February 17, 2015
I joined a stand up comedy class to improve my public speaking.
Or perhaps I’m just taking on more fears because I have to tell you – If you’re scared of public speaking, stand-up makes a speech feel like your own Bar Mitzvah.
My first time in class I bombed. And I felt depressed afterward. It felt like being picked last in gym class. But I was determined to be funnier. I studied the book, I went to comedy clubs, I looked for jokes everywhere I went. And it felt awful.
I suddenly related to the stereotype of comedians being depressed and lonely inside. I didn’t laugh as much because I was too busy deconstructing humor. And I certainly was not present for my life as I kept thinking about new material.
Ironically I was not listening to the advice I was telling friends and my own clients…
“Stop trying so hard.”
I did stop trying so hard. I stopped trying completely. I told my teacher I quit. Life is too short. I want my peace of mind back.
She told me I’m overthinking it and promised that if I come back she won’t let me down.
“Remember when I said comedy can drive you crazy if you let it? It’s just another thing the voice in your head is using. And if you quit now, that voice will tell you that you never even gave it a shot.”
I realized that at a sheer minimum this is an exercise in commitment – seeing something through from start to finish.
The next day in class we did a writer’s workshop, giving feedback and ideas on each other’s material. It was such a breath of fresh air to feel like part of a team again. I thought stand-up had to be lonely and it doesn’t. (I love that feeling of old beliefs falling off).
So now it’s Friday. There’s an open mic at 8pm. The sun is setting. I sit outside with my laptop, organizing my material. I feel so peaceful in my entire body. Something feels very right.
I print out my material and go to the garage to practice. I’m amazed that I can do most of the act without looking at my notes. The material feels great. I don’t know if it’s funny, but I enjoy saying it.
As I drive to the open mic, I’m in the flow. Every song on the radio sounds perfect. I envision myself on stage. I’m not even thinking about the laughs. I’m just thinking about how good it feels to be up there.
No matter what happens tonight, I did it. I feel like I’ve already won.
I arrive and there are 11 comics ahead of me. I remember our teacher saying that open mics are really just tests, so a lot of their material won’t be funny (And comedians don’t laugh a whole lot to begin with).
Well, not this night. Each person feels like they’re nailing it! I’m forgetting about my fears just because I’m laughing so much. I’m touched by their honesty and their vulnerability. I find myself oddly proud of them and rooting for them.
It’s my turn. I go up and my material flows out. People are laughing – sometimes just one person, but sometimes the crowd. By no means am I killing it, but it feels like a party compared to bombing.
I feel peaceful, confident, in the flow. My 5 minute act feels like 30 seconds.
I stay for more acts, then head home and sleep peacefully.
I thought comedy was analogous to public speaking (if you think of public speaking like going into the army, and comedy like joining the Navy Seals).
In public speaking, you can be a natural. With great presence and great stories you can kill it right out of the gate. But in comedy, the best will take you it takes 10 years.
I’ve realized comedy is less like public speaking and more like music. It’s all about timing, rhythm, flow, tone. And how many people pick up a guitar and instantly play songs?
It’s about word choice, and body language. And it’s about running experiments with different deliveries. It’s classic practice and play over perfection.
I don’t know where I’m going with this art, this craft (or this blog post!). But as always, I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for coming along with me for the journey.