Subject Matters

By Dobie Maxwell –

   George Carlin had a famous routine about the seven words you can’t say on television. It’s still a classic, and if you aren’t familiar with it I strongly suggest you make the effort to locate it, hear it, study it and hopefully enjoy and learn from it. It’s not for the prudish, and there is profanity so I have to make the disclaimer that it’s for ADULTS ONLY. If you are of legal age, check it out.

I can preach on and on frequently do without being asked about how I think all new comedians need to keep it clean in the early stages, and I truly believe it even though this routine is the total antithesis of that point of view. But George Carlin wasn’t a beginner. He was a practicing master of his craft, and it took him years to be able to pull that off. He had paid his dues, and was ready.

There are seven other words I can think of that can intimidate new comedians enough to cause discomfort and panic to the point of sweaty palms, lightheadedness and severe orifice puckerage. I wrestled with these words when I started, and I’ve seen countless others struggle with them all my time since. These words come in the form of a question, and most beginners can’t answer it:

“What should I talk about on stage?”

   Who can answer that question correctly, especially with little to no experience from which they can draw? The choices are limitless as to what subjects can be mined for gold humor nuggets and that can be overwhelming to someone starting out. It’s like going through a massive buffet with a tiny plate. There’s way too much to choose from, and something good is going to get left behind.

But everyone has to talk about something, right? How does one choose what topics to address? I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, but I do have several suggestions you probably would not think of so hopefully you’ll be able to make your decision with a lot more thought behind it.

Just going on stage and rambling randomly about whatever half baked thought flies into one of your ears is not the way to go – yet I see 90% or higher of beginners doing exactly that. Having a clue of what direction you want to go puts you way ahead of the herd before you say one word.

It’s good to look at your time on stage as being introduced to some people for the first time at a party.  It’s a fun party, and everyone seems to be having a good time. You like the people you’ve been introduced to, and you want them to like you back. What’s the best way to make that work?

Basically, just relax and be friendly. There’s no need to complain or be a jerk or think that you are better than everyone else. There is no need to bring out any unpleasant or controversial topics in those first few minutes either. It’s a very poor risk. You want to be the sweetheart of the party.

Your first few minutes on stage are exactly the same. The audience doesn’t know you yet, so it becomes a matter of getting them to know you, like you and trust that you’re funny. That will let you be free to eventually take them anywhere you like, but at first it’s crucial to obtain their trust.

Baby Teeth

   All too often I’ve seen clueless beginners go up and try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘make a statement’ way before they even have half a clue as to what those terms mean. They seem to think for some odd reason that a comedian hasn’t ‘arrived’ until a reputation has been gained for walking audiences.

You’ll get a reputation alright, but not the one you’re looking for. Getting consistent laughter is always the best reputation to shoot for, and that’s the direction I am trying to point you with what I’m saying. I’m not trying to neuter your ‘edge’ or censor you, but you need to learn basics first.

I like to equate the first subjects a comedian uses with baby teeth. Everyone has baby teeth, and they serve a very important purpose. Then, one by one they all fall out and are never ever needed again. Standup comedy is the same. The subjects one starts with are often used for a limited time.

This is a good thing in my opinion. As one’s stage chops get sharper, skill level rises and that’s what it’s all about. Putting together a quality act that grows organically takes years of hard work, but the process can be extremely satisfying along the way. It’s the progress that keeps one going.

Until a level of competence is achieved, why waste the lack of skill on a subject that isn’t ready to be handled just yet? Would you have your kid attempt to tackle a difficult college course when that kid is in kindergarten? Of course not. The kid isn’t ready for that yet. Comedy is the same.

Dig Deep, Not Wide

   I also strongly suggest a beginning comedian limit the amount of topics or premises to no more than three at the very most for a five minute routine. There just isn’t any reason to have any more than that, and I’d recommend using one or two if possible. Usually two is about right, as it offers an opportunity for some comedic contrast and possibly some callbacks. Much more on this later.

I’ve had people drive themselves crazy trying to adhere to these ‘rules’, when in fact I’d like to reiterate that nothing I ever say should be considered a ‘rule’. There are always exceptions to all of them, and that’s just how it is. What I do is make strong suggestions, but they are based on my many years of hard earned hands on practical on stage experience. I’ve thought all this through.

A very important point to remember when deciding what to talk about on stage is that YOU are the one who makes that decision in the short run. It’s an educated guess as to what an audience is going to laugh at, and the audience will tell you if you were right or wrong. Some will respond to certain material differently than others, and that’s where your comedic instincts have to be used.

At one time or another, everyone guesses wrong. You will too, so don’t sweat it. You’ll dream up an idea for a bit you know will be your career maker, but for whatever reason audiences don’t seem to share your vision. It’s frustrating, but they make the call. This is all part of the process.

Whatever you decide to choose as your stage topics, try to keep them lighthearted and ‘safe’ – at least at first. Learn how to be a real comedian before you venture out into the realm of ‘edgy’.