confidence come from?
As Steve Martin said: “My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, […] and then deciding when and what to say next.”
7. Trying to Get Signed
If you think having a manager will be the end of your troubles, you have another think coming! A manager can only assist in your endeavours. But you have to drive it. Managers can help, but they cannot replace you.
In the initial years, it’s much more useful to focus on your craft, i.e. your job, than to run around trying to lock a TV show or get someone to book your flights for you. Thumb rule: if your craft is good, you will be noticed.
Comedy is hard enough already without having the world gang up against you. Make things work in your favour, it’s not that difficult. A little discipline, etiquette and creativity can make your bombing on stage a little more bearable.
Kunal Rao is a standup comedian, writer and podcaster. His standup comedy writing workshop for basic writing techniques is running on 29 November 2020. Click here for details.
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