Performance Secrets

The performer must immediately communicate the following information to an audience:

1. Establish an identifiable character.

2. Let the audience feel superior.

3. Make the audience care.

1. If the character isn't instantly recognizable, the performance is off to a risky start. Generally, there's no time to build a hidden character the first time the audience meets you. Comedy demands that you get laughs within the first few paragraphs or within the first thirty seconds.

2. To make the audience feel secure, the performer must eliminate any threat of intimidation. The nebbish look of a Woody Allen, the weirdo clothing of an Emo Philips, and the squeaky voice of a Pee Wee Herman, Jerry Lewis, or Pinky Lee are all carefully designed to let the audience feel superior. Just imagine the difference in perception if Steven Wright raced through his material in Henny Youngman fashion.

3. Since we tend to feel sympathetic with the underdog, performers often try to extract caring through a discourse on their misfortunes. But there's always the danger that no respect can lead to disrespect.

Once you find your character, you must stay in character. During one of the annual San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy competitions, Jon Fox, a coproducer, reported that after Charles Cozart won a number of preliminary rounds with a take-off on a militant black, several of his competitors implied he wasn't versatile enough to do any other material. Cozart rose to the challenge and in the next round did a completely different set. Unfortunately, they were right. He went down in flames, finishing dead last.

The big difference between performers and their alter egos, the comedy writers, is not ability but conceit.

Comedians as a group are a neurotic bunch. Most are immature and self-centered, insecure, and (at one time) at least three of the funniest were certifiably emotionally unbalanced. —Steve Allen

The performer seizes every opportunity to stand in the front of the room. The writer prefers to sit at the back of the room, without the sense of belonging but thereby more able to notice the inconsistencies and incongruities of life.

The Romans had an interesting practice. When they finished building an arch, the architect was ordered to stand beneath it when the scaffolding was removed. Humor writers should be forced to take this test, too. Before selling your material to someone else, you should stand underneath an audience's "scaffold" by trying your own material in some public or group arena. If it doesn't stand up, you'll be the first to know. This is for your own protection. If the performer bombs, you bomb with him. The comic may not be killed, but you certainly will.

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