Seven Things I Learnt Doing Stand-Up Comedy
From March to April 2022 I took part in a 6 week stand-up comedy course for beginners at The Comedy Store in Central London. At the end of the course, myself and the other comedians performed a 5 minute set in front of an audience of over 150 people. Here are some of the things that I learnt from taking part in the course.
1. Writing Jokes is Hard, but Surprisingly Logical
Most of what is funny in conversation with friends is not funny in stand-up.
A few months ago I took my girlfriend across town by bus to collect a takeaway delivery rucksack from a colleague. It was an adventure.
The rucksack was so big, on our way back home it was bumping everyone on the bus; it was hitting all the bus handles; and, I got stuck climbing the staircase trying to twist my body towards the landing on the upper deck.
Before getting off we overheard a group of teenage girls giggling to themselves that the bus is a very slow way to deliver takeaway.
Telling that story to friends in casual conversations got a great reaction.
I prepared this and other embarassing stories to deliver in one of the classes expecting to get a lot of laughs. Instead I got stone wall silence.
I was told the stories "were engaging but not funny".
The best responses were from jokes where I thought about something in my life and tried to relate it to something obscurely related and/or silly. From this I learnt that my stories were not funny because they didn't have punchlines.
Most jokes have a three part setup. The classic rule-of-three is “Monday, Tuesday, Banana”. The first two components, which create an expectation, are the set-up; and, the third that confounds the expectation is the payoff, or the punchline.
To take an example from Jimmy Carr.
- A lady with a clipboard stopped me in the street the other day.
- She said, "Can you spare a few minutes for Cancer Research?"
- I said, "All right, but we're not going to get much done.”
This is a "taking things literally" type of joke that incorporates the Rule of Three. The payoff comes from the inexact fit of the last part of the joke. It's not expected and it can be fit into the context of what was said previously. This final confoundment of expectations is often the key component of funny jokes.
Having finished the course I was expecting to be much wittier in general conversation. But, conversations are so quick that it's difficult to think of punchlines in the moment.
2. First Impressions can be Deceiving
In the first week of the course myself and 14 other comedians arrived at the London Comedy Store for our first lesson. The aim of the first lesson was to get us all used to being on stage. We each had to stand up, introduce ourselves and tell a truth and a lie about ourselves.
Most of my fellow comedians came up on stage and had a very confident presence. I couldn't help but feel slightly inadequate in comparison to the ease with which they could express themselves on stage.
As one does I started ranking who I thought would be the funniest comedians at the end of the show. I predicted that myself and one other very shy and nervous comedian, Rajesh (not their real name), would be the least funny comedians in the final show. I was completely wrong.
After the show everyone I spoke to felt that Rajesh was the funniest out of the 13 comics who performed in the final show, and that I was in the top three.
Me and Rajesh were similar, we were awkward and nervous but enjoyed the limelight of rehearsing in front of our peers; simultaneously competing instincts to hide and be seen. We were always the most eager to try out new material.
In the end it was a great show. But, some of the comics I was certain had natural stage presence, and who I couldn't help but find most intimidating, put on some of the more average performances.
3. Fail Fast and Fail Often, but Failing Hurts
As a programmer I'm really inspired by the IDEO cofounder David Kelly's mantra "Fail fast, fail often". I think the approach of rapid iteration is integral to the development of good products, and is useful also in a lot of other areas of life.
But it can be a very hard process to go through. Failure hurts.
There is often a very mechanical logic to what makes a joke funny; but, it's often unclear how funny something is until you perform it to an audience.
Often I was surprised; some jokes were much funnier than I expected whereas others got no response at all.
Some of the most successful stand up comics like Chris Rock still perform at small clubs. They're testing new material to gauge how funny it is so that they can continue iterating before an upcoming big show.
However, the beginning of this process is painful. In week 3 and 4 of the course we started testing jokes on the instructor and our fellow comics. We were all taken aback by how difficult it is to get a response from our audience. It was a brutal experience for us all.
One comedian remarked to me how these lessons felt like being "run over by a car."
Another was very close to tears after testing his material in the fourth week. He gave up testing his new jokes on us, saying that "it knocked his confidence". His final performance was one of the worst out of all of the comedians.
It was a shame as he understood comedy, his analyses of what was funny about other acts were good. But, his inhibition to test new material had stopped him from meeting his massive potential.
4. People's Stereotypes About You are Important
In the second week of the course each comedian had to get on stage and have their persona evaluated by their fellow comedians.
People are sensitive though and it really showed among some of the stand-up comics.
In the persona evaluations the other comics were told to be brutally honest. Comics were told they look like an "arrogant c**t"; an "oxford educated media t**t"; and that they had an "ugly face".
This experience of having their persona evaluated was one of the most brutal for a lot of the comics. We all knew it would hurt to get up on stage and receive that feedback from our fellow comics, but it didn't soften the blow. A few managed to keep their composure but most of us visibly struggled with the feedback.
This was a necessary process, however, as it's more difficult for a stand-up comic to get laughs if their jokes and delivery don't match the audience's perception of who they are as a person. For instance, I experimented with a joke that started "I love stuffing food inside my f**cking face". The other comics felt that I shouldn't use the word "f**king" in an aggressive manner in my set as it did not fit in with my character.
Also, if a comic has been blessed or cursed with a prominent feature it's best for the comic to address it at the beginning of the set. Otherwise, the audience will fixate on it and pay less attention to the comic's jokes. Addressing the feature relieves the tension about it in the audience.
One of the comics on the course, who we will call Angela, had a large birthmark on her cheek. Our instructor asked if she was going to address it and she answered that she preferred not to. The following week Angela had prepared an opening joke about it that got a great reaction.
5. Don't Underestimate the Ruthless Competitiveness of Your Peers
We all secretly hope that we won't be seen to be the worst at things we do. Some of us will even betray others to look better by contrast.
Many of the comedians saw big improvements in their sets in the penultimate week. Unfortunately one very eccentric and funny character missed the penultimate week of the course. He turned up to the final rehearsal on the day of the show and delivered an unfunny somewhat, uncomfortable & absurd routine.
His set was terrible and there was no time to improve it before the show. As he rehearsed to us some of the other comedians were in "hysterics", laughing louder than they had for other rehearsals.
Ultimately, his performance was as funny as a dead dog. Backstage after the show he was lamenting that he felt his performance had been so much funnier in rehearsals. Some of the other performers might have been relieved that he didn't get cold feet about performing as they weren't much better.
6. Have a Weirdness
Robert Greene's 46th law in his book The 48 Laws of Power is to never appear too perfect. "It is smart to occasionally display defects, and admit to harmless vices, in order to... appear more human and approachable."
Part of the reason why my set and Rajesh's were so well liked is that we tapped into our defects and harmless vices.
People can't help but find eccentrics ammusing. It's reassuring to see people so much odder than us embarass themselves by openly displaying their eccentricity in public. They put us at ease and we take pleasure from their unusual viewpoints and weird behaviours.
In my set, I leveraged my nerdy interest in London Buses. The many unusual aspects of my interest - such as my knowledge of different bus vehicles, something most people barely register - were easily exploitable for joke writing.
Playing into my weirdness made for one of the most memorable acts. Everyone remembered the "bus guy".
7. Let the Audience Laugh
As inexperienced comedians many of us had a tendency to dive right into the next joke as soon as we finished delivering the current joke. We had to be constantly corrected by our instructor to let the audience laugh and wait for the right moment before initiating the next joke.
Leaving the audience to laugh drastically reduces the amount of material that you need for your set. When I started writing I worried that I wouldn't be able to find enough material to fill what was meant to be a 5 minute set. In order to estimate how much I would need I watched a set of one of my favourite underground comedians and found that he was burning around 10 seconds on each joke.
The time in which the audience is laughing is useful to allow yourself to remember the next joke. But, it felt like cheating that I would spend so much time of my set doing nothing.
Ultimately the audience are there to laugh and it's what you the comic and the audience will enjoy the most, so let them laugh.
I had a great time learning how to do stand-up comedy and performing. I met some really interesting people and put myself out there in a way that I had never done before. Performing in front of a big crowd was terrifying but exhilirating. And, I was flattered to receive so much positive feedback about my performance.
I'm still no funnier now in general conversation than I was before the course. But, it was fascinating to learn more about how to be funny.
The Design of Everyday Things, p229, Donald A. Norman ↩︎