Lessons Learned from Doing Stand-Up Comedy

In August, I decided I wanted to add more humor to my content-rich presentations. I can be funny among friends, but I was having trouble finding humor for my keynotes and trainings.

I researched nearby stand-up comedy classes starting around Oct. 1. However, my friend Jeanne Robertson encouraged me to enter a video for her annual comedy competition — with a Sept. 9 deadline. Not being a professional humorist, I had only one five-year-old video of my doing a funny bit in front of about 30 friends. I had no illusions of ever winning, but thought, “What the heck.”

Imagine my surprise to receive notification in Sept. that I was a finalist! Several of my more experienced humorist friends did not make it that far. This emboldened me to start the class with confidence. Our 4-week class was to culminate in a five-minute set in front of our friends at a real comedy club.

The class was difficult, as the other 14 “comedians” and instructor were a tough audience, laughing at little. They were too busy making notes of what I could do better so weren’t laughing.

On Oct. 30, I gave my first open mic in a coffee shop, not in front of my classmates. The audience laughed at lines that didn’t get a response in class. This allowed me to be more confident during our Nov. 2 graduation performance. I felt great, even though I forgot 1 minute of my 5-minute set.

Also in Oct., I signed up for a “booked” (sign up in advance) open mic at a comedy club with only 12 comics as well as paying customers. (We did not get paid, however.) The performance was for Nov. 20, three weeks after my very first open mic,

Here are some thoughts:

  • Stand-up is (to me and others) the hardest humor to perfect, both writing and delivery. It’s got a rhythm — setup, punchline. I’m told professionals have a laugh every 6-18 seconds. That’s hard.
  • If you want to add more humor to your talks, it’s good to craft as much as you can beforehand. Yes, in the moment quips get great laughs, as the audience knows they are off the cuff. But pre-crafted humor can also get laughs.
  • I find it best to brainstorm with a friend who shares your sense of humor. While the comedy class was good for comedy structure, the feedback from the instructor and my classmates was nearly useless as our ideas of what is funny was very different. It’s important to only include in your talk things that you find funny or it will seem inauthentic.
  • I’ve also learned that what I think is funny isn’t necessarily funny to audiences. That’s why you want to try it on a pal first, then on unsuspecting audiences. Don’t go into an untested humor routine when you give your report to your boss or the board. The humor has to be relevant to your topic.
  • I’m finding an unexpected benefit of this exercise is how creative and invigorating it is to note experiences, both past and present, that I think have humor potential. I log these, then I batch together the ones on a similar topic into a “bit” — a paragraph or two with the setup/punchline rhythm. Eventually, I bundle several of these bits into a few minutes of a routine. Then I work to shave off words, make the punchline more pithy, and memorize it. Then I head to a local open mic to see how an audience responds. I record it so I know where the best laughs come and edit out the dud parts.

All of this takes work, but so does anything you want to learn and get good at. Will I ever be a professional comedian? Probably not. At the very least, I will make my corporate talks funnier. And if I do put together 20-30 minutes of clean humor (I only do clean humor), I will have an after-lunch program to offer my clients.

Here’s my Nov. 20 set