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What Standup Comedy Taught Me About Public Speaking and Life
A few years ago I went through a period of intense training and practice in standup comedy. I took a 12-week course in the UK, and then I started performing regularly, both in the UK and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over a period of about four years, I delivered open-mic performances every week. In 2011, I placed third in the Ninth Annual Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Competition. To do that, I had to reach the final round in a competition with over 100 other amateur comics at a famous comedy club that has hosted the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, and Amy Schumer. Scroll to the bottom of this article for a video of one of my performances in that competition.
I didn’t seriously perform again after that final contest because I realized that I didn’t want to become a professional comedian (I’ll explain why later), but this article is a distillation of what I learned from all those experiences.
If you can make people laugh, then you can do anything
There’s only one thing harder than making a regular person laugh, and that’s making a comedian laugh. My friend and mentor Joe Klocek once told me that “making a comedian laugh is like making a porn star come.” That made me laugh, and I don’t know if that makes Joe a great comedian or me shitty one, or both.
To stand on stage with the promised goal of invoking a set of emotions in a crowd of people such that they spontaneously and uncontrollably produce a loud baying sound in unison is one of the most highly demanding, and undervalued, skills that a human-being can acquire.
While most people fear common-or-garden public speaking more than death, the potential amount of performance anxiety invoked by standup comedy is vastly greater. This is one reason that I can write about public speaking with such authority. I also have a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, the relevance of which will become increasingly apparent as you read on.
The same psychological issues arise with standup comedy as with regular public speaking, but they’re amplified. If you’re speaking, and the audience is quiet, then you know they’re listening to you. On the other hand, when you deliver a punchline and the audience is silent, what does that mean? That’s a good question, and one that I’ll answer in this article.
If you can overcome the inner obstacles to success in standup comedy, then you have set yourself on a path to success in any field. For self-development purposes, I recommend that—after reading this article—you get out there and perform at some open mics. It’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be awkward, but it’s going to be very fun. You will never feel as alive as when you’re teetering on the edge of stage-death.
Prepare to be spontaneous
Recently, I was coaching a guy on public speaking. He told me that, “I write out my speech word-for-word and then I rehearse it, and I rehearse it again. I keep rehearsing it until I know it by heart. Then I go and deliver it and it goes really well.”
I looked at him, I blinked, and then I asked, “So what’s the problem?”
“Shouldn’t I just be able to get on stage and make it up on-the-fly?” he asked.
No. You might never be able to make it up on-the-fly. This is one of the biggest secrets of great standup comedians, and also of great public speakers. When you see a great performance, know that countless hours of practice have gone into it. This is why public speaking, and great comedy, can be so highly-paid. It’s not only extremely challenging to deliver material well, but for every five minutes of performance on stage, there’s been tens or hundreds of hours of preparation. Furthermore, the preparation for that specific performance was built upon thousands of hours of previous practice.
I’m a highly trained and skilled engineer. I get paid a lot for what I do. When I have an opinion about something, nobody looks at me and says, “Wow, that just came out of your mouth in, like, one minute. That’s super-easy and simple. Why are we paying you so much?” The clarity, simplicity, conciseness, efficiency, density, and terseness of my engineering utterances are what make them valuable, and what makes them possible is decades of experience and tens of thousands of hours of drawing block-diagrams on whiteboards.
When I tell people that I design computer chips, they often say, “I don’t know anything about that!” and then are apparently not interested in finding out more. On the other hand, when I tell people that I’m a psychologist, they always have an opinion. Sometimes, when I express something related to psychology that a person doesn’t want to hear, they will try to devalue my training or expertise. In response to that, I place the nail of my left pinkie finger against the outside of my closed lips and say, “I didn’t spend ten years in grad school to be called mister, thank you very much.” But, seriously, you can call me Doctor Duncan, or just Duncan for short.
Writing, speaking, and comedy, are similar: many people believe that they already know everything there is to know about these topics. Billy made someone laugh once, so now Billy knows a thing or two about comedy. This is why the bar is generally so low in the world. The person who is open to learning and growth, the one who is on the path to mastery, is very rare. The fact that you’re even reading this article probably places you in at least the top tenth, maybe top fifth, percentile of the population in terms of willingness to grow.
Often narcissists rise up by bullshitting, by being charming, by manipulating, and by undercutting others, yet without developing any real skill. How can someone with no humility admit, even to themselves, that they have much to learn. How can they apply themselves diligently to practice when, in their own eyes, they are already the best, even while unconsciously feeling horribly inadequate. Meanwhile, you and I continue to practice, and to learn, and like the tortoise overtaking the hare, we develop in mastery so thoroughly that we easily win the race, both effortlessly and with our integrity intact.
“It’s what you practice in private that you will be rewarded for in public.” — Tony Robbins
Let me take you into my world. I’m sitting at my desk with a word-for-word printed script of my set. A set is a comedy performance. I have performed this set at least ten times. I’m watching a video of myself performing it, and noting down the level of laughter for each punchline in the set. A punchline is the part of each joke that is designed to provoke a laugh. “That one tickled about 50% of the audience. That one touched 70%. That one generated absolutely no laughs.” I’m noting subtle changes in the wording I use in the recording compared with the script. I may go back and change the script and then practice it the new way. If a punchline didn’t work over several performances, then I might remove that punchline or joke or section. To calculate the average laughs-per-minute, I divide the number of legitimate laughs by the length of the performance. I then figure out how I might increase that score.
Professional standup comedians average between four and six laughs-per-minute, sometimes more. At the height of my unpaid comedy career, I was averaging laughs-per-minute well into the professional range. In the video linked at the end of this article, my performance produces 35 laughs in 4.5 minutes, yielding 7.8 laughs-per-minute.
Here’s the thing about comedy that is also true about public speaking, and about anything in life: it doesn’t work if you’re not authentic. You have to at least appear like you’re doing it live, spontaneously, in-the-moment, and with this particular audience. People want to feel that you’re discovering this content with them, new, fresh, and inspired. This is a living moment of creation. I am creating something on-stage and with your help. Together, we are creating. Together, we are succeeding.
The paradox is that without an immense volume of preparation, it’s almost impossible to deliver high-quality material that actually works. On the other hand, if you deliver scripted material, read from a note-card in your mind, then it will be lifeless and unengaging. A good performance truly is unique and fresh, even if it’s based on thoroughly rehearsed material. The trick is to practice like crazy and then let go and surrender into the present-moment. You have to learn how to let your soft animal body take over and channel all that goodness automagically through a fresh pipe.
Surrender? Soft animal? Present-moment? This is scary shit. This is not going to work if you’re traumatized, or shame-filled, or resentful. You need to do everything you can to make that channel clean. You need to floss that sucker out with therapy, and coaching, and meditation, and sleep, and running, and good food, and hot-tubs, and friendships, and just a shit ton of weeping for all that has passed down the river of your life. It takes a massive amount of courage and vulnerability to get your channel clean enough that you can be authentic.
This advice applies to everything, from talking technical with a colleague, to presenting to the board, to inspiring your kids. Practice hard, clean out your psychological pipes, and then, when the time comes, let rip on the world with your wit, wisdom, and wokeness.
This is one of the reasons that amateur standup comedians often go on stage and perform the weirdest, painful-to-watch, awkward shit that you can imagine. They have to get that stuff out of them, and they often haven’t done it by sobbing on a therapist’s couch.
Before I formally studied standup comedy, I did do freestyle public performances of up to an hour each. People listened, people clapped, and sometimes people laughed. They were impressive demonstrations of courage, and they were a testament to years of inner-work, but they were not high-quality, professional productions.
After learning how to do standup comedy properly, I saw a comedian performing so well that I fell into the trap of thinking he was making his whole set up on the spot; I knew he wasn’t, but I liked his performance so much that I couldn’t help but suspend my disbelief. I went on stage after him thinking, “I can do that. I’ve done that before.” My performance completely tanked and the difference in quality between my free-form performance and my performance using the carefully prepared and rehearsed set was strikingly obvious. I hadn’t realized how far I had come, and I didn’t make that mistake again.
I can tell you categorically that absolutely no world-class performance is just winged, on-the-fly, or off-the-cuff. There might be some elements of in-the-moment creativity, or even sections of riffing (which I’ll talk about later), but the overall structure will have been carefully constructed and rehearsed ahead-of-time.
So it’s normal and expected that you will spend a lot of time off-stage, or out of the limelight, practicing your craft and preparing to perform. Over years and decades, your ability to prepare will become more efficient, and your confidence in delivery will increase. You will be able to prepare increasingly effectively with decreasing amounts of time and effort.
Practice creating words
Some people believe that by reading more we will have more material to write or speak about. Other people think that we need to go out and have more experiences to write or speak about. The reality is that we already have enough to write and speak about for the rest of our lives without ever reading another word, and without ever doing another thing. More reading is not what we need. Reading is not going to make you better at either writing or speaking. We improve at the things we practice. To get better at generating streams of words, you need to practice generating streams of words. Write and speak a lot every day. I write every morning, and I usually have a least one period of social time every day.
Once you have stable and good quality content, you can work on tuning the details of how it’s delivered. You can work on tone, and inflection, and timing. You can tease-out that pause before the punchline while making eye contact with someone in the audience. You can slow down, stand up tall, and survey the crowd. You can breathe deeply and soften down into your legs so that your consciousness fills your body and the room, so that you can enthrall and delight the audience, so that you can entice them into your world and entertain them like royalty in your palace of presence.
Toy with failure
Once you have high-quality, well-rehearsed content, you have a solid structure in which to play. Now you can run little experiments that might fail. You might add an experimental joke, or you might put your set on hold for a moment and start riffing with an audience member, perhaps even a heckler. Joe Klocek taught me how to do audience riffing. At the end of this article, I link to a video of Joe dealing with a drunk heckler. In that video, he fully engages with the problem, frames it as heckler versus the comedian and the audience, and then mines the comedy gold from it.
After taking a riffing workshop from Joe, I started to incorporate a section into the middle of my set where I would go off-script and start interacting with the audience. I discovered that if I could relax and enjoy the process, with no expectation of outcome, funny stuff would usually happen automatically. At the end of the riffing section, I would return and continue with my set. When comedians riff, it’s usually so seamless that the audience doesn’t even realize the comedian has intentionally gone off-script. Since the riffing section was clearly improvised, the audience reassesses the piece of the set that came before the riffing, and assumes that it was also brilliantly improvised. The audience then assumes that the rest of the set is improvised, which makes it even more powerful.
This approach can be applied to public speaking and to anything else in life: as we develop a certain level of mastery, it frees us to experiment on the edges of competence, to both learn and create. To do this, we need to be comfortable with toying with failure because we have to keep venturing away from the familiar comfort of our competence.
If, like many people, you’re scared of screwing-up and making mistakes, it can be helpful to sometimes intentionally make mistakes, just to see what happens. By doing this, we challenge the beliefs we hold about the way the world works. When we do something that we assume will not work, we get to explore a space that would otherwise not be visited by ourselves or by others. In the process we often discover little treasures waiting for us. What this looks like in practice is just being fucking weird every now and then. Say something weird. Move weirdly. Do something potentially embarrassing. Challenge the status quo. For example, if people at work (including you) often seem to be trying to hide the fact that they don’t understand most of what’s going on, experiment with calling that out, “I have no idea what’s going on here. Does anyone else know?” You’ll probably feel a release of tension in the room.
I have had a little bit of formal training in improvisation, and I would like to have more. Most of improvisation training involves learning to get out of your own way. You learn to go with the flow and stop blocking the process that is trying to unfold, both in yourself and with others. Having a good foundation in improvisation is also going to enhance your thorough preparation.
When things aren’t working, be transparent about it
Standup comedy is all about building-up tension in the audience and then releasing it. Humans love this experience. We get hungry and then we eat. We flirt and then we kiss. We get turned on and eventually we come (unless we’re porn stars, of course). Humans are dopamine-controlled machines, always hunting for the next hit. When someone pays to attend a comedy club, they’re no different than a junkie stopping by for a injection at a dopamine den.
With comedy, as with most things in life, the dopamine addict (any regular human) already has the drug of choice and the syringe with them. As a standup comedian, you’re just telling them when to inject it. “Okay, fill up the syringe. Okay, now insert it. Okay, now wait for it, and … press down on the plunger … now.” The audience laughs and I get a dopamine hit. It’s a weird indirect reward system where I get my dopamine fix by controlling when they get their dopamine fix.
So what happens when a joke goes wrong? What happens when a punchline doesn’t work? You deliver a punchline and the audience doesn’t laugh. For most amateur comedians, this is a terrifying situation. But it’s not really a problem, and it’s simple to correct. The audience didn’t laugh because it didn’t realize that it was supposed to. Either the joke was too complex, or the timing of the punchline was confusing, or it’s a “slow-burner” and each person is gradually getting it, or they are all distracted by a previous joke, or you’re doing something physically distracting, or the problem is one of a million other possible things. Unless the audience hates you—which I’ll talk about later—they’re desperate to laugh, and they’re waiting for your signal.
At this point, the audience is almost begging you to let them laugh. You can take all the time you want. You can stop, look confused, or squint your eyes a little. You can do whatever you want to draw this out for a long as you want. You just unintentionally slipped over a punchline deadline, so the audience is already primed to laugh and pretty much anything you do or say is going to let them release. When you finally say something, they will laugh. Don’t even try to be funny; just address what happened.
Here are some examples of what you might say when a punchline doesn’t generate a laugh,
- Well, that didn’t work.
- That joke used to work when I was younger … yesterday.
- I need to make a note to remove that joke from the set.
- By the way, that was the punchline.
- That thing I just said was supposed to make you laugh.
- Wow, I’m the only person in the room who found that funny.
Anything you say, anything that is real and authentic, will break the tension and release the laugh.
In any situation when things seem to go wrong, the most powerful thing you can do it to be transparent about it. Usually, everyone knows that there is some kind of issue. By calling it out you clear the air, and that’s the most important thing you can do.
I counseled a leader in a technology company who was confused about his role. I told him that everyone else in his organization was also confused about his role. He wondered if he should get clarity about his role before he talked with them about it. I explained that the biggest issue he faced was the disconnection with his staff, and that this elephant-in-the-room was pretty much the only thing that was getting in the way of that relationship. He needed to clear the air that they all breathed. Once he started to discuss this issue openly and honestly, there was an almost audible sigh of relief. The tension was released and he and his staff could move forward to the next challenge.
By the way, one of the most powerful roles you can fulfill as a leader is to have your finger both on your own pulse and on the pulse of the organization. By addressing what’s actually happening from moment-to-moment with and between people, from a place of good intention, you can steer the organization in the same way that a skillful standup comedian takes care of, and guides, an audience.
What does it mean when the audience is silent?
I’ve already given you a specific example of audience silence, so I’ll start by talking about that. I’ve explained in detail why an audience would be silent following a punchline, and what to do about it. It might just be that the joke was crap, in which case, “That really was a crap joke” is going to garner some laughs, and a follow-up improvised punchline like “I’m really sorry” is probably going to produce even more. I could head-off down a long path with this, being self-deprecating and apologetic about how terrible my jokes are and how much of a failed standup comedian I am. I could develop that into a whole section of a set. One of the reasons that I could do that, and that it would probably work, is that I have a tendency to collapse and self-berate. If I can bring self-awareness to that, and share it with the audience, then at the same time as releasing the tension by signaling that it’s time to laugh, I can also address the elephant in the room: I tend to self-flagellate.
This is one reason that comedians often start their sets by addressing the obvious elephants in the room. A comic with one leg will joke about it. A comic with a strange accent will say something funny about that. This removes the impediment that might get in the way of unbridled laughter later. You don’t want the audience members to be thinking, “I want to laugh, but I don’t want to laugh at a disabled person.”
Similarly, as a leader, you don’t want your staff to be thinking, “I want to work late on solving this difficult technical problem, but I’m not sure if my manager recognizes and appreciates good work.” Either let your staff explicitly know that you don’t appreciate good work, so that the best of them can move to another organization where their skills are appreciated, or make it crystal clear that you do in fact appreciate good work, so that they can focus 100% on producing it.
What’s not funny is a defensive lack of self-awareness, which can actually be very scary when it’s aggressive. A psychotherapeutic patient will transfer the feelings they have towards an early primary caregiver onto a therapist, particularly when the therapist is intentionally (or unintentionally) providing a “blank slate” by not responding. Initially, a patient might see their therapist as a perfect and omnipotent god, like a very young child perceives its mother. Later, when the therapist does something that appears to threaten the child’s sense of safety or sense of self, such as going on vacation, the patient may suddenly become disproportionately angry, and begin figuratively—or even literally—screaming like a baby that is not being fed. This is called transference. All of us are experiencing transference nearly all of the time, but it’s especially apparent in situations that demand intimacy and involve power, such as romantic relationships, manager-employee dynamics, psychotherapy, and stage performances (and particularly standup comedy). I have included a link at the end of this article to a video in which I talk more about transference.
I have witnessed more than one amateur stand-up comedian “die” on stage. The audience stopped laughing, the comedian seemed to have negative transference with the audience, and then he (and it’s usually a he) started to get aggressive with them. In one example I’m thinking of, many negative feelings from early childhood seemed to arise, the comic must have regressed and felt scared, and then he became both defensive and aggressive. He started to say really nasty things to the audience, things that made me cringe. He started berating the audience, treating them as he was probably treating himself internally. This audience, this collective being, was simply confused and quiet, listening patiently, wanting to laugh. I believe that we were all very willing and that we kept trying to like him, but it was as if he was compelled by an unconscious self-destructive drive to re-enact his early trauma with us. After a while, individuals from the audience started to speak up to protect us. An argument—a fight even—started between the comic and the audience. Needless to say, that wasn’t an effective standup comedy performance.
When an audience is quiet, they are listening. If that confuses you, then you could mention it. “You’re all very quiet. Did you know that this is a comedy club and not a library?” This is poking fun at the audience, but it’s not nasty. “It’s actually my fault that you’re not laughing … just in case you didn’t realize.” This is taking responsibility and being playful and engaging. And now I’m creating new material:
But just so you know, when you’re in a library and you’re not laughing, it’s not the librarian’s fault.
Don’t complain about it.
That’ll disturb other people.
Do what I did: write it on a feedback form.
and put it into the “how are we doing?” box.
“I sat here all day and I didn’t laugh once.”
“At some point I’m going to stop coming back.”
“Then you’ll be sorry.”
There are harder things for a comedian to deal with than a silent audience. Hecklers are not even the hardest. At least a heckler is engaging with you. One of the most challenging situations is when people start having audible conversations with each other while you’re performing. This can happen, understandably, when performing in spaces that are not intended for only standup comedy, such as the Stanford CoHo. CoHo is short for coffee house; I tried to make a joke out of that several times, but I never got it to work; For example, is it rude to refer to someone as your co-ho?
It’s even harder to be in a dedicated comedy space and to have people talking loudly. This is distracting to the people who actually do want to listen to you. If you can’t get them to stop, or make it part of the show, then it will metastasize like cancer: other tables will start having private conversations. It takes balls of steel to temporarily make the show about the talking table and your relationship with it. You have to engage with them in a non-aggressive, confident, and assertive way. “What are you guys talking about over there?” If they completely ignore you, then walk over and interview them using the microphone. The energy is going there anyway, so take it there fully. Commit fully. If they treat you like you don’t exist, and will not be quiet, then ask them to leave and possibly even have security escort them out.
The secret to great performances is to not take things personally, but to fully engage with what is happening. This is also the secret to achieving great things in all areas of life. It takes great courage to fully engage with what is actually happening. You need to be confident in your own perception of the world, and you have to value your own voice. The more you engage with the world, the more challenges it presents to you, and the harder it is to not react. Stick with what you’re experiencing: “I hear silence. What are we listening for?” or “You guys are talking with each other while I’m on stage trying to make people laugh. Is your talking supposed to be funny?” You can ask these questions either internally or externally. We thrive in life when we seek to engage fully with what is actually happening, not with what we assume is happening, not with what fear is happening, not with the false narratives that we lazily allow to play uninterrupted in the privacy of our own minds.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Jensen Huang is the billionaire CEO of NVIDIA (pronounced en-VID-eeə), the leading developer of artificial intelligence accelerator chips. I was an early employee of that company. Jensen once told me that I needed to take myself less seriously. That nugget of feedback has sat with me over the years as I have tried to understand what he meant. I have come to the conclusion that, for me, this means to try less hard. This is paradoxical and counterintuitive because NVIDIA’s company culture values execution above everything else. Even though I was always a top performer at NVIDIA, I applied immense pressure to myself to get more done and to produce higher quality work. Michael Nagy, the manager of the Microsoft XBox GPU project, once told me that he didn’t expect me to “pull a rabbit out of [a] hat,” meaning that I didn’t need to pressure myself to achieve the impossible. I used to think that my insane drive for perfect execution was a good thing, but I have since realized that it creates stress, reduces productivity, and leads to lower quality work. I have been relatively successful in spite of it. Instead, I have learned that the most effective way to succeed is to have fun and to be playful.
I was doing really well in the Ninth Annual Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Competition. I got into the final round against two excellent comics: Nick Aragon (who won second place) and Shanti Charan (who won first place). I may have come third because the other comics were simply more capable than me, but it may also have been because my performance fell apart in the final; it was a shadow of what it had been in the earlier rounds.
Up until the final, I had been enjoying the performances, playing with them. All I had to do was show up and have fun. I engaged deeply in practice but when I got on stage I just let it flow; I was not concerned about winning or losing. However, when I got into the final, I started to realize that I could become a professional standup comedian. If I won, I would be emceeing for a week at Rooster T. Feathers. This was getting serious. Now the stakes were high and I was focused on winning. When I went on stage, I was nervous and sweating. My voice was shaky. I was having trouble thinking clearly. Because I was finding it hard to remember my set, I was feeling even more nervous. Sweat started running down my face. Each time I forgot what came next in my set, I used audience riffing to cover my tracks. This worked for a while but started to break down as I couldn’t both hide how poorly I thought I was doing and also stay authentic. I screwed-up that performance because I was trying too hard and because I was too concerned about the outcome.
This is the biggest lesson I learned from standup comedy: the more you can focus on the process and not on the outcome, the more sustainably successful you will be. I wrote about this extensively in How to Become World-Class at Anything, a viral article that has been read by 34-thousand people so far.
I started doing standup comedy for the love of it. I enjoyed entertaining a crowd and making people laugh. I relished the mental, physical, and emotional challenges of co-creating a compelling live experience with a large group of people. However, I also realized that I have a compulsion to become world-class at anything I do. This compulsion led to me focusing on standup comedy myopically. I realized that I would need to spend a lot of my time working on becoming a professional standup comedian, and I also realized that I didn’t want to become one. I didn’t want to spend three or more nights per week on long road trips around Northern California, performing 20-minute professional sets for $200-a-pop. I realized that I could take everything I learned from standup comedy and utilize it in areas that held more interest for me, such as business leadership and speaking about mental health and wellbeing.
I take my hat off to the people who persist through the process of becoming professional standup comedians. Even though some do attain superstar status, it’s often a poorly paid and relatively thankless profession, while being mind-bogglingly challenging.
Ironically, after writing this article I feel a strong compulsion to perform standup comedy again. I hope that you can join me on my journey, whether I perform comedy again or not.
- Here is a video of my performance in the preliminary round of the Ninth Annual Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Competition. This is the highest quality video I could find from that competition. Unfortunately, the camera was not aligned optimally.
- Joe Klocek, who taught me how to riff with an audience, deals with a heckler masterfully in this video.
- Here is a video of me talking about transference, one of the most important concepts in psychotherapy, and in life.
You might enjoy the following compact guide that I wrote, which explains how to be funny: