Another great day in Portland. They finished blocking the play tonight and then worked through the stand up comedy sections. (The play is about a comic on the road and cuts back and forth between his rendezvous with a woman in his hotel room who is interested in stand up as well.) I’ve been very curious to see how the stand up parts would go with other actors, as I initially wrote the play for my wife and I to perform. I am ecstatic to report that it works. Hearing these great actors attack the stand up was a surreal and amazing experience and I can’t wait to see it with an audience.
So I’ve been thinking about stand up tonight. I did stand up for a grand total of two, maybe three years, which is nothing. I lucked into a booking agent early on, way before I had enough of an act, and ended up on the road opening for headliners no one has ever heard of. It is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Ah, youth. I’m not at all an authority on how to do stand up comedy, but I’m a fan. I can say, however, that those two years of stand up were easily as important to my progression as an actor and writer as any class I’ve ever taken or training program I’ve been a part of. Here’s why:
1. Timing. As they say, it’s everything. In stand up it’s the difference between a laugh and crickets. But it’s just as important in acting. And not just comedies, but drama as well. And furthermore, it’s basically the same mechanics. Drama has set up and punchline. Good timing creates a genuine moving, moment. Bad timing takes the audience completely out of the fiction and betrays all honesty.
2. Writing. I learned quickly that too many words kill a joke. Too many words also kill a monologue or scene. Use as few as possible to get the point across.
3. Stage presence. I define stage presence as the ability to be in front of an audience and not care what they think of you. It’s damn near impossible, but the audience wants you to be in control. They want to feel confident that the performer is a pro. Stand up is a crash course, deep end of the pool, Marine boot camp in stage presence. Without it, you’re dead. With it, you can get away with a lot, even hacky material. In stand up I learned that the audience wants you to respect them, but they also want you to be smarter than they are. (They don’t know that, of course, but that’s why you’re on stage and they’re in the audience.) As a stand up you can’t let the audience get ahead of you. You have to be a few steps ahead at all times. Also very true in drama. Whether it’s a three act play, or a three line joke, the audience trusts that you’re taking them somewhere worthwhile. And they trust that you know where it is. It’s your job to bring them, at the perfect pace, to the punchline of the joke or the climax of the drama.
4. Courage. After doing stand up for two years I felt bullet proof. It’s a good feeling. There’s not a lot to be scared of after bombing in front of a room full of people and not only living to tell the tale, but getting up and doing it again the next night. Bravery and risk are hard to come by in this world. The stand up comedian possesses both. The actor should too.
5. The F word. It works. Sorry, mom.