Copyright 2006 Matt Canham
I got an email from a friend of mine here not so long ago. He is late 20s – a few years younger than me – and in this email, he told me how he had taught himself to swim.
He explained in great detail the embarrassment of holding on to the edge of the pool blowing bubbles, practising the breathing technique before graduating to a kick board and doing laps up and down the pool.
With continued effort, he managed to teach himself to complete a lap of freestyle and now here he is – 5 months later – swimming 1 mile each day. He isn’t going to be trialling for the Olympic team anytime soon, but he has become proficient at it after a relatively short while.
So too, does it go with learning stand up comedy. It might feel like blowing bubbles at times and can you either sink or swim up on stage, but it is a skill you can learn and like any other, you can get so good at it, it can become a way to make money.
The bubble blowing of stand up comedy.
I think one of the most important initial steps should be to watch comedians who are already established. Live performances are best, or DVDs of live performances, where you can see the performer in their element doing what they do best.
When you are ready to practise breathing techniques, watch each comedian and make a note of how they construct their jokes. Take note of their delivery, their timing. Is the punchline obvious? Try to think about why you find a joke funny. Even better, observe the way they react when a joke receives only a mild reaction.
As for the whole issue of copying, here is where I stand. If you directly take the words of another person and deliver them yourself, that is stealing material. However, if you take a concept and improve on it, then that is fair game. A lot of people have made millions by improving inventions by only 10%, why shouldn’t a student of comedy have the same opportunity?
There is also the issue of delivery. Just because something bombs for one comic, doesn’t mean it will be the same for the next guy. In most cases, the failure is the result of the actual performer, not the show and in fact, once you have a routine and some jokes, your work should be on improving the performer.
The first step is to be honest with yourself. If you are cynical and full of hatred, that’s ok, that’s who you are. Similarly, if you have the most positive outlook on life, then that should set the tone for your act. Audiences will relate to people who are honest and comfortable in their own skin. Audiences aren’t dumb. They can sense people who attempt to put on or try to form an image. If it’s incongruent with your body language, your mannerisms and your vibe, you will be blown out and bomb.
The next step after blowing bubbles is to graduate to the kick board – the actual jokes or material you will be performing. For comedy to be effective, it has to be congruent with who you are – we already know this. So too, do the subject matter for your comedy. It has to be personal and about things that are interesting or important to you. A big part of what makes it funny, is the enthusiasm towards the subject from the comic. It should be something you are at least passionate about so people watching will think, this guy knows a lot about this.
How effective would Tim Allen have been if he didn’t like cars and power tools?
The best way to go about the material gathering phase is to write down your interests, your hobbies and then all the things about those that you like, dislike and amuse you. Chances are if they amuse you, they will also amuse others.
Once you have material, you are ready to start swimming. At first, it will feel weird, your timing will be off and you’ll most likely get water up your nose. Don’t worry – it’s all part of the process. It will take some time to work out how your jokes, your personality and your timing fit in with each other. The important thing is to practice. At home, at work, at the bus stop, practise on anyone that will listen. Test single jokes, test openers, test it all.
Only when you are the stage where you can put a few laps together, should you think about performing. Remember, you have to get over your fear of the water, learn how to blow bubbles and use the kick board before you can swim.