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Thursday, April 30, 2015

(PROGRAMMING) What I Learned Doing Stand-Up Comedy


Even as a young boy, I was fascinated by stand-up comedy. My dad and I would sit in front of our huge floor console Zenith color TV and howl with laughter at comics like George Carlin and Don Rickles.

I've seen most of the big-name comics today. I recently saw Amy Schumer, and as I watch each performance I wonder, "How on earth do they do that?"

In 2009, I took a stand-up comedy class, partially to satisfy my curiosity, and to learn things that I could pass along as a talent coach (in articles like this one.) Throughout the 13-week class I prepared and practiced, and with my classmates I strode confidently into Harvey's Comedy Club in Portland for my first time on stage.

I bombed.

Actually, "bombed" is an understatement. I think I enraged the audience. I remember silence, scowling faces, and in a surreal moment noticed the night's headliner comic, a fat old veteran nursing a scotch, slapping the bar with laughter -- not sure if it was at my jokes or at the extent of my bombing.

It turns out that bombing is a badge of honor. My classmates gave me a standing ovation. If you don't bomb occasionally it is a sign that you are not experimenting enough, and being prepared to bomb requires bravery because everyone bombs sometime.

As a teacher of storytelling who emphasizes the importance of bringing your authentic point-of-view, I got a sharp lesson last month in my new stand-up class, taught by Alex Falcone, who writes for the Live! Wire public radio show.

I performed my material in the first class and was stunned when Alex told me, "We need to know more about you so the audience can have things in common with you." Apparently, I was not practicing what I preach! I thought that comics mostly made up their material, but no, the closer to true stories that you can get, the better.

Alex went on to give me one of the biggest eye-openers about spoken-word performance that I have heard in years: It is more important to be interesting than to be funny.

Wow. So much explained in one sentence. Alex said that the storytelling in the spaces between the jokes is what keeps the audience going until the next laugh. Laughs are easy, not being boring is hard.

Finally, the technique that separates good material from great material is how you put a twist on it. (In our media, when talent coaching, we call it "What else?") Alex teaches aspiring comics to take a good idea and then to look for these points of exaggeration:

1. Forward/Backward In Time
? "What if everybody was like that?"
? "Who was the first guy who came up with this?" Example Mitch Hedberg: "I want to get a job as someone who names kitchen appliances. Toaster, refrigerator, blender.... all you do is say what it does, and add 'er.' I wanna work for the Kitchen Appliance Naming Institute. 'Hey, what does that do?' 'It keeps stuff fresh.' 'Well, that's a fresher....I'm going on break.'"

2. World's Collide
? "That wouldn't work in business." "Things don't go that way in the dating world." Etc.

3. Analogy
? "That'd be like if..." or "That's like saying..."
? This is one of the most common. If you're having trouble thinking of a punchline, start with an analogy.

4. Overstatement / Understatement
? "That's the worst thing" / "Nazis were jerks." Example Chris Rock: "I was born a suspect. I can walk down any street in America and women will clutch their purses tighter, hold onto their mace, lock their car doors. If I look up into the windows of apartments I pass, I can see old ladies on the phone. They've already dialed 9-1 and are just waiting for me to do something wrong."

5. Bait & Switch
? "Big Foot is terrorizing the residents of Salem. That's so creepy, the idea of living in Salem."
Do any of these take-aways resonate with how you prepare your on-air material? I think that successful stand-up has so many things in common with what radio and television personalities do.

I have more classes, and more painful on-stage bombing ahead. Watch this space!

Jeff McHugh is a 30-year broadcaster with a background in marketing and talent coaching. Jeff works with radio and television personalities, public speakers and presenters to add storytelling, drama and character to their content. Visit his website at

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