Stand-Up Guy of the Day: The always-amazing Louis C.K. performs some new jokes on last night’s Letterman — his first Late Show appearance in 15 years.
We support all things Louis CK-related.
During applause breaks I desperately wanted the audience to shut up so I could hear what he had to say next.
Here’s an essay by Alex Mann, musing on his first time on stage. The essay definitely rings true for most comedians starting out, so give it a read. Alex can be found on his Twitter page. Here’s the essay:
Five blocks away. I walked at an even pace down the sidewalk, speeding up to cross intersections before cars received their green light. I approached an intersection as the light turned red. I made my move: one step forward. The cab made his: rolling a few inches. I retreated to the curb. The cab sped ahead, taking a small victory.
I glanced down at the piece of paper as I walked. It was printed with even rows of text, each line a separate idea I would riff on. It was my set, my bits, my jokes and my gags. My goal was to make a bar full of strangers laugh, and just for a few minutes at a time, loosen their grip on reality. I looked down at the paper, and then back up to make sure I didn’t walk into someone: I spotted packs of men and women in their suits and dresses on cell phones making plans for the evening, looking for relief. I was in my work clothes, t-shirt and jeans, also looking for a sense of relief. Eyes back down on the paper. I read sentences, already memorized. I wanted to read them again. Just in case.
If you forget something while you’re up there, take out the paper and have a look. That’s what everyone did last time. That’s what open mics are for: practice. No, no, that’s amateurish. You’ll seem vulnerable and no one will laugh.
Four blocks away. Paper still in my hand, but down at my side, folding against my jeans with each step. I ran through my routine (can something be your routine if you haven’t done it before?) in my head, counting 1, 2, 3 before delivering a punchline to an audience that wouldn’t exist for another 20 minutes. The stories and set ups were easy; They were just like a regular conversation. Punchlines were more difficult. Infinite ways to deliver, only a few ways to get a laugh. The 1, 2, 3 pause before a punchline…creates tension. In a few seconds of silence…the ears tense and wait. Relief was the reward for patience.
You’re only going to be up there for six minutes. Depending on how quickly you get your first laugh — if you get one at all — it will either feel a lot longer or shorter. Don’t try to seem cool. Just go up there and do it like you practiced.
Three blocks away. The paper was now stuffed in my back pocket. I made a detour at a Wells Fargo to use the ATM. The bank was styled like a McDonald’s: glistening reds and cheap, plastic yellows. There’s a joke here somewhere. A bank that’s like McDonald’s… Storing the thought for later, I took a twenty from the ATM. $5 to perform; A small cost for a new experience.
Don’t forget to introduce yourself once you step on stage. Your name is easy to remember, and if for some reason you do well, you’ll want them to know it. Do I introduce myself before and after, or just before or just after? Wait to see if the host introduces you, and then decide.
Two blocks away. Headphones on. Take the mind in another direction,. Music on. The blues. Comedians are supposed to be sad, right?
The link between music and comedy. In music, a verse builds tension, and a repetitive, catchy chorus relieves the tension. In comedy, a story or setup builds tension, and a punchline relieves the tension.
One block away. I quickened my pace and approached the club. A guy stood outside puffing a half-burned cigarette. I removed one headphone, looked at him, and reached to my pocket to grab my wallet for my ID. Nevermind. He wasn’t a bouncer; He was a patron temporarily trading his beer for a cigarette. I walked past him and entered the club.
I walked to the back of the bar and pushed away a draped black curtain. The room, revealed. Brick walls, bare except for two chalkboards with the week’s schedule. Tomorrow night was trivia night. One bright light — the spotlight — lit the corner stage. I paid my fee at the door.
“Yeah, I’m here to perform.” My name was scribbled on the bottom of the list. “That’s Mann with with two n’s,” I said correcting her. I took a seat on the metal folding chair in the back of the room.
The jokes about shit and dicks and porn always work, but are easy. I can make Jewish jokes because I’m Jewish, right? Seinfeld did. Most Jewish comedians do.
I chipped away at my nails, and a pile nail debris formed by my sneakers. I kicked the pile and sat on my hands. I wasn’t paying attention to the comedian on stage; I was only anticipating my turn.
I hope I didn’t have my routine too memorized. Canned material never sounded right, only when Carlin did it. My bin Laden bit is a little dated by now, but the cab driver I told it to the other night still laughed. He was Middle Eastern.
Brendan went on stage. He placed a voice recorder on his chair before going up. Brendan is friend and has been performing for about a year. He seemed relaxed, almost bored, greeting the host like he did each week previously. He forgot his new bit half way through his routine and transitioned to the bit about the time he threw up in the back of the cab. Most of Brendan’s bits are about alcohol. He’s Irish, with red hair. It works for him; It wouldn’t work for me.
Hopefully the audience is intelligent, cerebral enough to pick up on my references. What if they don’t know who Anne Frank is? That joke I have won’t work if they don’t.
I tapped the host, who had taken a seat in front of me after introducing Brendan.
“Hey man, it’s my first time doing this. Mind giving me some feedback after my set?”
He turned his neck towards me, but not his body. Concerned, he asked, “It’s your first time on stage?”
“Yes, well, no. It’s my first time on stage doing standup. I’ve done improv comedy and given speeches…”
“You gotta wait until I see you a few times before I give you any feedback.”
He turned his head back towards the stage. He was either being honest, or wanted me coming back again and again. Probably both. Brendan left the stage and sat down. The host went back up and grabbed the mic.
I was called up. My turn.
“Good luck, dude,” Brendan said.
Performing for the first time felt like drowning. Trapped, stiff, tense. Each laugh from the audience would be a gulp of air. Get enough laughs and you can breathe, maybe swim to the surface.
I made eye contact with a few members of the audience. I had my jokes memorized, but I threw in some “well, what else do I want to talk about?” to make it seem less so. The non-sequitors helped me relax.
Jokes are math. Add the right variables together and you’ll get laughs.
The room was filled with sad people, or so it seemed, which is more obvious once you are on stage. No smiles until right after joke. Everyone was slouching, beer sipping. Because the audience was made up of other comedians, everyone was on the defensive. “Go ahead, try to make me laugh” is the attitude. Everyone anticipating the other guy’s punchline.
The host gave me my red light when I hit the 6 minutes mark: An open cell phone flashed in my line of vision. I was only ¾’s of the way through my material.
Too much. Better than not enough.
I put the mic stand back in its original position and hopped off stage back to my seat. Brendan nodded, but didn’t make eye contact. “You did well,” he said, staring at the empty stage.
I approached the host again at the end of the show and asked how I did. He hesitated, then relented. “It was good that you took the mic off the stand and put it behind you. It lets the audience know, you know, that you mean business.”
Some comedian once said there is no practicing in comedy. The only way to get better is to go do it. It’s like boxing; You’ve got to get jabbed in the face a few times until you get better.