By Jerry Corley – Founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic
I just got an email from someone who said, “The only way to learn stand up comedy is stage time.” That’s a common response, but is it really well thought out? I would have to say, “No.” If the comedian is like a surgeon and the audience are his patients, this comedian must have the stench of death following close behind.
Is it fair to make that comparison? After all, medicine is not comedy.
Think about it this way. It you were to compare being a comedian to piloting an airplane, how many of you would want to fly “Open-Mic Airlines?”
Comedy is an art form and stand up comedy is a performing art, as is music, acting, dancing, singing and magic. Sorry mimes, if I left you out. However, what some people forget is that the comedian, unless he’s just buying jokes or stealing them—why, Carlos Mencia, has your name has become synonymous with that theme?—then the comedian is also a writer.
Every single one of those art forms has a learning learning curve. Comedy, in its form, is most like magic. As magic is about misdirection and surprise, so is comedy. In fact, scientifically, the number one element that triggers human laughter is surprise. When the magician takes the ball into his hand waves the wand over it and says, “abracadabra, ” “presto-chango, ” “expelliarmus, ” (or whatever magicians are saying these days) and the magician opens his hand and the ball is gone, we smile, we giggle, because we have been surprised. But if a magician doesn’t learn the formula, if the ball doesn’t disappear and reappear or worse, if we see where the ball is going, then there is no surprise and there is no magic and the smiles and giggles will be replaced by groans and boos and hisses. Misdirection and surprise are part of the comedian’s fundamentals as well and must be learned before getting “stagetime, ” otherwise those same groans, boos and hisses—and worse, will follow the comedian.
Structurally, comedy is also about story telling and music. Most of us know that a good story and a good piece of music has a beginning, middle and end. Unfortunately, most comedians don’t know this or don’t know to put it in their acts…certainly they need this over at SNL. When you do build this in, you stand out. Audiences love resolution and they respond with applause. It’s as simple as a musical scale, if you sing: DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-, the audience is going to feel unresolved. They will feel like something is missing. However, if you sing, DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-DO, the audience will feel compelled to raise their hands in applause. Learn your fundamentals, your scales, your rudiments, then can you make beautiful music.
It’s the same thing in comedy. Stagetime is definitely the way to hone your skills of performing comedy, but if you learn what makes people laugh and you learn to identify surprise, irony, incongruity and recognition, then apply that to your performance before you get your “stagetime, ” you probably would’ve saved the audiences you’ve encountered a lot of misery you unwittingly injected into their hearts, their memories and their olfactories, because the potency of the stench of death you most certainly left behind would’ve been a lot less significant.