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Ride Slow, Homey: Timing and Stand-Up Comedy Part 2

March 1, 2011

Welcome back to part 2 of this week’s article on timing in stand-up comedy (part 1 found here). 

Just a guess, but this clock’s probably thinking:
“Upside down and inside out / Gonna show all you folks what it’s all about,
These three words let me hear ya say: / WHOOMP they it is!”

 Yesterday, we looked at why working on timing is a great way to develop a strong stage presence, and some masters that each use timing differently in their act.  Today, I want to offer a list of 8 practical ideas for how to slow ‘er down when performing a set.

1) Practice your set 20 times in front of a mirror

This is boring, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a regular technique (getting totally sick of your own jokes is not a great idea).  But for sets where you want to focus on timing, try to get your the material down pat.  By storing all that stuff in long-term memory, you free up a lot of processing power in your noggin that you can use to work on timing.

2) Try out some one-liners

One-liners are a very obvious, in-your-face style of joke.  Contemporary stand-up audiences lean toward more personal, anecdotal material, and may even find these types of jokes condescending.  As a result, since you are breaking the fourth wall, audiences tend to follow suit.  One-liners that don’t hit are often met with a loud groan or even a boo. 

Like LL Cool J, you can use this phenomenon.  I noticed when I was struggling with entire one-liner sets, the experience was like a fast forward button for learning stage presence.  If a joke bombed, it became second nature to add an improvised tag, acknowledge how garbage it was, or even just take a moment to breathe.  Slinging one-liners is a punishing experience, no doubt.  But my thought is, once you face the really uncomfortable stuff, the normal stuff seems less frightening. 

3) Be Zen, baby!

This baby knows what’s up.

In a previous article on following your gut in stand-up comedy, we discussed the importance of living in the moment onstage.  Pro comics will deliver material for their hundredth time, but make it seem brand new.  Sure, some of this is basic acting, but I think a lot is attitude.  Part of a pro’s skill-set is finding new ways to get into the moment.  Sure they know the material inside and out, but there is always something new to work on, something to enjoy.  Nothing says stage presence like a comic actually having the best time.  It’s infectious.

If you find yourself rushing, maybe ask yourself why you’re in such a hurry to finish.  Stand-up comedy is a sublime, completely unique experience.  You wouldn’t wolf down a fine piece of steak, you would try to make it last as long as possible.

4) Start off with some riffing

A lot of speed-up in delivery happens when people are nervous.  Maybe because we’re trying to get through the traumatic experience as quickly as pssible and make a getaway.

It’s a waste of time to consciously order yourself to slow down.  The forebrain is messy and dishonest, creating a totally subjective perception of time.  We might think we’re taking it slow, but meanwhile we’re racing.  Reviewing sets can help correct this disparity between perception and reality, but there are more effective ways to deal with speed-up.

I would suggest attacking the problem at its cause.  If you ain’t afraid, you’re happy.  If you’re happy, you want to stick around and milk your time.  Most stage fright comes from the fear of failure.  It is daunting to stand in front of a group of strangers and try to win them over.  They don’t have to be strangers.  Get to know the audience a bit with some riffing.  They will like you better and get in a mentality of wanting to laugh.  You will feel more at ease and slow down naturally.  Plus, as a bonus, you look pretty spiffy because you’re coming up with topical jokes that are in the moment.  People love that shit.

5) Take your time setting up

Replace vessel with crowd and I feel that this advice
translates from Galleon management to the stage.

Someone once said to me:

You train people every day how they should treat you. 

So true.

Dont be in a rush to start talking onstage.  If you remove the mike, when you sweep the stand, do it deliberately.  Take a sip of water or beer.  Scan the audience before speaking.  Settle in.  These little gestures signal to the audience that you are in control. 

How do you wish to be treated?  Are you apologetically chasing the audience for laughs?  Or is the crowd lucky they have a chance to see your brilliant act, and happy to wait a couple of seconds until you are ready?  You are in control of which one is true, and will communicate that in every move you make.

Here is an exercise: Check out a Mafia flick like Godfather, and watch how deliberate the mob bosses are.  Powerful people do not rush.

6) Don’t ask for laughs, expect them

Someone who expects laughs waits for them.  Don’t be so quick to rush to the next joke when a laugh doesn’t come instantly.  Let it hang a little.  And when the chuckles come, bask in that glory, son!  Let the laugh run its course before starting to talk again.  Cutting off a laugh too quickly classically conditions the audience to laugh less next time.

7) Don’t prepare too much material

If you find you don’t have enough time onstage to get through all your material, book more open mike nights.  Trying to jam 7 minutes of material will do two bad things: First, you will probably go over your time (which is poor etiquette).  Second, you’ll end up rushing your jokes.  Let ’em breathe.  No one ever got in trouble for finishing 20 seconds early.

8 ) Watch the pros

Watch some professional stand-up comedy with an eye for pauses.  When I want to study the greats, I will throw on a Carlin album like Class Clown, or some Hedberg.  Even Aziz Ansari’s satirical Raaaaaaaaaandy character has some great examples of powerful timing technique. 

I ask myself, “Why is this comic better than me?  How do they take control of the stage?  How many seconds of the last five minutes did they spend not talking?” 

Finally, also take a look at charismatic people in your life that aren’t comedians.  Those outside of performance art with highly developed style and stage presence have already learned timing in their day-to-day life.


That’s it for this week.  Have a good time (pun intended, I confess).  Thanks for coming along on this week’s slow ride.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sandra permalink
    March 1, 2011 1:20 pm

    Great post, great site! Keep it up!

  2. Sean permalink
    March 1, 2011 10:02 pm

    Yep, another good ‘un.

    Could you add a few notes about practicing with a mirror, flesh that out a little bit? You hear various things: maintain eye contact with yourself, how near/far, etc. What are your thoughts on all that?


    • March 3, 2011 6:37 pm

      Thanks Sean.

      I’m not a good authority on practicing in front of the mirror because it’s not something I do very often. I do believe that it’s a decent idea to say a written set out loud before taking to the stage, because often what looks okay in writing sounds awkward when spoken.

      And if you’re going to say your act out loud, might as well watch yourself in a mirror to see what kind of facial expressions and gestures work.

      There is a good thread on AST about practicing sets that has a nice variety of thoughts on the subject:

      Thanks for reading and good luck!

  3. Julie permalink
    March 4, 2011 4:40 pm

    This article is so good that I decided to subscribe to your blog!

    I have found that practicing using a video recorder on a computer (they are built in to programs such as iMovie) is very helpful for studying my timing, inflection, vocal power (or weakness) and expressions.

    The advantages are that you see what you REALLY look like to other people, not backwards as in a mirror, and can take notes as you watch rather than trying to analyze yourself in real-time while you are trying to remember your lines.

    It also seems to help a little with stage fright.

    Quite eye-opening.

    • March 9, 2011 4:43 pm

      Thanks very much Julie, I appreciate your kind words, and also that is a great idea practicing with a video camera.

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