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Who is This Idiot? First Impressions in Stand-Up Comedy Part 2

January 4, 2011

Welcome back to part two of this theory post on first impressions in stand-up (part 1 here). 

Yesterday we talked about some things that audiences immediately notice when you take the stage.  Today I want to focus on the words you choose to say first, which are just as important. 

How you kick off your set will dictate what the audience thinks of you.  Our brains are optimized to sift through millions of pieces of data and single out only the important stuff. 

I had trouble finding Waldo as a kid because I thought he was an asshole.

The first thirty seconds to a minute of your act will indicate to the audience whether they should pay close attention, or spend your set flagging down the wait staff.

So what are some good topics to create a positive impression?  I struggle with this question, but have tried (and witnessed) several different methods which I’d like to share:

1) Riffing with the crowd

Riffing is this magical thing.  It makes you look super quick on your feet, engages the crowd, and has a tendency to produce more belly laughs because the jokes are centred on the here and now.  As a bonus, riffing engages the audience’s attention effectively, because everyone wants to be ready in case they’re singled out. 

Here is a clip of New York comic Matt Ruby doing a bit of riffing.

2) Town / Room / Other Comic Reference

It never hurts to make a specific reference to a shared experience.  Whenever I have a set outside of Toronto, I spend a little time researching the area.  Starting off a set with specific references to the town implies a deeper interest on your part.  Instead of the out-of-towner who is just breezing through, you become one of the gang. 

In this particular gang, I would want to be the kid who cut holes in his toque. 

Or the buck-toothed kid, so everyone would call me Bucky.

If you are unfamiliar with your geographical location, you can always reference something about the room where you’re performing, or even another comic’s joke as a segue.

3) One liner

This is a nice way to start off a set because it is short, and you can shoot out a few before anyone makes up their mind about you.  The drawback, of course, is that writing a good one-liner is hard as Hell.  If the one-liners fail, you will be climbing out of a bigger hole than a Chilean miner.

Too soon?

Getting laughs within the first 20 seconds is always a good first impression.  The sooner you can answer the question of whether this guy is funny, the better. 

4) Current Event

Similar to room and town references, current events are shared experiences, and help bring an audience together.  I know when I am watching stand-up, it is not enough that the comic is clever.  I have to feel like there’s a point to what they’re saying, and referencing current events are a great way to stay relevant and meaningful. 

5) The Elephant in the Room / Self-Deprecation

Many comics start off their sets with a disparaging remark about their appearance, whether it be their weight, social status, relationship status, whatever.  Every joke needs a butt, and by taking one across the jaw early on, you show vulnerability.  This takes the edge off when you turn the comedy outward and start attacking other topics. 

Also, dont forget about the elephant in the room.

If there is something about your appearance that is odd and beyond your control, it’s cathartic to the audience if you mention it outright, rather than them thinking about it the whole time. 

So those are some good approaches I’ve seen and tried.  But what are some openings to avoid?  In my humble opinion, you might want to pass on these clunkers:

1) How are you doing tonight?

This is the equivalent of being in a conversation and saying, “What do you do for a living?”  It is the most unoriginal, boring opening possible.  What’s worse is that it asks for an early investment from the audience, which they may not yet be willing to give.  The result will be silence, which affects your value as a comic by making you look uncharismatic.  After a fellow comic stated that there is no situation where you would EVER want to start a set this way, I took it as a challenge and wrote this bit:

2) Looking for any kind of investment

It’s important not to ask for something from an audience right out of the gate.  Especially if it is something banal like “Hey, anybody like eating junk food?”  It’s a rhetorical question.  It doesn’t require a real response, and as a result the audience feels used, like you’re panhandling them for some kind of reaction.  Instead of taking a reaction, give them one by being funny.  A good rule of thumb about asking for an investment from the audience is to ask whether the joke can survive without audience participation.  Probably most times you will find the answer is yes.

3) Shock out of the gate

As discussed in the salesmanship post, it’s a good idea to build-up to shock humour using the foot-in-the-door approach.  Starting out as a shocker leaves you nowhere to go.  If the rest of your set is PG rated, it will seem less funny.

4) Story out of the gate

As discussed yesterday, it’s important very quickly for the comic to establish that they are funny and in control.  While story-telling is amazing in stand-up, it’s an investment of time.  In the middle of a longer set, you’ve got all the time in the world.  But when you’re making that first impression, it’s probably a good idea to deliver the goods ASAP.

5) Negative out of the gate

I generally don’t like overly negative comics, but it is definitely funny when done well.  Starting off a set being overly negative does not really give the impression of a funny person.  In those first 30 seconds if you portray yourself as grumpy and miserable, that’s how you will be perceived for the rest of the act.

Lets end off with a video where the first impression could not possibly go any worse.

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