This is my favorite question that’s ever been sent to this tumblr. It’s been in the inbox for months as I formulate my thoughts on how to answer it. Tonight I’m home with the flu and it seems like as good a time as any to buckle down and try to give my honest opinion on this one.
First off - I don’t think of myself as a very funny person.
Secondly - I will answer this from the perspective of how I teach my improv classes. And it’s important to note that no class can teach you how to be funny. If you ever sign up for a class of any sort that claims they will teach you how to be funny, they are stealing your money. Don’t take it. Teaching improv is teaching comedic acting and there is a difference. People with funny in their bones can be taught how to embrace it, and people in general can be taught how to get more comfortable on stage, work with an ensemble, become more in tuned listeners, and make bolder more active choices that better reflect their comedic goals on stage.
So I’m excited to answer this question, because I think I’m not funny. I see myself as pretty quiet and dreadfully boring. But I’m regarded as a funny person, and I’ve paid my rent through comedic acting and writing for many years now. So I should have some perspective on how to be funny.
Your question is phrased so interestingly. How do I stop TRYING to be funny and ACTUALLY BE funny. Just by asking this question, I feel like you’re already on your way to the right attitude and mentality. 90% of the time, “Stop trying so hard” is the problem. People overreaching, hamming it up, hitting the joke so hard on the head you’re indicating to the audience that you want them to laugh - which makes them not want to laugh - etc.
So you’re asking the complete correct question. That’s great news. It sounds like you’re a performer of some experience who feels like you’ve hit a ceiling and you want to bust through it. That’s a frustrating but very good place to get to - most people quit before they feel these frustrations, so kudos to you.
So let me try to throw down some practical advice on how to stop trying so hard and let the funny come to you -
1) Chill the fuck out. Panic leads to panic driven choices on stage. Take a breath, retain your composure, and know that staying calm in the face of a situation where you feel a crowd giving up takes you a long way. The worse that happens if you get on stage and don’t get a laugh is that you walk off stage and less people tell you “good job”. Which leads me to -
2) Recognize that failure is your friend. If you never fail, you are either the most naturally blessed performer of all time - which it sounds like is not the case based on your having sent this message - or you’re staying in a comfort zone. Every time you fail, you learn. Every time you learn, you grow. Every time you grow, you get closer to being who you want to be on stage and in life. Crave failure. Run headfirst into it so you can plow through it faster.
3) Say what you want to say, not what you think anyone wants to hear. I am of the opinion that if we give an audience the joke they think they want, the large majority of the time we’re going to wind up making lowest common denominator jokes. If your goal is to make the audience laugh by any means necessary, you might often find yourself handcuffed to their shitty mob mentality. If you’re committed to making them laugh at the things you want them to laugh at instead, you get into that zone where your comedy can be rooted in your preferences, experiences, and opinions - and their laughter becomes an indicator that they agree on some level with the stuff you’re putting out there. To me that always feels like victory. One of my favorite improv notes comes from a teacher in Chicago who said “Play for the stage, not for the seats.” That seems to apply to most types of comedy I’ve done, in my opinion - your worry should be about the stage - the laughter emanating from the seats is a result of your choices, not the guide to them.
I’d rather not get a laugh saying something that I feel is honest, that I believe in, than get a laugh spouting off some dumb bullshit I know is false or cheap.
4) Listen - Diarrhea of the mouth often gets in the way of our laughs, and it’s a huge signifier of trying too hard. If you are worried about nothing but getting laughs, a lot of time you’ll find yourself rambling until you get a laugh. But by the time you get there, you’ve spat out so much information that you’re ensnared in this verbal web you’re accountable for. You tangle yourself up, you burn up way too much fuel, getting to one little laugh. Restraint, quiet, listening, playing with the negative space - these will help you stay out of your own way more often. In improv, listening means hearing/watching/anticipating what your fellow actors are going for on stage. I’m a much less veteran stand up, but in my experience so far, you can listen to the flow of your own joke and look for places to let things sit, listen to the audience and their temperament and where you can push or pull at them. I have one story I’ve been telling on stage for years and I just figured out how to get a big laugh off of a part that never got a laugh not by adding any new info but by taking pauses. This is because I’ve learned the words so backwards and forwards that I can now focus on navigating the audience themselves instead of just remembering the content. It’s all listening.
I hope those help! Those are some of the things I’ve committed to along the way in my journey that worked for me. Maybe they’ll work for you too.
Good luck -
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