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-

@jasonheddencomedy

@panamacitycomedy

truth is

I didn’t do anything
I didn’t comment
on your ugly post
because you support
my favorite non-profit
and they need the money.
I didn’t publicly endorse
your opponent because
if you won I still
have to work with you.
I didn’t speak up
because she’s old
and set in her ways
and she doesn’t
mean anything by it.
I didn’t put a sign in my yard
because it will just get trashed
or stolen and you might
think twice before letting me
borrow your hedge clippers.
I’m good at making excuses
Truth is
I liked it better
before we wore our politics
on our chest like lapel flags.
Truth is
I liked you better
before I knew your politics,
I know you feel the same.
This vote means more for you,
you’ve got more skin in the game.
No one is threatening to
take away my family
but I love you
and you’re scared,
shouldn’t that be enough?
I didn’t do anything
and that’s the problem.

the body knows

Someone texted me
at 4am
That’s never good news
Either someone died
or a fat fingered drunk
thought I was his ex
Nope
They had the right number
It was me they were looking for
Someone thought to warn us
that he was coming
and he was strong
Mind numbingly so
A night of sea binging
had made him cross
Gulping warm water
like Gatorade
put a bad taste in his mouth
Maybe someone insulted
his Mother
Heaven knows
Doesn’t matter why
He was coming
And it was too late to leave
We hunkered down
in the cupboard under the stairs
with music and movies
to keep the kids calm
Try and drown out the noise
We waited with
no magic wand
By late afternoon
we were living
in a strange new world
Paradise Lost
So
Why am I awake
at this hour two years later?
The body knows
The mind recalls
It’s in my bones
Behind my walls

liked

When I liked your post about your dead dog
I didn’t mean I liked that Fluffy died
I was trying to show support for your loss
I may have been unclear
But
It’s not my fault
There’s only six feelings
we’re allowed to feel:
Like
Love
Laugh
Surprise
Sad
Sour
That’s all we get
Or have I missed the mark?
Don’t give me flack
You’re guilty too
One time I filled your screen with the
carefully crafted contents of my heart
I held my breathe awaiting your reply
Your writing bubbles came and went
Then your final verdict came:
??
What the hell is that?
I give you my heart
And I get your thumb?
?????
It’s okay
I’m fine now
You commented with the hugging heart
So I know you really care.
Wait
Are you hugging my heart or your own?
Yes it matters
OMG
Unfriend
Blocked

hands

I shook a hand today
Didn’t mean to
Don’t know how it happened
A hand reached for mine
I reacted
Without thinking
A lifetime of training
Caused me to reach back
Our union caught us both by surprise
Our eyes met for a moment
Over masked mouths
What now?
What had we done?
It felt good to be touched
Reminded I’m here
Reminded you’re you
Our rare connection
Transported time
Memories of crowds cheering
Hugs and high-fives
Before all this
When someone reached out
You met them halfway
Now afraid to reach out
Afraid to reach back
We’re not made to not reach
Not made for solo
What could more connections create?
Could we scoop Laura’s tears
to quench Cali’s flame?
Could we pry cowboy fingers from triggers untamed?
Could we purple the people from red and blue camps?
I don’t know
I shook a hand today
Didn’t mean to
Don’t know how it happened
What now?
What have we done?

sea change

sea change

went to the sea
a distant storm
waves disturbing calm white sand
water carves unstable land

the storm’s not yet here
or so some say
further off
not today
but
we’ve felt the wind
caught the rain
seen the fury
felt the pain

can’t happen here
we know that lie
complacency
deny

some try to keep the wind at bay
yelling into stormy seas
voices drowned
or swept away

signs atop the dunes
washed away
new signs
will be needed soon

landscapes change
from violent rage
and then slow growth
replacing age

the old is washed away
making way for new

some choose to ignore the flag
be in the rough
to feel the change
to ride the waves

went to the sea
had to go
to see the change
to feel the wind
to hear the waves

see change

-jason-

words

Scrolling through my book of faces
Bombarded with white noise
Flipping through the acronyms
seeking balanced voice

I convince myself I’m more effective
further from the fray
My fear of making missteps
Keeps me standing still

But is my silence deafening?

Should I put that border around my pic to advertise I’m woke?
And if I post
What to say?
To minds already made

I tell myself I’m listening
But do I really hear?

I may be the teacher
But I have much to learn

I’ve learned it’s not a feeling
It’s a system we have made
Like fish can’t see the water
Till ripped from shining sea

Just because You don’t see it
Don’t mean it isn’t there

Prejudice is taught
but also built into our bricks
If the structure is too damaged
Don’t we knock it to the ground
before we can rebuild?

The straw that broke the camel’s back
Was laid down stick by stick

You’re so sure of your opinion
What makes you feel that way?
Can’t bear to read the comments
Don’t dare to look away

You don’t see color?
Well, guess who does?
He’s looking in their mirror
She just called the fuzz

He’s chirping law and order
But the trust was never there
The emperor is naked
Hiding in our house

Save some breath for the ballot box
There’s plenty room to spare

Opinions are so easy
Facts harder to find
Empathy the hardest
To live inside your mind

Leading by example?
Not knowing what to say
But it’s time to get to work

Standing upon this platform
That I never earned
I’m handing you the mic
And I will try and learn

History class has started
And I’m late for class

gray

gray is dead

there is no gray

it’s black or white

red or blue

I miss the gray

purple too

all the way or not at all

no in between

no judgement call

you’re here or there

there is no both

friend or foe

up to you

no compromise

no subtlety

I miss the gray

or is it grey?

can’t have both ways?

-jason-

to my students and maybe yours as well

 

To my students. And maybe yours as well.

I’m a teacher.

I should be at graduation tonight, but of course the ceremony has been cancelled like most similar events these days. I will miss seeing my students cross the stage. I usually volunteer as an usher so all of the graduates have to pass by me, giving me an extra moment for a quick congratulatory hug or handshake with the ones I know best. I will miss that. I will miss trying to keep the aisle clear of the proud parent or spouse that wants to kneel and block the aisle to get an extra photo of their loved one. I will miss the graduate who decided to wear shorts and flip flops under his gown, making us all question if we’re about to get flashed like in that 1980s teen comedy. I will miss the graduate who decided to wear the 5 inch stiletto heels, making her journey across the stage much longer and more entertaining than her classmates. I will miss the candy I hide in the sleeves of my gown for snacking and sharing. I will miss seeing a colleague present a diploma to their child who happens to be graduating tonight. I will miss the awkward politically correct “non-prayer” early in the ceremony that always includes something about a deer and a lake or mountains and always ends with a long silence until someone’s uncle in the crowd questions in a southern drawl loud enough for all to hear, “ Uh…AMEN?” I will miss seeing a parent and child graduate together. I’ll miss seeing the face of an embarrassed grad whose family cheers for a full minute after their name is read. I will miss a small voice in the back of the crowd that brings a collective tear of joy to the room with a perfectly timed “I LOVE YOU MOMMY!” That’s good stuff. I really hate that my students and their families will miss out on that tonight.

I teach at a two year college. Most of those that would have walked the stage tonight are no strangers to adversity. Those that began their college career in the Fall of 2018 had their first semester of college interrupted by a devastating category 5 hurricane that ravaged our community. In fact, if we had held graduation today there would have been two ceremonies held in a ballroom in a conference center, since the only venue in the area large enough to hold graduation was destroyed by the hurricane. Now, in their final semester, these students find themselves once again in uncharted territory, and like the rest of the world, in the midst of a global pandemic. To say these students have been through a lot in the last 18 months would be an understatement.

I wonder what the commencement speaker planned to say to tonight’s graduates. Maybe some clever puns about 2020 vision or hindsight. Maybe a couple well placed quotes. Maybe even recite some song lyrics or show some memes on the screen about toilet paper.

What would I say if they asked me to address my graduating students? To be clear, I was not asked, but if I was, I guess I would say some of these things:

(Insert generic required thank yous to important people in attendance)

(Check for typos before putting online, consider changing the order of some of the following):

Be kind to yourself and others. Most people are doing the best they know how to do. Some people around you are fighting invisible battles you’ve never dreamed of. Some of you are fighting those battles right now, but you are here anyway. That is to be commended.

In your future, the people in charge won’t always know more than you. This comes as no surprise to those of you that have returned to college later in life. But for some of you, this will come as a bit of a shock because up until this point, your teachers and parents generally have known more than you about most things, but you will quickly find yourself saying “How is that person in charge of anything?” It’s okay to feel that way. The truth is most of us are faking it. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others, but we all have moments of self-doubt. The trick is to keep going anyway, but be open to advice and counsel. Truth be told, I often feel like a kid in my dad’s shoes and out of my league working with people that are smarter and wiser and more talented than I am. That’s actually a good thing. You want to try and surround yourself with people that will raise the bar for you. If you are a runner and want to get faster, you have to run with people that are faster than you. It does nobody any good to be the best at what they do. If you find yourself in that situation, find people that will challenge you and help you grow personally and professionally.

Don’t wait for it to get easier before you start something important. It may never get easier. Some of you already know that all too well. I know some of you are lacking confidence, but confidence comes from experience and the only way to get experience is to get out there and do it. Show up. Do the work. Put in the time.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing can make you better, but only if you choose to learn from the times you miss the mark. (Insert cliche about Michael Jordan being cut from his high school team or some other tired inspirational analogy.) Also, don’t be afraid to admit when you mess up. You will mess up. A lot.

For some of you, completing your degree is one of the hardest things you have ever done. Maybe you are the first person in your family to go to college. Maybe you are working full time and supporting a family. Maybe you were 20 years older than everyone else in your classes. Nothing wrong with that. My first two years teaching here, we had a couple in their 70s that went through the program. What a fantastic experience for all of us involved. Diversity is a gift.

For some of you college was actually pretty easy so far. You didn’t have to study that much or have the added challenge of balancing work, school and family. Don’t worry, your time is coming. Actually, we have been lying to you. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. Remember in elementary school when they said, “When you get to middle school, they aren’t going to hold your hand.”? They did. Then in middle school they said, “When you get to high school they aren’t going to hold your hand.” They did. Then in high school they said, “When you get to college they aren’t going to hold your hand.” Well, we have sometimes held your hand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as you know the next part. When WE say “When you get into the real world they aren’t going to hold your hand” we really mean it. It’s the one time we are not lying. Be prepared for that one.

Travel. See the world. Spend time with people that see the world differently than you. Most of us are guilty of living in carefully curated bubbles and delete the voices that don’t speak a truth we already believe and understand. If money and circumstances won’t allow you to physically travel, you can travel and experience the world through books, film, art and music. Hopefully you’ve been exposed to some of that during your time here.

Work at being present. Too often we get so caught up in what’s next that we miss the journey. Or we get so stuck in the past that we can’t experience the now. Being present. It’s a constant struggle. I have an 11 year old son. All he really wants is for me to be with him and when I’m with him to actually be present. Not just physically, but mentally. Hopefully you’ve had some time to reflect during this forced worldwide slowdown. I’ve enjoyed reading for pleasure and gardening. Never thought I’d enjoy growing things, but it’s been a real joy. What have you been doing? Know that in the future you may have to create those times for yourself. Time to pause and reflect and recharge. It will be essential.

After you graduate, people are going to constantly ask you what you are doing next. It’s okay not to know. It’s also okay if you discover in the near future that the thing you always thought you wanted, you don’t want any more. Life is full of choices and you can always make a new one.

If there is one thing that’s become abundantly clear lately, it’s that we are not in charge. Mother nature has certainly made that clear in the recent past and present. For all our planning, life throws some major curve balls our way. Right now, it’s easy to feel like our curve ball is more dangerous than ones thrown to others, but there is no temperature check on grief and loss. Your loss is not less significant just because someone else has lost more.

You’re not going to know all the answers. That’s okay. We’ve done our best to prepare you for the next step, but the truth is none of us know what will come next. We hope the lessons you’ve learned in our time together will serve you well. I know that you have taught me as much as I have taught you. Maybe more. Secret: That’s why I became a teacher.

Oh yes! I almost forgot. For my theatre students: if I teach you nothing else, please remember that the past tense of “cast” is “cast”, not “casted”. I lose sleep over that one and if anyone ever asks you to do “a little skit” run away. Run far, far, away.

In conclusion, (that’s always the best part of any speech, I can’t believe you are still reading this) It must be tremendously intimidating to be graduating at a time of such massive unemployment, but a wise man who has proven to be an exceptional leader in my life, especially over the past 18 months, once said “Your job is what you do, not who you are. Work on the parts of you that are not the job” Education is vital and jobs are important, but don’t get so wrapped up in getting the job and doing the job that you become the job. Don’t neglect your mental and physical and spiritual health. I’m still working on this one. I bet I’m not alone.

In the end, I think most things in life come down to choosing between two things. Love or Fear. I know the future is uncertain. It always is. But, when in doubt, choose Love.

Congratulations on this important milestone. I am honored to have been one of your teachers and I think I can safely say on behalf of my colleagues that we have been honored to share this part of your journey with you. We are so excited for what the future has in store for you. Keep in touch. We love that.

Be well. Hope to see you soon.

-Jason-

P.S. Our college hopes to hold a rescheduled graduation ceremony in August.

windows & screens

windows and screens

online classes aren’t his thing
right now he has no choice
sitting on the curb of a shuttered store
sapping free WiFi
eating takeout thai

the check’s in the mail they said
she waits six feet from the box
carrier apologizes with his eyes
behind a homemade mask
maybe tomorrow

he comes home from his shift
waves at his babies through the glass
she left his dinner on the step
he’s sleeping in the garage
it’s just too big a risk

wore my underwear on my face
for the tp run
played human frogger with my cart
made my way to checkout 3
new sneeze guard was installed

if their math is right they’ll be ok till may
up at 4am to beat the online cue
to plead their case
with the unemployment man
more tricks than treats this april halloween

he was on the mend
coming home on tuesday
before he was exposed
now she must say goodbye to daddy
on her damn cell phone

we always visit mom on sunday
no plans for stopping now
we’ll picnic on her lawn
while she eats inside
talking through the cell

never talked to my boss
without wearing pants
bob called them mullet meetings
business on top
party below

they’ve been deemed non-essential
but they’ll find a way
they don’t sing cause they want to
it’s how they survive
as sure as vaccine

they grab their pots and pans
a yellow plastic horn
a ragtag band of voices proud
serenading healthcare heroes
coming home from war

e-seder
e-easter
e-ramadan
virtual feasting
darkest before dawn

every few days
emerging as groundhogs
from our private dens
6 more weeks of spring winter
coming to an end?