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GUEST POST: Jon Kane on Fear in Stand-Up Comedy Part 1

February 14, 2011

Hey everyone, please enjoy this guest post written by Toronto comic Jon Kane on fear in stand-up comedy.  To find out more about Jon, come on back on Wednesday for his shout-out profile.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”  -Yoda

Whenever I talk to anyone about standup comedy, they always say the same thing:

“GOD, you’re so funny.”

Hah, I kid.  I’m a kidder.  My mom totally says that all the time though.

But seriously though, folks, people always say that they could never do stand-up comedy because it’s terrifying.  So when Joel gave me the opportunity to write a guest post for him, I jumped at the chance.  He was all, “What do you want to write about?”  and I was like, “I haven’t been doing this for long, so I don’t know what I’m talking about most of the time.  But there’s one thing I can talk about with experience, and that’s standing on stage and being terrified.”

So let us talk about fear, friends.

Fear is important, not just because it’s the first step to turning into Darth Vader (allegedly).  Despite what Yoda says, it can be used for good.  You can use it as a kind of compass in reverse.  Steven Pressfield put it best in his book The War of Art:

“Fear is good.  Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator.  Fear tells us what we have to do…The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”


Well, hypothetical reader, I know.  It is scary.  And it’s pretty universally scary, so I’m not in any way suggesting that everyone should give standup comedy a shot just because they find it scary.  Hell, It’s hard to get enough stage time as it is.

I’m just saying that if this type of comedy is something that you want to do, you should spend some time thinking about why it’s scary, and then you can start doing things to alleviate those terrors so that you can get up there and kill it.  Kill it like that Imperial Stormtrooper who insulted your mother.

There are various component parts of standup comedy that people find scary, so we may as well take them one at a time.  BUXTON, FIRE UP THE LIST-MAKING MACHINE! [Editor’s Note: The list-making machine hasn’t been shut-down since it generated its first list in 1939: 5 reasons why we should just let ’em have Belgium and that’ll probably be the end of it – Buxton]

FEAR NUMBER ONE!  “People won’t laugh!”

This is the big kahouna of all comedy fears.  First off, be comforted: every comic that ever lived has felt this fear.  The whole point of standup comedy is to make people laugh, so you’ve got to get this one out of the way early.

SOLUTION ONE: Test, and test and test again.

Talk to your friends.  Tell them your jokes.  Don’t do it in a staged kind of way (“Hey you guys, sit there and listen to my stand-up set and let me know what you think!”) because everyone hates that guy.  Find a way of naturally introducing your premises into conversation.  [I’m with you on this Jon, exploring a premise in a normal conversation is useful and fun… much better than announcing you are trying a bit – Buxton]

I try lines out with people at work.  I talk to my wife constantly about what I find funny.  If she laughs, then I feel a lot more comfortable about getting up on stage.  You got to get to the point where you feel like what you’re saying is genuinely funny.  Not just to you, but to other people too.  You’ll eventually get to the point where you’ll be okay with trying out new stuff on stage, but it’s worth having some kind of quality control system to make sure that all of your material is at least funny to someone.

Have enough respect for the audience that you don’t want to waste their time with stuff that you’re not proud of.  Write and rewrite.  Be ruthless and cut out anything that isn’t funny.

I remember I did a show at Todd Van Allen’s open mic at McVeighs last year, and I did a bit about Lady Gaga.  It flopped.  Not only was it about subject matter that I didn’t really care about (and it showed), I didn’t go through my usual process of making sure that it was funny before I got on stage.  Lesson duly learned.


Buxton here.  Come back tomorrow for part 2 of Jon’s article, where he looks at a couple more common fears relating to stand-up, and what can be done about them.  What do I find scary?



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