When people find out you’re a stand-up comic, the most common reaction is, “I can’t do that. I get so nervous in front of people.” I was talking to a friend about getting nervous before shows, and I told her that I don’t get nervous. But after reflecting, I realize that while spiritually accurate, that’s not entirely true.
I’ve performed in front of audiences of a thousand in a casino’s theater, and an audience of one in a small ice cream parlor, and I honestly enjoy it every time. The nervousness I feel isn’t a fear that I’m going to lock up, forget my set, or bomb. I’ve done all of those, more than once, and I know that I’ll recover. I’m good at this. An off night doesn’t change anything.
I’d Rather Bomb Than Be Predictable
I do get nervous though. I’m nervous about being too mechanical in my execution. I’m nervous about not being fully present in the moment on stage. I’m nervous that I won’t make the connection I want with at least one person in the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, this is all about getting laughs first. But, after you’ve been doing it awhile, you learn it’s easy to get a laugh. It’s a little harder when you care about what you say in order to get that laugh, but not much. There are a number of tried and true formulas to it. After watching myself for thousands of hours, I know the formula I tend to rely on is this:
(Relatable Premise + Absurd Misdirection) x Pregnant Pause = Laugh
It works every god damn time. Math is math.
But that’s not all I want. I want a connection to the audience. I want that invisible filament that forms between my head and their heart. I want them to laugh, but I don’t just want the autonomic response. I want them to remember why they laughed.
I’m not knocking the formula. I’ve worked with comics who just do the math and kill every time. They’ve made careers out of it, and I absolutely find many of them funny. Also, god bless that formula, because sometimes you’d rather be in bed than in a VFW hall in the middle of Nebraska, and that formula is the only thing stopping you from a 20 minute rant about the confederate flag you saw displayed on a church as you drove into town. The formula guarantees you get paid.
But any time I get to just talk to the audience, and tell them these stories I love, I remember why I wanted to do this in the first place.
So, I get nervous. I’m nervous that I’ll just be kind of ordinary.