Stand-up Comedy is no Joke

Stand-up comedy is no joke.

I have always enjoyed making people laugh. In elementary school, I discovered the thrill of making a room full of classmates laugh with a perfectly placed one liner. In middle school, I found the theatre and that has been my home ever since. I have worked as an actor, director and teacher for many years.

My theatre background has been both my biggest strength and my biggest weakness when it comes to stand-up comedy. As an actor and theatre teacher, I came to stand-up with an established stage presence and control of my physical and vocal instrument, but my theatre training also works against me at times. For example, in most plays, we don’t speak directly to the audience. We put up an imaginary fourth wall to give the audience the illusion of spying on us. We are supposed to act like they’re not there. This instinct does not work in comedy. In fact, it can be dangerous. It seems silly to think someone might ignore the audience while performing stand-up comedy, but I have found myself putting the performance on autopilot when it is not going well which only deepens the divide between me and the audience. Ironically, hecklers are good for keeping me present. I had a show recently where a woman kept yelping like a wounded animal during the performance. It was impossible to ignore. She was extremely distracting and ignoring her was not an option. So, she became the focus of the show. I learned a lot from that experience and the people in the room that night shared an experience that can never be recreated.  Moving seamlessly between my prepared material and what is really happening in the room is  something I continue to work on. 

About three years ago, one of my former theatre students invited me to my first comedy open mic. I expected to find all local performers, but there were only three of us. The others drove two hours just for the stage time. To comics, stage time is gold. This was my first experience with the kind of people that were willing to do this work. Their dedication was impressive.

Laughter is like a wave. In the theatre, the audience wants to hear the play. After a funny line, the laughter grows, peaks, then begins to fade away. If you come in too soon with the next line, the audience will stop laughing because they want to hear the dialogue. Poor timing can teach the audience not to laugh, even if it’s funny because they want to hear the dialogue. Expecting a laugh can also cause problems when the actors push it trying to get the laugh they got the night before. In stand-up comedy we are expecting the laugh. We are mining and shaping and crafting to find the laugh.  Stand-up comedy is not a monologue. It’s a dialogue. A conversation with the audience. Their lines are the laughter. 

Many of us are funny in social situations with our friends and co-workers, but being funny on stage is a totally different skill. Honestly, after finding success as an actor and teacher I expected stand-up comedy to be easier than it is. For me, comedy has been a rewarding creative outlet;  a one-person show where I have to make all the choices. If it works, I’m responsible. If it fails, it’s my fault. I like that pressure and responsibility.  I am also attracted to the minimalism of stand-up comedy. It is theatre in its purest form. A performer and an audience coming together in time and space.

Though I have been writing comedy material and poems for a few years, I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a writer. That title feels like it belongs to someone else.

Actually, I never write my jokes down. At least, I don’t write them out like a script. I work from a memorized list of topics that prompt me. Ironically, I am more consistent in my delivery than some of my fellow comics who actually write things out. Everyone has a different way of creating material. There are some tested methods and techniques to learn, but the real test is are you funny? There is only one way to find out. Find an open mic and try out the material in front of a live audience. 

So, why do I do stand-up comedy?

It’s fun and I love the challenge but, most importantly, it forces me to live in the moment. This desire to live in the moment carries over into my life offstage as well. I have a 12 year old son. For as long as he has been able to speak all he has ever wanted from me was for me to be fully present. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too. To be with him with no distractions. This is a gift I can give him. The gift of presence. I think presence is what most of us are after. A desire to feel present. Alive in the moment. Too often we are haunted by the past or fearful of the future, but comedy at it’s best is a healthy way to practice mindfulness and give and receive the gift of presence.  

I think the longing for being present is what many of our searching and addictions are about. Prayer. Yoga. Sex. Drugs. These are all a search for presence.  I think comedy and live performance is a healthier way to tap into this.

A group of people, fully alive in the moment, creating something together that can never be repeated again. That is a beautiful thing. 

When I don’t live in the moment, that’s when the comedy fails hardest. If a joke is not working and I barrel forward and ignore the fact that it is not working things only get worse. 

Comedy has also taught me an economy of language. Really? Then why is this so long?

A lot of comics write down ideas in a physical notebook. I would be mortified if I ever lost the notebook, so I write ideas down in my phone in a software app that auto saves. I do create lists and mind maps on paper to connect ideas and work on transitions. I also like using index cards to physically move bits around and play with set order.

For me, writing stand-up comedy material has more in common with songwriting or poetry than other kinds of writing. It’s a distillation process. What is essential? On stage, I am constantly trying to express something in fewer words. Rarely has a joke not worked because it didn’t have enough words. Word choice is fun too. It turns out some words are just funnier than others. I’ve learned “Kinkos” is funnier than “Office Depot” and “belly button” is funnier than “navel”. I have been telling and refining some of my jokes for almost three years now. Some of my material I am sick of, but performing it for a new audience breathes life into it again.

Performing stand-up comedy is humbling. One night you do material that lands perfectly. The next night, for whatever reason, the same material hardly gets a reaction. This can be frustrating or confusing. I try to record every performance. If there is no place to set up a camera, I at least capture the audio on my phone. A lot can be learned from reviewing the recording. Adlibbed lines often become a permanent part of the planned jokes or the inspiration for new material. I have also learned I’m not always the best gauge of how well it’s going in the moment. It’s hard to be the editor and the performer at the same time. I prepare, do my best, but find reviewing the recording after the adrenaline has worn off is the most accurate barometer of what worked and what didn’t.  When a joke does not work, I have a hard time letting it go. I think, maybe there is something I can change to make it work. It’s like a science experiment every night.

I once opened for a musician in front of a crowd of 200 people. I bombed. Very few laughs. Nobody knew there was going to be a comedian as an opening act. I like to think that had something to do with my failure, but during the show the musician was funny with one liners and crowd interaction. The problem was likely me. I did not know the audience and they certainly didn’t know me. They didn’t even know there was going to be a comedian on the show.

I have also done really well in front of 200 people. Both experiences were useful and helped me grow, but in different ways. In both cases, I had to examine what worked, why it worked or didn’t work. This constant process of planning, creation, performance, and examination is vital to my growth and fortunately, this process is addicting to me.

One of the most humbling things about stand-up is the constant birth, growth and rebirth process. You get an idea for a joke, you nurture it, bring it to maturity, then eventually retire it and start the process all over again.  Just when I think I know what I’m doing I bomb or have a bad show and I am reminded that this is a constant learning experience. 

I choose to work clean. Someone once said, “Why would you ever want to tell a joke that can’t be said on television?” That’s a good point, but, early on, I was told by a more experienced comic that being clean and funny means I would work more often. So far, that has proven true. I love a good raunchy joke and am no prude, but the professional comedians I look up to the most all work clean. By the way, it’s a real source of joy for my closest comedian friends when I occasionally go a bit blue for emphasis in a particular bit.

If you are a runner and you want to get faster, you have to run with people that are faster than you. I have been fortunate to share the stage with some very fast people and it has made me better. Working with more experienced comics has been extremely beneficial for my growth as a comedian.

People do comedy for many reasons. For me, comedy is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic for both the performer and the audience. It has also allowed me to make friends with people from all walks of life. Some of the friends I have made through comedy I never would have met any other way and I value those relationships. 

I won’t name names for fear of leaving someone out, but in my short time in comedy, I’ve had the privilege to share the stage with some real pros. Not a lot of household names, but a couple legends, some rising stars and countless well respected hilarious people in the business. I have learned something from each of them. There have also been some extremely generous people who have given me opportunities that have fueled my confidence and growth. I hope to one day be in the position to return that favor to other people.

I could talk about this stuff all day, but I need to go work on my material. Thanks for reading.

My learning continues….

-Jason Hedden-



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