Advice From The Comedy Lecturer

Dec 20 2016

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

Last week, my 3rd year degree students’ brief was to create 5 minutes of stand-up or character comedy to be performed for the class for feedback. 

It’s been a fascinating journey teaching comedy at degree level, as it’s forced me to find the words to express what for me has always been instinctual. I was brought up on the stage and laughter has always been my easiest form of communication and after spending the last 10 years working out how to teach clowning through an experiential process, I am now discovering that teaching stand-up is a whole other game.

My students have been incredibly helpful, by willingly entering our comedy lab, where we agree to support each other with only positive feedback and treat each performance as an opportunity for group learning. Here’s some of what we’ve discovered together. I hope it’s helpful to other budding comics.

1.) Make Connecting With Your Audience Your Number One Priority

It’s important in comedy to let the audience know you can see them, this influences the way they watch, transforming them from passive witness to active play-mate. Look at them and see them.

Bare in mind that too much eye contact can freak out an audience and this can have the adverse effect of alienating them. So be careful how you use it right at the top of your performance. When you look at us, see our faces and allow us to see how we’re effecting you, this authentic quality of contact allows you to draw us into your world. While you’re doing this, remember to breathe and you’ll let us see you’re a human and we’ll like you even more.

2.) Speak To Your Audience and You Will Get A More Direct Response Back.

In order to give yourself an easier ride on stage, find a way to make friends with your audience straight away. Speak as if you want people to understand what you’re saying. Ask them an easy question. Respond to their response. This way the game is clear, you can see them and this is an interactive experience. We’re all in this together.

Find an open, friendly tone, treat your audience like we are your mates and you’re just letting us know what’s going on for you. This will make us feel comfortable in your company. Your confidence allows us to see that you are in control. 

Shout outs serve the function of releasing sound from the audience, which lets them know they are free to make sound later. If you don’t get the response you require for a shout out, stick with it until you get them making noise. It’s important. It also releases the nervous tension in the room and helps to create a feeling of “we’re all in this gang.” 

3.) Know Your Material Back To Front And Inside Out

When you are reaching into your memory for your material, it disrupts your connection with the audience. Practice as much as you can on anyone who’ll listen, friends, family, people on buses. The more you know your material, the more fun you can have with it.

4.) It’s Your Duty As A Comedian To Go With What’s Happening In The Here And Now

The brilliant thing about stand up is that it’s here and live in this room and that’s a major component of the form. Comedy audiences expect comedians to be able to go with the unexpected. Take the risk to veer away from your material to acknowledge whatever’s happening in the room and you’ll be rewarded with laughter. An odd laugh, a sneeze, someone leaving. Comment on it, let us see how you feel. If you ask the audience a question and someone answers then take time to respond to their answer. The audience will love you for your willingness to respond to whatever’s happening.

5.) Get A Laugh In The First 30 Seconds

It’s important to eek out a laugh in the first 30 seconds, so that your audience know the game that’s going to follow; you say stuff and they laugh. Make the rules clear from the beginning and everybody knows their place.

Comedy audiences are primed to laugh and can get bored if they don’t get one near the top of your set. You risk them switching off if they get bored, which makes your job 12 times harder to win them back.

6.) Never Start With An Apology

When you apologise in your first moments on stage, you’re saying to your audience “I’m really sorry about me, I’ll try my best, but I’ll probably be shit, sorry.” This sets you up for a battle to win them back. Walk onto stage with “Oh brilliant, you’re here, I’m here, lets have a good time,” and lo and behold, your audience will want to join in!

7.) Only Move About When You’re Intending To Move About

Watch those wandering feet! It could well be a deflection technique, to avoid being seen by an audience. When you put yourself on stage as a solo artist, you are saying “I’m here to say / do something.” So the wandering about undercuts that intention. We are looking at you, wanting to invest in what you’re saying, but your body language is saying “NO ACTUALLY, DON’T LOOK AT ME.” Which gives us, the audience a bit of a confusing experience. Plant your feet, take your space, let us hear you, let us see you and then we can get a party going. 

8.) Leave Space For Your Audience’s Responses

Let your punchlines ring. Leave some space for the audience’s response and you will be rewarded. The worst that can happen is that your audience don’t laugh- in which case there are strategies to deal with the flop (see the next point). If you don’t take the risk to leave space on stage, you’ll never get the laughs.

9.) Play With Your Flops

When a gag falls flat, acknowledge it. Acknowledging your failure, rather than glossing over it, is often where the biggest laughs come from. When you acknowledge your failure, we get to see you as a vulnerable human and we like you even more. 

This takes some practice as it’s quite easy to slip into shame when gags fall flat. Shame will take you away from your audience, leaving everyone feeling uncomfortable. If you are willing to stand next to your flop and share your failure with the audience, paradoxically, you set us at our ease and make us think, “Ah, here’s someone who can handle being up there.”

Try repeating the line that flopped, playing with the intonation, saying it in different ways. A laugh will come eventually if you are confident enough to ride it out.

Or try siding with the audience, hold their gaze, let them see your disappointment and say something like; “Yes, you’re right, it was a terrible joke.” This type of bold comment gives us confidence in you as a comedian, able to stay with your audience through thick and thin, with lightness and joy.

10.) We Want To Know How You Feel

Laughter often comes from the audience understanding how you feel about your material. Just presenting your material is not enough. Don’t assume we know how you feel. When you are brave enough to show us your feelings, then the human connection happens and the laughter abounds.

Unlike acting, in stand up, you really have to be in the room with us, letting us see your thought processes and changing feelings. This authenticity brings the audience into your world and allows us to experience life from your point of view.

Laughter explodes when you can catch hold of how you’re feeling, in response to your audience’s reactions, and have the courage to show us how we’ve moved you. Audiences love to have an impact on performers and to see this impact generously displayed.

11.) Keep Coming Back To Us

Rest with the audience, forget stuff with us, remember stuff with us, work stuff out with us, treat us like your closest friends and we’ll warm even more to you.

If in doubt, get your eyes up off the floor! Look at your audience. Give us your material so that we can react to it. When you deliver to the floor or over our heads, we are less likely to respond.

12.) If Asking For Audience Participation, Be Clear About What You’re Asking.

Because of comedy’s tendency to shame its audience, people can be frightened of audience participation. Not being a massive fan of shame myself, I tend to advise the people I work with to invite audiences to participate in activities which contribute to joy. I also advise people to make it optional, thereby empowering the audience to make a choice. There's enough compliancy elsewhere in our system, lets promote freedom through our comedy!

Whether asking for mass audience participation from their seats, or getting volunteers up on the stage, the more simple and clear instructions you can give people, the more comfortable they will be and the more fun they have which leads to a better experience all round. 

It’s easy to shame people when you have a microphone in your hand, but the laughter that comes from this derisive style of humour leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s much more rewarding to find ways to make your volunteers feel comfortable and celebrated, but this means sharing the spotlight with them, which can get the ego shouting “NO WAY! THIS IS MY STAGE”. Some comedians would rather die than share their spotlight, but in my opinion, they’re missing out on the potential for exciting, risky, spontaneous joyful interaction; the pure essence of comedy.

Why should your audience join in? What do they stand to gain? Audiences are strange entities that won’t do what they’re told, unless they know they’re going to get something out of it. So you’ll need to find a way of selling it to them to get their total investment and be alright with them saying no if that’s what they choose. The worst thing you can do is to get angry with an audience for not joining in. If a whole audience says no, you might want to think about what you can do differently!

13.) When Using Personal Material

The pleasure to share your secrets is a lovely quality on stage. Confession exposes your vulnerability, which brings us closer to you as long as you are comfortable with having your vulnerability witnessed.

Confession + owning it + staying connected with your audience = laughter.

If your confession is fresh and unprocessed, the audience will sense that you’re holding onto your material and there will be a tightening in the room which will constrict the laughter. As a comedian, you need to be prepared to give your material away freely. So it’s good to question whether you’re really ready to let it go. If the answer is no, then save it for the future. If the answer is yes then go for it.

When using potentially close-to-the-knuckle personal material, find a way to connect with the audience in the room early on in your material, “Anyone else got that going on?” Of course they will have! This way you can be sure that you’re sharing something that’s of relevance to the room and that you’re taking the room with you.

To share ridiculous / embarrassing personal stories is a brave risk, owing to the exposing of vulnerability and the potential shame which could be incurred. The laughter that’s generated through this kind of humour is often to do with recognition. On some level, everybody knows this story, but most would not be brave enough to tell it, even in their most intimate friendships.

When we see your vulnerability exposed and owned, we warm to you. When you are brave enough to share your foibles with us, you let us get in touch with ours, which gives us the sense that we’re all in this together! Hoorah! (Cue rapturous laughter)

If you’re wanting to use personal material on stage, find as many opportunities to try it out before unleashing it on a real audience, to make sure you are comfortable to have your vulnerability witnessed. If you take the risk and it backfires and you find yourself in a shame storm, hit the Brene Brown until you can face the world again.

14.) Make It Worse

There’s a rule with comedy which is; whatever it is, make it worse! When crafting comic stories, you’re allowed a little poetic licence. When you’ve thought of a story, picture the absolute worst ending you can conjure up. Flesh out the details of that and then work backwards to find out how to get all your characters and the action to that point.

Comic stories benefit from bringing in extreme conditions, then we see the characters in a pressure cooker and we’re more invested in the story, which makes the laughter more explosive. So how can you raise the stakes even more? Could you bring in a character to witness the awful embarrassing thing? Who would be the worst person to witness the awful embarrassing thing? Maybe a potential romantic partner or an ex or a parent?

As well as hearing the story, we want to see the impact the story has on you. That’s the true pay-off and often where the big laughs come. Don’t assume the audience knows how you feel, show them and the laughs will flow. 

15.) If Using Physical Comedy

Stand up is the final thing I teach on my comedy degree module, so many of my students are integrating the physical comedy and clowning techniques they've already learned into their stand up. I think this works well, to offer variety and surprise to audiences. 

If using physical comedy, be clear about what you’re trying to say. Separate out all your material into actions or games and make sure the logic flows. There needs to be a reason for every action. If you’re getting a good response from the audience, then be prepared to go off piste and play with reaction you’re getting. Repeat and develop material and see how far you can push it. Ride the laughter and when it stops you have 2 options: 1.) play the flop or 2.) move onto the next piece of material.

If you’re using physical comedy in the context of a story, take time and pleasure over it, be prepared to bust out of the context of the story to play with the audience’s response. But don’t forget the pay off! We need to know how this action impacted the characters in the story and most of all we need to know how the action impacts you.

16.) What Do You Want Your Audience To Feel?

Some of my students are exploring the fine line of playing with alienating the audience on purpose. If you are intrigued by the idea of pushing the audience away and then drawing them back, you need to try it a few times with as much confidence as you can muster. Any doubt, and the audience will pick up on it and will then find themselves thrust into an incredibly complex experience; “This comedian wants me to be here and doesn’t want me to be here but maybe s/he doesn’t actually want to be here either?” It’s quite hard to laugh with all those layers going on.

So here's a good question to ask yourself; what do you want your audience to feel? If you genuinely want to make a connection with them, then make sure your material is accessible. This doesn’t mean it all has to be safe and fluffy, just that it’s coming from a pure intention to connect and to take people on a journey. When material is gathered from that place, it automatically finds an accessible form.

If you were to relax, breathe and think of your comedy as an offering to some other humans, rather than a test that you have to get right, what would you produce?

17.) Are You Looking For Laughter Or Approval? 

When an audience feel like they are being asked to give approval, they’ll hold back their laughter. Comedy needs a lightness, a willingness to give it all away. When the comedian is light with their material, the audience can also be light with it. 

It’s good practice to go through your material and ask yourself “What response am I really looking for with this?” Comedy should come from a place of abundance and if you find yourself looking to your audience to fix your problems, perhaps you should consider seeing a therapist? Every comedian should have one, in my experience. I can think of no better support to help you process your material into light, fly-away comedy.

18.) What Taste Do You Want To Leave In Your Audience’s Mouth?

Be aware of the taste you’re leaving in your audiences mouth at the end of your set. This is what they’ll remember. My preference is to finish on a celebration or a strip down to authenticity but always on a laugh. 

Holly Stoppit lectures in comedy at Bath Spa University and is also a dramatherapist, clown teacher, workshop facilitator and Artistic Director of Beyond The Ridiculous. You can find out more about here here.

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