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What Stand Up Comedy Taught Me About Preparation and Performance

Holly Shaw

OMG I did it!

It’s something I’ve always wanted to try: Stand up comedy. And this week I dove head first into this world and told jokes at three different open mics around the Bay Area. As somebody who coaches other performers I always feel like I need to put myself in the hot seat once in awhile or I lose my edge. How can I relate to the fears of other actors, dancers and musicians otherwise? How an I relate to your performance pressures if I’m not in touch with them myself? So, I decided to venture into a world I’ve always admired and try my hand at stand up comedy. With all the respect in the world for comics who do this professionally, (believe me, I do not pretend that I'm a pro at this art form yet!) I put together five minutes I thought were pretty funny, prepared as though I was getting ready for any other public speaking gig I would do, and took my material for a stroll to three different venues. The first time felt like heaven! Having no expectations to do well, I was thrilled to find people actually laughed at all. Wow, like magic! I even got nods of approval from other comedians afterwards. It was clear that some of my material didn’t work, but it didn’t matter - I was high on life. The second time was achingly hard. I didn’t know I was going up until last minute, didn’t prepare at all, and I got unnerved by being able to see the judgy faces of the audience as I delivered my shockingly dirty jokes. The sinking disappointment and vow to “never do it again!” lasted only until I went to bed and the next morning I woke up wondering, “where should I go to try my nasty jokes next?” The third time, I learned from that last horrible experience and I prepared some new material that would get laughs sooner in my set. I practiced and practiced it until I found myself laughing at my own jokes. It paid off: This third performance was satisfying. The audience was with me from the beginning until the end. I remembered, to keep myself in the light onstage where I couldn’t see the audience’s faces, but I could hear their laughter. I stuck with the jokes even when I was unsure if they worked and let the silences ride out without panicking. I even dealt swiftly with a heckler and managed to get them to shut up without being cruel while also making everyone laugh. Through all of this recent comedy experience, I re-learned and remembered some things about preparation and performance that I’m stoked to share with you here.

So, if you find yourself struggling at all onstage, whether you’re gigging, auditioning or doing your own stand-up comedy, here’s some things to remember:

Two Things to Remember About Practicing and Performance

1. You have to push yourself to start practicing.

I’ve always noticed that I get a horrible anxious lump in my solar plexus when I think to myself, “oh I better practice.” Have you ever felt this lump of fear too? I used to deal with this fear by ignoring it and ignoring practicing altogether, but time and experience has taught me that avoiding practicing is - well, big surprise - a real disastrous habit! And over time, what I’ve realized is this:

When you avoid practicing it’s not because you are lazy or “bad” but because you are avoiding the feeling of your fear of not being 'good enough.'

So, I’ve recognized that it takes a little bit of effort to begin practicing. To push through that fear to the other side where you feel better and more confident at having practiced. At first when I begin practicing the words feel dull and foreign. I’m not fully “in it” and I start doubting the jokes or the plan I’ve set for myself. But after a few minutes, I start to get into it and embodying it. And a really important thing happens: not only do I get better at it but I sort of fall in love with it. My whole being gets the experience of “taking on the material” and finding my way amongst the peaks and valleys of the journey. It’s important to prepare. To practice. To know what words that you want to come out of your mouth and then to refine them, to run them over your vocal chords, your tongue, your teeth until they feel good and natural. Using this process when I was practicing my stand up allowed me to find new nuances in the jokes and also to feel those places where certain things weren’t working and just needed to fall away. But as much as it is important to prepare, it’s also important to not set every single moment of your delivery in stone. This goes for everyone - singers, musicians, dancers, actors. Material comes alive in front of an audience and changes - and there’s nothing you can do about that except stop trying to plan every single little moment within an inch of its life! So if there’s one thing you take away from reading this it’s this:

2. Preparation creates a master. Expectation creates disaster.

You want to prepare, but you don't want to kill the aliveness and the creativity out of your moments with the audience. So, how much preparation is enough? Here's what I suggest: Prepare until you embody the material. Until it feels great coming out of you, until you’re enjoying yourself - but never stop creating with it. One tip: If I practice something seven times, I make sure I practice it seven different ways. I'll maybe a change an emphasis here, or there. Or this next time, I do the whole thing over the top. And then I try the whole thing understated. Certain parts I deadpan, and then the next time I try them as though I'm just casually tossing them out when speaking to a friend. I massage and flex and stretch the material until there is nothing set in stone. Just the words I can feel along for support when I need them, like stones along a path, the groundwork for the dirty joke journey that the audience and I embark on;) Happy performing! BIG LOVE, Holly

P.S. If you want to listen to some of the comedians whom I look up to talk about how they do their comedy, check out these podcast episodes: Episode 11 Art, Activism & Sharing the Stage with comedian, Nina G Episode 20 Vulnerability Is Sexy with comedian, Billy Procida Women In Hollywood, Warriors from Within with comedian, Jackie Loeb

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