From the time we are toddlers, we learn by watching and imitating. That’s how we learn to walk, to talk, to express ourselves.
Imitation is the ‘stem-cell’ of our learning ability.
So why not utilize this technique when learning how to be a comedian?
At first, it might seem like cheating, no?
And when I say, “imitate,” I don’t mean “copy.” I mean emulate.
Practice sounding like a certain comedian.
I mean, “but wait!” You might be saying. Stand-up is one of the last real “raw” performance-based art forms. Why would anyone want to imitate?
5 Reasons to Use Imitation or Emulation in your Comedy:
There are several reasons, when you are starting out, to use imitation and emulation develop. Here are a few:
- It can get you to sounding like a comedian faster.
- Imitation or emulation can help you discover new inspirations.
- It can help you find the inflection to make a joke, or bit, really resonate.
- It can help your brain to recognize the patterns and rhythms that get laughter from the audience
- It can help you get confident in your pauses and perfect your timing.
Once you start emulating the behaviors of a comedian, you begin to ‘walk in their shoes,’ and you begin to think like one. As a result, more jokes come to you off-handedly during the normal progress of your day and you start recognizing subjects and situations that are ripe for a comedy routine.
As a tool, imitation and emulation is used all the time in life.
Famous guitar players all say that they learned by playing the riffs of the greats, then from those techniques they branched off and developed their own style.
Johnny Carson said he copied Jack Benny to learn how to perfect his timing.
Jerry Seinfeld was clearly influenced by George Carlin.
Robin Williams seemed to take his moves directly from Jonathan Winters.
When you watch Bill Burr, can’t you see a bit of Dennis Leary?
I studied Carlin, Pryor, Cosby and Seinfeld, mostly. When I first started I was very “Seinfeldian.” In fact, I remember going on stage at the Laugh Factory in L.A. one night. Jerry Seinfeld was in the room. I did my set with my jokes, but my inflections and behaviors had a definite Seinfeld feel.
After my performance—which got a decent response, from the audience—I said hello to Seinfeld and he just sort of blew me off. I said to myself, “maybe I I should tone it down a little.”
After that experience, I was lucky enough to meet with George Carlin. He gave me the best insight to comedy;
He said: “Take the stuff that drives you crazy and make it funny!”
That’s when I started to really develop as a comedian.
But it was the study and emulation of my favorite comedians that got me moving in this industry. Within my first two years as a comedian, I developed an hour of material, nailed my first audition with the legendary Bud Friedman, (owner of the Improvisation) in Los Angeles and got booked in Vegas and got my first television booking as a comedian.
After that, I used that television tape to book gigs all over the country and I never looked back.
Stand-up is a Conversation
One of my students is an actress. She’s a really, really good actress. She started doing stand-up in July. Like a lot of actors, she was having trouble eliminating that fourth wall and making the material sound like it was stand-up, rather than an actor’s monologue.
The difference between stand-up and acting is that stand-up is a conversation. It’s hopefully a one-way conversation, but it is more like a conversation. It’s like you’re talking to your friends in your living room or better yet, at a bar.
This actress-comedian was having a difficult time breaking out of the monologue mode. Then she started studying comedians like Whitney Cummings and Amy Schumer. I mean really studying them.
She listened to them for hours! (I recommend that to anyone—take your favorite comedian and listen to them for hours).
She would even repeat their lines while she was in her apartment, trying to emulate their nuances and their voices.
In a matter of a week or two, her act went to the next level. By the time she had her next appearance, she was sounding more like a comedian. Her material was resonating more with the audience. They were responding to her faster and with harder, snappier laughter.
She was becoming a comedian. It was her own material, but she emulated to get the nuance of a comedian.
4 Weeks to Being A Better Writer
To some people this seems crazy…
I get it. The comedian’s nuance and rhythm my come naturally to you. If so, then this post is not for you.
Go do your thing and continue in your own growth and brilliance.
But to you comedians with some years of experience, I still recommend listening to the really good comedians.
When I had been doing comedy for about 8 years, I was on the road for four weeks straight. In my car I had one cassette (yes, I said “cassette!” Don’t judge!). It was Dennis Miller.
One thing about Dennis, is he used to use really colorful language in his material. The writing was clever. He used a lot of analogy, simile and metaphor to add texture to his stories. In my view it made the story worth listening to.
By the end of the tour, my comedy also had more compelling language. It was better written and it was getting better response. I kept it in my own voice, but that four weeks with Dennis Miller made me a far better writer!
This particular post is for beginners who are having a hard time getting out of the habit of sounding like they are reciting material and getting more in the habit of sounding like a comedian; like a conversationalist.
For you, if you are struggling with this concept. Try emulating or imitating. It might make you sound like a comedian faster.
Then again, you might already be emulating.