Demo Lessons from Comedians: Part 2 – Do the Work is the second in a series about comedy from Demo Solutions founder Ed Jaffe.
Are Comedians people who are funny, or people who can perform?
My friend Tim is an immigration lawyer/law professor by day (yeah, he’s a much better person than I am), and a stand-up comedian by night. I asked him about the difference between being funny and being a comedian. Here’s what he said:
Being naturally funny and doing stand-up are different skills. It’s like asking a chef to make you a lunchable. Some of the people who crack me up the most are terrible on stage. Some of the funniest stand-ups I know are terrible at parties. It’s not to say funny people don’t become great stand-ups, but you have to go through the work of learning the process.
Being able to write a funny joke isn’t the same as telling it onstage. Just like being able to write a great demo isn’t the same as delivering a great demo. In a vacuum, the content may be great, but in front of an audience can be an entirely different story. Audiences create variables that can’t always be controlled or accounted for, but how we tell the story makes all the difference.
Demo Lessons from Comedians: Part 2- Lesson 1: A great demo takes practice
I can’t be scripted when I demo, because I sound scripted. I have the comedian Demo Identity, so my energy comes from the audience. For me to deliver a great demo, I all I need to know is the main talking points. I practice to get the flow down (to quote the great Taunya Bunte with 2Win! – “everyone practices – you just don’t want to practice in front of the client”), but keep it fluid. Most of the time, I don’t know what I’m going to say in front of an audience until I say it. This can get me in trouble, but that’s a separate issue for another time. It’s not that different from playing jazz – you have to know the music and when to play your part, but when the spotlight is on you, it’s all about improvising (more on this in another post).
Comedians may sound off the cuff, but they usually aren’t. Todd Barry did a tour a few years ago where all he did was crowd work (the video is great, but was produced/promoted by Louis C.K., so I can’t recommend spending money on it). Most of the time, it’s rehearsed.
Almost every comic has their “tight five” or “tight ten,” which is 5 or 10 minutes of their best material, and they spend a lot of time honing it. Take Jerry Seinfeld – when he had his first TV appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1981, he practiced his 5-minute set 200 times. He knew that set cold, but it sounded natural.
Demo Lessons from Comedians: Part 2- Lesson 2: It’s OK to fail on your way to a great demo
Much like learning how to giving a great demo or presentation, learning the art of stand-up requires getting in front of an audience and failing. A lot.
I’ve failed in front of an audience more times than I can count. And I still fail – albeit in different ways than I used to. But the only reason I know as much about demoing as I do (besides everything I’ve learned from Demo2Win! of course), is because I’ve learned how to adjust based on what works and what doesn’t.
Here’s the good news when it comes to failure – it’s not binary. You can fail one part of the demo, but come back from it. It’s all about how you handle it in the moment, which is more experience that comes from failing.
In fact, most famous comedians still work out their new material in front of audiences. They show up at open-mics, or their “home club,” and try out the new set. As Chris Rock put it:
“Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio…There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy.”
The one caution, be careful how you fail
Working things out on stage was WAY easier before the new material ended up on YouTube. And, failing is one thing, but crossing certain lines is another (i.e. Michael Richards).
Failing because you are still working out your talk track, or honing your craft is one thing. But offending the audience is entirely different. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen – we’ve all said something that, when looking back, wasn’t a good thing to say. But do everything you can to ensure that you are inclusive (if you have questions on this, we can help).