October 15, 2013

8 Life Lessons from a Stand-Up Comic. ~ Mary Tribble

Photo:David Huff

I enrolled in comedy class because the idea of it scared me to death.

It was a giant step outside of my comfort zone. For six weeks, 12 novice comics would learn the secrets of writing and delivering a comedic routine, culminating in a death-defying three-minute performance in front of 200 friends and strangers.

I have no plans for a stand-up career—I simply wanted to find a project that would teach me something while rattling my cage in a new way. When I signed up, I assumed I would learn a new skill. What I didn’t know was how many life lessons would be there for the taking.

1. Unwrap the mystery.

I have been speaking professionally for over 15 years, but the thought of stand up comedy made my palms sweat. On each class day, my blood pressure crept up as class time neared. After a few weeks, though, the anxiety abated. As our instructors explained the science of stand up comedy, the mystery was revealed and the fear went away. Whatever it is you fear, investigate it—with a class, a conversation or a book on the topic. Unwrapping the mystery will help you overcome your anxiety.

2. Use your super powers.

During the run of the class, our teachers instructed us to keep a small notebook handy to jot down anything we encountered during the day that might be added to our set. And they checked our notebooks every week to be sure we had done our homework. What resulted was a heightened sense of awareness—of everything I saw and everyone I met. Look up from your smartphone, and use your observational super powers to really notice what’s going on around you. You’ll find beauty or irony in nearly every moment.

3. A good defense is not always the best offense.

The best students in comedy class were the ones who took the teacher’s coaching with curiosity and grace. They didn’t waste time defending a flaccid joke; they listened to why it didn’t work and rewrote accordingly. The one person who continually refused feedback was the comic who bombed on graduation night. If you spend your life defending yourself, you’ll likely drown out the voices that you really need to hear.

4. Unpack your story.

In real life, we like to jump to the end of a story. “I won the gold medal!”  “I got into Stanford!” “I did stand-up!”—ln comedy, we are taught to unpack our stories. An incident that may take 15 seconds to tell to your roommate can become a five-minute comedy routine if you add in all the funny and insightful details along the way. There is gold in the little details of our lives. Spend some time panning for it.

5. Find your unique voice.

Ripping off someone else’s material is the kiss of death in comedy. There are countless stories of rising stars that were shunned when they started stealing jokes. The same goes for life. Own your own personhood and share it with others. Trying to imitate other people will only result in disappointment for you and everyone around you.

6. Count your laughs per minute.

Who knew that comedy included math? The formula for success on stage is to get an average of eight laughs per minute. During rehearsals, a fellow student would count the laughs to see if we met our goal. That practice heightened my awareness of the number of laughs I enjoyed over the course of my day. Laughter is good for the body—it reduces stress and releases endorphins, creating a sense of wellbeing. Increase your daily output by surrounding yourself with people who make you laugh.

Photo:David Huff

7. Do the work to create success.

Writing three minutes of a tight comedy set can take days. Memorizing it and delivering it with just the right inflection can take weeks. The idea of comedy sounds like fun; the reality of pulling it off is like anything worth having in life—it’s hard work. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve success in any field. So stop daydreaming about being great at something. Do the work to get there.

8. Slow down and enjoy the journey.

During the long weeks of rehearsal, I was so nervous that I rushed through my set so I could get off stage as quickly as possible. On graduation night, however, I decided to slow down and enjoy the moment. Never again would I have such a forgiving audience—everyone there came to support their friends and family.  And they laughed. A lot. I stood there and soaked it in, waiting a beat before going on to the next joke. Don’t be in such a hurry to get off the stage of your life. Take a deep breath and appreciate every laugh along the way.

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Assistant Ed: Judith Andersson / Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Mary Tribble