Last summer I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, a world renowned comedy festival. I watched the semi finals of So you think you’re funny, a high profile competition where fledgling stand up comedians were performing their best seven minutes. Some of the comedians were fantastic, some not so great. I was struck that many of the comedians were doing very basic things wrong. I noted the most obvious things down and realised that the list is very applicable to stand up generally or any humorous speech.
1. Be politically correct. I was surprised by the number of jokes at the expense of: ethnic minorities, fat people, gay people, disabled people, ugly people, etc. More then half of the competitors picked on at least one these groups making them appear vicious and ignorant. You’re better than that. Distinguish yourself from the other competitors by choosing original subjects or by picking on yourself.
2. The opening is important. The first three sentences should be punchlines. You need to get people laughing straight away. Some of the contestants took far too long to say anything funny and began to lose the audience. You need steady laughs from the beginning. Save the long set ups for later.
3. Pause for laughter. I was amazed at how the comics would start their next joke while the audience was still laughing. If you do this the audience has to stop laughing so they don’t miss anything! You will give the appearance of reciting a pre-rehearsed monologue rather than reacting to the audience, and you will prevent the laughter gradually building.
It’s better to pause too long as it will give you the appearance of confidence. If you have trouble with pausing then write the word “pause” into your script, or start a new line whenever a pause is merited.
4. Hide your nerves. A lot of the other contestants looked incredibly nervous. If you take steps to hide your nerves you will look better than them. If you know you’re going to shake then leave the mic in the stand and don’t use props (holding a piece of paper at arms length really exacerbates shakiness). Smile. Take your time to acknowledge the host at the beginning and end with a handshake and a smile.
5. Enunciate your punchlines. Speak clearly, especially on the punch. One comedian’s punchline was lost because he slurred his punchline. We weren’t sure if he said “bank director” or “fence erector”.
If your punchline includes difficult to pronounce words, or words with plosives (T, P, B, or D sounds) that may get distorted when spoken into a microphone, then consider swapping out the word.
6. Acknowledging things in the room. This will make you sound more natural and in the moment.
Have a standard funny line for common things that might happen: a glass falling over, a loud noise outside, a mic malfunction, someone walking in late, etc. For example “I’m being heckled by [a glass, a chair, whatever made a noise]”, or “I’m making everything go wrong on purpose so the judges see my vulnerable side”
From the moment you arrive at the venue keep an eye out for things you can mention: the room becoming uncomfortably hot, weird decorations or posters. (At the SYTYF competition there was an enormous backdrop advertising The Sims – the best comedians acknowledged it).
7. Act out dialogue. When you change characters change the position you’re facing, and change the tone slightly. Consider altering the intensity and facial expression. It makes dialogue more interesting.
8. If you have a joke with several taglines and the punchline falls flat, don’t say the taglines. Just move on. The joke didn’t work. Trying to squeeze a laugh out of it will be excruciating for the audience.
9. Be wary of time. There will probably be a lot more laughter than you anticipated in a large room, so if you’re used to practicing in front of the mirror or at a badly attended open mic then you might go over time. You don’t want to be disqualified because the audience laughed too much! Have a section you can cut, about thirty seconds to a minute long.
10. Don’t do fake audience interaction. Only ask questions to the audience if you’re ready to deal with an unpredictable response. If you force it in, it will look forced in. At the SYTYF competition an act asked an audience member what they did, she embarrassedly responded “I’m one of the judges”. The emcee asked one of the audience members to do something and they flat out refused. You can’t rely on the audience to give you the answer you want.