By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com
One of my current students reminded me today of an age old problem that needs to be brought up and discussed. It’s gone on for ages, and I’m sure it will never fully stop – even though it sure needs to immediately. The lesson to learn is that you don’t have to fall prey to this giant mistake.
What I am referring to is the natural but highly mistaken desire to consult someone in your life you are close to for comedy advice. This could include anyone from spouse, lover, friend, parent, sibling, neighbor, coworker to third cousin’s brother in law’s uncle twice removed by marriage.
Do NOT ask these people to help you with your comedy. The absolute worst thing any newbie can do is keep asking “Honey…is this funny?” I totally see why this happens regularly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a mistake. It is, and it will stunt your comedic growth far more than help it.
The fact is the people closest to you know you far too well to offer any useful advice. First off, odds are extremely low any of them have ever been on a stage before doing anything much less standup comedy. They have no idea what the process is, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.
It’s exactly like some blithering buffoon on a barstool, bus bench or at a bowling alley blurting out ‘expert’ medical advice or ‘secrets’ how the local sports teams can win a championship with no problem if they’ll just ‘make the right moves’. Would you listen to that halfwit? I’d hope not.
They Just Don’t Know
No matter how well their intention, someone who has known you for a long time can’t offer an accurate opinion or useful advice to be used in front of an audience of strangers. If anyone wants to pursue a career of any length, he or she needs to learn early to depend on their own instincts.
That can be extremely difficult at first, and I get that. What’s funny? Who can say, other than a live audience? Since there isn’t one readily available, the next best alternative is to ask somebody close by what they think of a particular line or concept. This is a great way to develop bad habits.
Other than maybe once, that person is never going to be in your audience. They wouldn’t know how an audience thinks, and they might not know the basics of what funny is. What if you asked if something was funny and they said no? You wouldn’t have asked if you didn’t think there was some funny in it somewhere, so chances are your instincts told you to try it. GO with that hunch.
You might guess wrong, but that’s totally ok. You’ll guess again and again, and again after that until you learn what works for you. This is a crucial part of the comedy process, and one that can never be rushed or faked. It absolutely has to be earned, and no spouse alive unless he or she has been through the actual process can ever offer anything of real value. It might be good to develop relationships more closely, but when it comes to comedy – keep a distance. “Honey” can come to your show, but if so let he or she be surprised by your jokes like everyone else in the audience.
It’s ALL a Guess
I once had the chance to work with Jackie Mason, and it was an unbelievable education. At that time he was celebrating fifty years in the entertainment business, and we were talking about what he’d learned. What stood out for me was that he said every joke he ever writes is always a guess.
Even after fifty years of practice, he said he was still never 100% sure an audience would buy a particular joke. He said he might think they would, and he’s got fifty years of shows as a point of reference, but in the end the audience is always the final judge. They call the shots completely.
I would agree from my own experience. Over the years I have had audiences remember certain lines or pieces of material and come up to me after shows and recite them. They wouldn’t be the lines or bits I would necessarily choose to be representative of what I do, but I’m not in charge.
The same will happen to you. After a while, you will see what audiences will accept from you and laugh at and what they won’t. Every audience is different of course, but with time you’ll see specific and well defined patterns develop. This is what will shape you into the act you will be.
The sooner you can learn to start listening to what your audience tells you, the farther you will progress. Unfortunately, it takes time for this process to play out, and the only way to play it out is on stage. Asking your sweetie pie if they think your latest fart joke is funny will not help a bit.
But I Just Can’t Wait
Countless hordes of aspiring comedians have made this mistake, and I’m sure there will be that many more that do it in the future. That doesn’t mean you have to fall into that common trap, and I sincerely hope you avoid it. A smart student will rely on the comedic instinct they’re born with – not the half baked ill informed suggestions of some clueless mope they work with at a day job.
I realize these are harsh words, but I can’t think of any other way to get the message across. It’s hard to be a comedian, but even harder when bad habits are developed before one even goes on a stage for the first time. I know it can be difficult, but resisting the urge to ask friends is correct.
What’s funny to YOU? Chances are if you think something is funny, there’s a reason for it. If a joke or idea seems funny to you, my suggestion is to get on stage and TRY IT. It just may reward you with a face full of stinging silence – but at least it is accurate feedback. You can adjust later.
Standup comedy is very much a lone wolf pursuit. You’re up there alone, and live and die from what comes out of YOUR mouth and yours only. The audience has a part in the process, but you are the one leading the dance. If this frightens you, standup comedy may not be your true calling.
Acting or improvising may be more suited to your needs, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Everyone is different and has different needs. I happen to love standup comedy and all that goes with it, and that’s always going to be my focal point. I have spent a lifetime observing everything about it, and I form opinions only after much thought. That being said – keep “Honey” out of it.