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Go with Your Gut: Stand-Up Comedy and Instincts Part 2

November 30, 2010

Welcome back to part 2 of Go with Your Gut: Stand-Up Comedy and Instincts (part 1 here).  Yesterday we chatted about what good things come from following your gut, and dispelled some of the mysticism surrounding it.  Today I want to get into how listening to your gut can help you as a stand-up comic.

How Your Gut Can Help You as a Comic

1) Reading an audience

This audience is clearly expecting some 3D shenanigans…

In a previous post on open mike etiquette, one of the points advised to stay for the whole show.  Aside from it being a polite gesture to your fellow performers, watching the show leading up to your performance can be very helpful.  It programs your gut with valuable information about the audience.  Once you have observed several comics perform their acts to the crowd your subconscious begins to build a picture of their temperament.  Your gut likely has some insights to share on the situation.

Sometimes I’ll be waiting for the MC to announce my name, and a thought will hit me like a lightning bolt.  “That bit about Twitter isn’t going to work.  I’ll do the one about the subway instead.”  The split second decision seems totally random, until after the show when I realize “ahhh it was because that other comic did a technology themed joke and it fell flat.  Hey, come to think of it, this crowd is a lot of older people who might not connect to a topic like Twitter.”

2) Creative Process

I bet the fish thinks this was a bad idea, even if it is ironic.

If you’re into stand-up comedy, you’ve probably watched a lot of it.  While you might not remember every premise and every joke, your subconscious does.  This can be a problem for some comics who banter a lot onstage.  They might think of a line, only to find out later that it isn’t original.  This actually happened a lot to Robin Williams back in the day because he had such a stream-of-consciousness style.  He would be riffing onstage, just caught up in the moment, then later would be confronted by an angry comic whose bit he accidentally stole.

Even if you meticulously plan your bits, it can work in the other direction as well.  If your gut isn’t on board, maybe it is a tired premise, or you are channeling someone else’s material.  I can tell when I have my best and most original ideas because my gut gives it the thumbs up.

3) Making Friends and Networking

My gut tells me this lady has a lot of pet cats…

They say that a first impression is given in the first few seconds of meeting someone, and I really believe it.  99% of the time my first impression of someone is on the money. Don’t get me wrong, if your gut doesn’t like someone I’m not suggesting you punch them in the face.  It is just trying to hep you to who’s the real deal, and who is looking through you.

4) Growth as an Artist

The gut runs on fear.  What I mean is that we need to occasionally get out of the comfort zone, or the logical mind takes over and suppresses the subconscious.  Panic, stage fright, the fight or flight response, these are all emotional states that rely on the gut to function efficiently.  If you keep a healthy dose of them in your life, your gut will stay strong because it’s needed.  My advice is to try to get out of your comfort zone at least once a week.  This could mean performing at a new venue, trying a scary new idea onstage, or even just meeting new people. 

Or you could criticize Justin Bieber in a Grade 8 classroom, but have an escape route ready.

5) Being in the moment

I can remember sparring in Tang Soo Do class, where I got my ass kicked many times.

This is basically what would happen to me every Monday and Wednesday

I loved sparring because it would get me into this zen state where I almost felt like I could predict when my opponent was going to strike.  Again, there’s no mysticism here, the subconscious was just synthesizing a million indicators.  The tightening of lines around eyes, subtle shifts in weight, these “tells” were being processed.  The danger of being punched in the face forced my logical mind to take the back seat and hand over control.

It’s little wonder that I would come out of training sessions feeling completely at peace, even though I’d just been trying to kick somebody in the face.


How Can I Follow My Gut?

What good is theory without practical application?  Here are some suggestions of things you can do to get in touch with your gut.


It gets easier to trust your gut with time and evidence.  Coincidences that would have floored me a couple of years ago are now a normal part of my life.  Use these eureka moments to re-enforce your resolve.


You don’t have to sit on a mountain peak with an eagle perched on your shoulder.  Just do something to clear your mind.  Be bored and let your mind wander, becoming open to input from the gut.  During these times, memorize what it feels like so you can try to hear it when you’re not as idle.

Put yourself in scary situations

We covered this more in depth above.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Let your gut have a role in this sterile, controlled world.


Your rational brain will always ask for empirical evidence.  It’s how we are raised in North America.  Sometimes it’s okay to just act and forget about explaining to yourself why.

Ask yourself yes or no questions

Here’s an exercise to try: for a month, when you have to make a decision, take a second, count down from five without thinking of anything.  Then ask yourself a specific yes or no question and blurt out the first thing that comes to you.  I practice this when I’m ordering at restaurants and I’m not sure what I feel like eating.

Try this

Here’s one more exercise to end off the article – this link leads to an online study by the BBC that tests how well people can spot fake smiles from a 3 second video clip.  Try going through the 20 examples and choosing based on your gut.  Don’t think about it, just pick the answer that comes immediately to mind.  I ignored any logical thought and answered with my gut for all but one question.  That’s the only question that came out incorrect.  DUN DUN DUNNNNNN

Thanks for having an open mind this week, everybody.  I would love to hear any comments you have to share.

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