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Keep On Keepin’ On: Motivation in Stand-Up Comedy Part 1

May 23, 2011

Recently, I confessed that I was feeling  aimless regarding the theory section of this blog.  I know there are still many aspects of stand-up to explore, but I was having trouble scheming up topics.

This picture implies that I’m not a human.  I AM A HUMAN!

So I opened it up to all y’all.  John Moran had a great suggestion:

How about some inspirational/motivation techniques? I find that some of my biggest hurdles are getting out of the house and getting to open mics; finding the confidence in my own material.

So this week’s topic is Motivation in Stand-Up Comedy.  Thanks John for chiming in.

This trick also works with plastic surgery and Joan Rivers

Stand-Up Comedy is Hard.

Why is it difficult?  Mainly because it’s so punishing to the ego. I can’t think of any other type of art where there is so much naked, hard truth.  The painter can ignore a bad review, a musician isn’t booed for playing a hackney song.  But a stand-up isn’t a stand-up until they make people laugh.  That’s it.

No laughter = you’re performing a monologue.  

The road to consistent success at creating reliable laughter is long and mean.

In stand-up, it’s utterly painful and lonely to fail.  You alone failed to make people laugh.  You alone thought something was funny and were wrong.  Worse, sometimes you fail and have no idea why. Jokes that have always worked great are falling flat, the room seems to hate you.  Yesterday you were on top of the world, now you’re dealing with a bomb.

It’s no wonder Jay Leno  said you’re sure to become a professional if you hustle for five years.  He wasn’t trying to be inspirational.  He meant that if you’re still at it after that long, you MUST be good, or you would have simply quit from the onslaught of constant rejection.  And I think he’s right.  Most of the people I know past the five year mark are dope stand-up comedians, with a firm handle on their craft.

Motivation is not a factor for vets, because it’s not scary anymore, just rewarding.  A professional basketball player doesn’t worry about whether he’ll be motivated to perform crazy dunks in front of adoring fans.

Yes, nice dunk and all,

but have you seen my cookie and milk routine?

What else would you want to do with a pain-stakingly honed skill, other than kick ass and chew bubblegum?

But I’m Used to Being Immediately Good At Everything.

Tough.  You picked an art form that is so nuanced you’ll still be learning lessons after 20 years.  The good news is, like all difficult skills, it offers deep rewards.  Since I started doing stand-up comedy, I have become more confident, more articulate, a better writer, and my outlook on life is profoundly more positive.

Be honest with yourself.  Are you one of those people who are gifted with a lot of natural talent?  Are you pretty decent at most things you try for the first time?  You have probably developed a sense of entitlement.  When you don’t improve very quickly at something, you shout, “NO FAIR!  I SHOULD BE EFFORTLESSLY GREAT!”  If I am describing you, either get over it, or quit.  Because this game is a slow burn.

I Am Willing to Keep At It, But Bombing Hurts!  I’m Only Human…

Of course.  Bombing is brutal.  Peter Greyy, resident thoughtful advice-giver over at A Special Thing Forum summed this up very nicely:

“Bombing, in its evil way, helps you figure it out… Bomb and you’re motivated to find out what that is and you’ve got every reason to try to correct whatever is wrong…and every opportunity to try things differently.

But, if you don’t go back on stage…your nervousness multiplies…the problems expand geometrically in your mind until they become the block preventing you from moving forward and improving.

The most important skill you can gain is how to deal with a bad set–and the best way is to not let it stop you from continuing your process of trying to improve with every set.”

Great advice from a skilled, articulate comic.  But let me take it to a personal level with an example from my own life:

The Tale of Joel Bombing Like a Punk-Ass Noob

This picture was made by Shane Heron

A few months ago, I did a set at Yuk Yuk’s for the Great Canadian Laugh-Off preliminaries, and I bombed like the noobest noob in noob-ville.  I hadn’t bombed like that since my first year in stand-up.  To be frank about my hubris, I didn’t believe I could bomb like that anymore.  Aaron Berg, one of my favourite Toront0-based (now New York-based) comics, was the host, and witnessed the disaster.

The worst part was, it was my “A material,” and I had a crowd of at least 70 people to work with. I came correct with delivery and energy, and still you could hear a cricket in that place.  I walked offstage, dazed and confused.  I’m the last performer to let himself off the hook for a bomb, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong. For the first time since I started stand-up, I thought about taking a time-out to reflect.

But by the time I walked home, I remembered I had a set booked for the next day at a great venue.  Who was I kidding, quitting?  My ego is too huge to give up being the centre of attention.  But the bad set shook me up.  Would I bomb again?

The next evening I murdered my set.  When I announced my last joke, someone shouted for me to keep going, and their comment drew approving applause.  You could not have had two opposite experiences in twenty-four hours.  At the end of the day, both nights were just drops in the bucket.  Just like I don’t walk around with an enormous ego because I did well one evening, I don’t think I’m crap because another one went sour.

Later, I ran into Aaron, and I brought up my embarrassing set.  He really put things in perspective for me.  He’s been doing comedy for over a decade.  I hope to be still going strong in ten years, and he reminded me that probably everything that happened this year, right now, will all be a distant, nostalgic memory.

He went on to slay a mostly conservative crowd with his edgy material, expertly leading them into darker stuff that no one else that night could have got away with.  Aaron even poked fun at the audience for the ease in which he’d made them abandon their prudish sensibilities.

I’m sure Aaron didn’t come out of the womb fully formed.  I’m sure he had to go through some tough sets to find his way deliver deadly hilarious material, that’s totally true to himself.  And there he was, fielding questions from some baldo about a bad set.  Thanks, Aaron.

So how do we get to 10 years and beyond?  How do we stay motivated, and just keep building?  I have a few thoughts, and I will share them tomorrow in part two of Motivation in Stand-Up Comedy.

Finally, here is a link to a great article on Lifehacker on the neurscience behind self control, and a jealous dog.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 12:46 am

    Hey Joel!

    Nice post, man I shoulda looked out for your blog sooner.

    I gotta catch a few of your shows this summer for sure, it’s been a few months.

    Keep doing it, brudda!

    • May 27, 2011 1:27 pm

      Thanks Brian, there’s a few coming up in the summer that you might enjoy, I’ll keep you posted for sure.


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