Last week I posted an old video of myself doing stand-up comedy back in 1981. As I said then, my brief foray into the world of stand-up was one of the best things I did to accelerate my career in advertising. (This, in spite of that final horrible night of my stand-up career, a night of such incredible flopsweat it came to be known as “The Incident at Dudley Riggs.”)
To this day, it amazes me how many similarities there are between doing stand-up and pitching an advertising idea. The most essential similarity is that you’re both selling something, usually something strange and new and intangible. The comedian sells it when she makes her audience laugh. You’ve sold it when your audience says, “Yes.” I’ve been thinking more about it and here are a few other similarities between the two skills and how studying one can help you learn the other.
1.) First off, you gotta be likeable. Doesn’t mean you can’t be nervous. Nervous and likable are fine. (And more about nervousness in a sec.) You simply need to part those curtains, come out and say just enough to make your audience think, “Well, he seems nice.”
2.) Start strong. Like a good movie, rock song, book, or radio spot, there’s nothing like a strong opening to get your audience to lean forward a little. You don’t need to open like the Beijing Olympics. You simply need to say something bold and simple; something cool that makes it clear you have something interesting to say and that your gig is worth stickin’ around for. It can be a joke, an insight, a challenge, something you draw on the board – doesn’t matter. Just start with something clear, bold, and strong.
3.) Okay, you’ve opened with something interesting. Now you have to stay interesting. In fact, you need to say something interesting about every 20 seconds or so. Even if you’re building to a great concept, even if it takes a minute to build your story, you still need to be interesting all along the way. Audiences simply don’t allow speakers or comedians to take forever to get to a punch line. Around my agency, when a concept wasn’t worth the build, we say, “Well, that was a long walk for a ham sandwich.” What this requires of you it to write it out. Write a script that is interesting every 20 seconds or so, then rehearse it, and get it down pat. There is no winging-it in comedy. (The good comics who do riff, usually riff off of a proven bit – kinda like jazz, variations on a theme – and then they swing back around to the set they planned.)
4.) Oh, and about that nervousness? One of the things I learned from time onstage and in the ad business is this simple, calming truth: your audience wants you to succeed. Regardless of what your nerves are telling you, remember that your audience wants to laugh; they want to have fun. They actually are on your side. (Well, with the exception the dickweeds who’ve had too much to drink and want to impress their friends by being stupid out loud.) Remember this as you begin your career of presenting concepts. Your clients have set aside time for your presentation. They’ve shown the hell up. Also, they need good work to show to their bosses; they really do want to like your show. Knowing this may help settle the butterflies and improve your confidence.
These are just four similarities between stand-up and presenting concepts. There are many. I’ve found that advice for one skill seems to work as advice for the other. In fact, this article I found online seems to bear this out: Why We Stop Laughing: Advice For Stand-up Comedians.
Let’s close today with a look at Patton Oswalt; my favorite comedian, hands down.
He has three albums available on iTunes and I recommend them all. I love Patton. And when he performs in Austin this Saturday, I’ll be in the audience lip-synching along with every bit. In fact, I’ve listened to him so many times I have his routines memorized. I encourage you to study the stand-ups you admire; not just to listen and laugh along with, but to study, critically.
Check out this marvelous bit Patton does about commercials for Black Angus steak houses. (Fair warning: cuss words, plus parts of the bit are kinda naughty.) As you listen, study how Patton develops the story. Notice how naturally he recreates a conversation between waiter and customer, how he does it without resorting to “goofy” voices. (Something you’ll need to do when you present dialog.) Watch how the bit builds. And notice too that, like good advertising, the whole thing is based on truth.