Some old friends are coming to watch me perform at my next stand-up gig. I can’t wait. I haven’t seen them in a long time, and catching up with some laughs is going to be a great time.
But I do feel a little added pressure performing in front of people I know.
I’m not afraid that I’ll bomb. I’m pretty confident in my act and my stage presence. The problem is that my friends have known me since elementary school. And they guy I turn into when I’m talking on stage – he’s not me.
That’s a problem.
Having a disconnect between one’s natural, funny self, and one’s performance self is a common hurdle many beginning comics have to overcome. In the old days, comedians had a persona. Groucho Marx was cerebral and chaotic. Jack Benny was cheap. Milton Berle was, well, cheap. And stole jokes. (Not really, but that was part of his persona. He had a great line about it, too, and said a comic he saw made him laugh so hard, he dropped his notebook).
Then Lenny Bruce came along, and changed everything. He didn’t go up on stage as
some wacky guy in weird clothes. He was Lenny Bruce. Real, true and honest. He even went to jail for that honesty as some did not take kindly to him poking holes in society’s hypocrisies.
Without Lenny Bruce’s influence, George Carlin may have spent his career as the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman. Funny? Of course! Honest, and plumbing the depths of his comedic potential? No.
There is no better way to be a unique comic than to be honest and open about your life and outlook on the world.
The great Richard Lewis paces the stage, like a caged beast ravaged by insecurities and the memory of an overbearing, suffocating mother. By all accounts, he’s the same person offstage, just toned down a bit.
And Richard Pryor was so honest and so vulnerable, completely spilling his guts on stage, even talking about his heart attack and the time he set himself on fire while freebasing.
Painful. Honest. Funny.
Jay Sankey, author of “Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy,” wrote that a good
stage persona is you, times 15. The great comics don’t think about persona. They don’t start off by asking “what’s funny about this topic?” They start by telling the truth – no matter how angry the subject makes them, or how embarrassing or painful it is. Sankey also said the more personal something is, the more universal it is, too. When you dig deep down far enough, we’re all the same.
Learning how to be me is going to be a challenge. But as a comic, and I guess in all areas of your life, you should be challenging yourself. That’s how you grow.
Learning how to be me all starts with telling the truth.