Who is This Idiot? First Impressions in Stand-Up Comedy Part 1
First impressions are deceptive.
Pop quiz, hotshot: one of these guys is a celebrated writer. The other is a serial killer. Which be which?
Yeah yeah, I’m tryin’ to pull a fast one on this. You’re the rabbit and I’m the Trix.
Silly rabbit, guns are for Republicans.
So looks aren’t everything, but to be honest, if I met these two as strangers at a party, I’d probably be hangin’ with Bundy. Why? First impressions, baybeh.
In my first year of stand-up comedy, I was very material-focused. Just the task of understanding how to write a (decent) joke consumed me. Every bit was written out, meticulously worded, down to the syllable. This attention to detail often came at the expense of comfort onstage, as I struggled to remember two-page scripts verbatim, while learning a new five minutes every two weeks.
Why did I do this? My rationale was that learning the nuts and bolts of joke writing is boring. Way more boring than developing stage presence. I wanted to take advantage of my newbie enthusiasm, and use that energy to plow through the grunt work. Plus, you can’t really rush comfort onstage, it only comes with time and experience. So while I inched along in the area comfort and style, I grew a lot as a writer.
Looking back at old sets, I realize that this decision made me very rigid. I thought of stand-up comedy as something I performed at an audience. If joke was well-written enough, it would succeed no matter what. In short, I thought material was King.
Perhaps with a better crown than this guy.
That was a foolish assumption. Humour is fluid. What’s funny changes from moment to moment within a single person. It is affected by context, mood, or even other people present. It is simply impossible to write the perfect joke that will work in any situation, delivered in any fashion.
But I didn’t know that. Imagine my frustration when jokes that killed one night totally bombed a night later. What’s worse, is sometimes I sensed that the joke failed, not because it was delivered poorly, but because the audience simply didn’t like me.
This weird deer likes me just fine though…
Of course they didnt. I was showing the audience a version of myself that was anal, robotic, and arrogant. In short, my first impression sucked.
Much like in real life, a first impression onstage is formed in moments and will continue even in the face of contrary evidence. You can overcome a bad first impression, but it takes time and finesse. Wouldn’t it be better to come out of the gate strong, and get people backing your horse instead of waiting for it to fail?
Before we get into the nitty gritty here, you might want to check out an earlier article I wrote earlier this year on salesmanship in stand-up comedy. It’s not just about the material. It’s not just about persona. It’s about connection. It’s about people in the audience liking you. Wait, You say, what about the Sam Kinnisons and Jason Rouses of the world? They don’t care if we like them. Right?
I would love to know where this bathroom is. My guess is the Neverland Ranch.
In fact, those guys have probably worked harder than anyone to develop a connection with audiences, so they can get away with more edgy, incendiary material.
So all this talk of first impressions. Lets get practical and look at 5 things that people notice immediately when you take the stage.
1) Clothing / Appearance
Steve Martin once said, “Always dress better than the audience.” I see where he’s coming from with this quote, but I think I disagree. Depending on a comic’s persona, it might be beneficial to wear grungier clothes, dress up in a suit, or come out in their underwear. In fact, I can remember Toronto Comic Nikki Payne kicking off a set dressed as a seal. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone how to dress. I just want to point out that if you ignore what clothing you are wearing, you are throwing away an opportunity to influence your visual impression.
How you carry your body is a strong indicator about your state of mind. Maybe the strongest. Think of a confident person in your life. Next time you see them, watch the way they carry their shoulders. How do they sit? Having good posture takes a bit of discipline. Straighten your spine, pull your shoulders back a bit, imagine a string coming out of your crown and holding you upright. If you have shaky hands due to nerves, keep the microphone in the stand.
An interesting footnote about posture: studies have shown you can trick your mind into following the body’s lead. People who force a smile at first, find themselves feeling genuinely more positive. The same is true for confidence. The posture is the snowball at the beginning of the hill. Even if you are faking confidence at first, it will become true.
3) Eye Contact
It took me awhile to build the confidence to do this. Look at individuals in the audience. Give them a moment where they say, “Oh my God, this joke is for me right now.” First of all it, screams confidence and makes it look like you’re genuinely having fun and in the moment (and you will be). Second, it reminds the audience that you are right here in front of them. This show is HAPPENING. Once I started incorporating this into my act, I found just a couple of seconds of eye contact could get an otherwise bored audience member paying rapt attention.
4) Facial Expressions
Believe it or not, you can hear a smile in someone’s voice. I have a bit in the Video section of this blog about my experiences with racism. I’ve found this bit sometimes kills and sometimes doesn’t go well. After some thought, I realized that the times it went badly were nights when I was in a bad mood or tired and low energy. Without the right facial expressions to assure everyone I wasn’t seriously angry, the bit just turned into a pissed-off rant.
5) Quality of Voice
A strong, clear, speaking voice is important. Everyone speaks differently, but the audience needs to be able to hear the act. If you mumble, you look like a scared kitten.
I would also be scared in this situation.
Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this article, where we’ll look at some ideas for openings that can help you get the audience on your side.