A Stand Up Comic’s Guide to Living Life to the Full!

bigstockphoto_Billy_Crystal_Takes_Part_In_Ib_5088661I started doing Stand Up Comedy almost a decade ago.  It was something I’d always wanted to do and becoming a mother made me determined to finally stop talking a big game and actually do it!

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of the things I’ve learned in stand up comedy are great lessons for living life to the full.   I’ll be talking more about these things in future posts but here’s a list of what stand up comedy can teach you about living your most satisfying life.

 You should always be striving for your “A” Material – when you go on stage as a stand up comic, you’re looking to make people laugh as much and as hard as possible.  Your intention is not to make them simply smile or perhaps giggle.  No, you’re going out to really give them your best material – your A laughs.  Over the ten years since my first stand up gig, many of my original A laughs have become B or C laughs in comparsion to new material so they’ve either been removed from the set or rewritten to get them back up to my A game.  Some of the material has stood the test of time and continues to get the biggest laughs.

Too many of us settle for our B or C lives.   We think it’s selfish to pursue our A life.  Or that we’ll live it when our children go to college or we lose 10 pounds or we retire.

We’re in jobs or relationships that we’re half-hearted about or we sit and watch reality TV for hours instead of getting out and really living our own lives.  

As a mother, I’m constantly checking to make sure that I’m striving to live my A game.  So that that’s what my children (especially my daughters) see me doing.  I want to make sure that I’m showing them – by example – what a life well-lived looks like.

The funniest material is always the most honest material.   This is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned.  Making people laugh and living a really satisfying life both require you to be AUTHENTIC.  To be true to yourself.  Think George Carlin.  Think Chris Rock.  Think Wanda Sykes after her divorce.  Faking it doesn’t work in stand up comedy and it definitely doesn’t work in real life.  If you’re trying to be something you’re not, you’re not living your best life.  If you’re trying to please anyone other than yourself, you’re living someone else’s life and wasting your own life as a result.

As Steve Jobs’ said in his 2005 Stanford University Commencement address,

“Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

In that same speech, he talked about how invaluable it had been in his life to follow his curiosity and intuition.  He encourages you to find what you love to do and to not settle until you find it.  You will know it when you find it.

Know Your Audience .    Unless you’re Dane Cook and can fill Madison Square Garden, as a stand up comic you’ll have comedy clubs that really suit you and your material and some places where you’re almost guaranteed to bomb!  I’ve always done gigs in New York comedy clubs which for the most part are a good match for me and my material.  Having said that, some of them are a better match for me than others.  This is true in life as well as comedy.  You are always going to be happier when you’re with people who love you for who you are.  With whom you can be 100% yourself.  They are your tribe.  Go find them.

“The fact is that you’ll find your own North Star [your best life] peopled not with folks you merely like but those you genuinely adore.  These people will share your passions and ideals.  Their essential selves are likely to fit beautifully with yours.  They are your tribe.” … Martha Beck 

Dealing with Hecklers   In comedy and in life, you’ll come across people who think they know what’s good for you or that they know better than you.  This is what Martha Beck calls your “everybody”.  As in “everybody thinks I’m lazy”.  “Everybody” usually ends up being one or two people and, more often than not, it’s your mother!

As Katie Goodman (author of  “Improvisation for the Spirit”) says,

“There will invariably be people who don’t accept you.  And in that case, you must be your own badass self, without apology.”

Unfortunately, YOU are often your own heckler. 

You’re on stage half-living your life and simultaneously in the audience heckling yourself.  You have internalized what you think other people think and you’re living your life with a constant chatter of judgment and criticism going through your mind.   

There are many wonderful coaching tools for catching yourself when you’re doing this and which help you to replace the critical thought with a non-judgmental thought that is equally believable for you.  In “Improvisation for the Spirit”, Katie Goodman has a great exercise for gagging your inner critic which I’ll talk more about in another posting.  The ultimate conclusion is that you replace your inner critic with an inner coach. 

I love this quote from “Improvisation for the Spirit”:

“I retrained my inner critic to be like that character from the movie The Bird Cage: Hank Azaria’s fabulous, gay, Guatemalan houseboy.  My new inner coach now has a thick, flamboyant Latino accent and says things like, “Honey!  Choo need a break!  Look at choo!  Choo need some rest and a ped-i-cure.  Go.  Go take some time off, girl.”  The humor of it helps me, and the tone helps me get me what I need.”

My inner critic turned inner coach has assumed the persona of Tom Jones and, whenever the negative crap starts whirling in my head, he starts to sing: “What’s new pussycat?  Woah, Woah”.  It does the trick of undermining whatever negative judgment I was making and he then goes on to tell me just what I need in those rich, Welsh baritones of his! 

Improvise – “Yes and” instead of “Yes, but”.  I recently started Improv classes at the People’s Improv Theater in New York and I LOVE IT!!!    A cardinal rule of improv is the concept of “yes and”.  The idea that you never negate what your improv partner says to you.  You listen to what they say and affirm and add something else.  “Yes and …”.

In real life, we often have big dreams and even bigger buts!  We want to be ………………………………… (fill in your dream) BUT ………………………………(fill in your excuse).  Martha Beck calls this the Isle of Yeah But and frequently tells her clients that their but(s) are too big! 

When the writer Tina Fey was moving from Chicago to New York to work at Saturday Night Live, she found a folder that had notes from when she was studying improv.  The quotes were some of the rules of “improv” that the teacher had given to them.  When she found the folder, she realized that taking that class had completely changed her life.

Some of the quotes were:

“Greet everything with “Yes, and …””

“Make statements instead of putting the burden on others with questions.”

“Stay in the present, as opposed to focusing on the past or future.”

“The fun is always on the other side of a yes.”

Tina Fey says that she’s shocked when she meets someone whose first instinct is “No, how can we do that?  That doesn’t seem possible”.  Her response is “Yeah of course you can.  There’s no choice.  And even if you abandon one idea for another one, saying yes allows you to move forward.

So next time you catch yourself thinking or saying “yeah but” replace it with “yes and”.

Get On Stage (until you find the gigs you really want, do Open Mics)  At the end of the day, if you want to be a stand up comic, you’ve got to get on stage.   You’ve got to DO something.  That’s true whatever you want to be in life.  You’ve got to get out there and do it.  Get on the “stage” of whatever it is you want in whatever way you can.

Enjoy Your Time on Stage!  In comedy and in life, you only have a certain amount of time on “stage”.  Make every second count. 

As a mother, one of the things I’m proudest of is that all 3 of my children (ages 10, 7 and 3) are showing signs of great senses of humor.   They crack me and each other up on a regular basis.   What I love is that they know when they’re doing it and you can see the sheer glee they experience when a funny face or voice has the desired effect.

If I teach them nothing more than the value of laughing hard and often, I will consider my job as a mother well done!

“Among those whom I like or admire

I can find no common denominator,

but among those whom I love,

I can: all of them make me laugh.”

… W.H. Auden, “Notes on the Comic”


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