#WritingWednesday What Can We Learn from Standup?

The other day I began watching Pete Holmes' comedy special Faces and Sounds on HBO. Sometimes I will play something in the background as sound to mask other, the more distracting central air, refrigerator, and old house noises. Pete Holmes quickly had my full attention. His incredible facial reactions and self-deprecating humour won me over. Something that is unique about his special in this era of Chappelle, Silverman, Minaj, Maron, Hart, Schumer ... and that is how clean his comedy was. I love shock controversy, I love comedy, but sometimes it's refreshing to find laughter in something that doesn't require me to throw my relatives out of the room beforehand. 

Something He Said Stayed With Me:

"I'm a silly, silly fun boy, right?"

Well, that was so adorable I perked up and stopped working in order to listen.

"And one of the reasons is I've recalibrated my brain to reward me for the things I am doing, not the things I could be doing. And that's what I think you should do, that's one of the keys to happiness, love yourself for the things you are doing, not the things you could be doing [....] I don't mess with my joy quota [....] you gotta keep an eye on your joy quota"

This got me thinking about my own "joy quota." When do I intentionally gift myself moments of pleasure with intention and fully experiencing them in order to make a deposit into my joy account and truly allowing myself to laugh or feel joyful.

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I sat down and tried to come up with a few:

  • Getting silly with my husband and giggling until my face hurts
  • My father-in-law's deceptively outrageous sense of humour
  • Shuffling my bare feet through carpet
  • Listening to this guy's ridiculous laugh (at 1:08:48)
  • Sitting in a hot tub, or better yet, attending a traditional Korean bath/spa
  • Creating art with my hands
  • Stretching in bed following a rare, long, deep sleep
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Listening to the 2 Dope Queens podcast
  • Standup comedy by Aparna Nancherla and Issa Rae
  • Thomas Haden Church in Divorce
  • Stephen Merchant in Hello Ladies
  • Pete Holmes in Crashing
  • Eugene Levy, his son Dan Levy, and Catherine O'Hara in Schitt's Creek

I love looking at these photos because I don't often get to see myself in the midst of experiencing joy. Not a posed selfie representation, but being captured in the midst of a spontaneous reaction. It reminds me that the right people bring out the best in me.

 

Standup comedy has a lot to teach writers of all persuasions. Most comedians are writers first and foremost, sweating over the wording of each joke in preparation for bringing those jokes to the stage and utilising body language, pace, pauses, pitch, inflection, emphasis, and a range of public speaking skills to connect with the audience and create a performance.

Comedians train themselves to be observers and writers - both requiring attention to detail. They typically look to their own experiences and interactions as raw material. They listen closely to how people speak in real life and record dialogue to use later. They understand that simply changing the order that information is given or the order of words will change something from an anecdote to an act.

Comedians must also understand human behaviour. In observing the world around them, in crafting their jokes, and in connecting with their audiences their comedy is only as good as their ability to "get it". Is anything as immediate as the feedback one gets from a set in front of an audience? While I have never done a standup as a comedian, in the course of MCing I have written and performed sets designed to elicit laughter. It can really be hit or miss at times, a joke that I have been gloating over is met with silence in the room. Something I throw out there off the top of my head requires me to pause and wait for the laughter to die down. Even in the course of conversation, notice what seems to just "work."

Comedy is about understanding the mechanics of what makes something funny in that language, which also incorporates an understanding of cultural and contextual nuance. Moroccan-French Comedian Gad Elmaleh is a celebrity in Europe who played to sold-out arena shows. Growing up in Morroco, Elmaleh speaks Arabic, French, and Hebrew. He decided to create a career in America, in English, which meant starting over.

Elmaleh made a film "10 Minutes in America," documenting his experience. The film explores how comedy doesn't translate, it is much more than simply transferring each word into the new language, jokes must be crafted from the ground up.

Comedians Must Have Deep Knowledge of: 

  • Language - including puns, turns of phrase, and the mechanics of what makes something funny
  • Body language and facial expressions
  • Verbal gesticulations - a well-placed sound can put an audience in stitches
  • Cultural sensibilities - including cliches and stereotypes
  • Specific audience - the community, the venue, the night

Writing Practice

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A. Exercise 1:

This week, listen and/or watch some comedians and play close attention to their set-ups and wording. Better yet, compare a comedian telling the same joke during a different performance. Notice how the order of words are changed in order to become more effective jokes or how segues evolve to better introduce the new subject matter.

B. Exercise 2:

  1. Pick a short personal story that you like or have told to friends and family.
  2. Write it out, aiming for around 250 words.
  3. Now use 100 words to tell the story.
  4. Then tell it in 50 words.
  5. Now 25 words. 
  6. Write it using 140 characters.

Achieving a full stand-up routine is so difficult because a successful set is so condensed. Amateur comedians (and writers) often have extraneous detail that derails the joke, lowers the energy, or occludes the narrative. Learning to generate material and then filter and compress it is a powerful skill. Learning to be concise and to choose each word for its ability to convey meaning will transform your writing. 

C. Exercise 3:

Pick a story out of the newspaper and cast yourself in the story. For example, a government turns into a metaphor for a dysfunctional family, a silly local incident becomes something your cousin did, an episode involving a celebrity mirrors something you have done. Do not try to be funny, just go for 10.

 

Further Resources

Gold Comedy

 

Whatever your aims, we can aid you in achieving your goals with our individualised approach and flexible sessions. Contact us:

 


Success Is...

With the beginning of a new year, it is common to take stock and set goals for the months ahead. An important aspect of this process is to understand the elements of what ensures success. There are six skills that successful people excel at and you can develop to ensure your success. This framework shapes the Vibrance philosophy and influences how we teach our clients.

 

1. Grit

Grit is a marathon, not a sprint
— Angela Lee Duckworth
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The foundation for success is grit. Grit means having the motivation to work toward your goals, the perseverance to keep going when things get difficult, and the passion to keep your heart and soul in the work. As Duckworth argues, Grit is key to success.

Impress this on your mind: grit is not based on talent or intelligence. In fact, those with talent may become complacent, preferring to coast along thinking they can fool everyone. Despite being intelligent, individuals may be ill-equipped with problem-solving skills to meet challenges and setbacks. Grit will get you where you are determined to go, and the skills you acquire along the way will make you more successful at success.

 Part of grit is developing a growth mindset. This contrasts with a fixed mindset, the belief that failure must be avoided at all costs because it reflects a failure of the individual's intelligence or character. A growth mindset acknowledges that the human mind is plastic. It adapts and changes all the time. This means that we always have the ability to learn if we put in the effort and grow our passion for learning. Think of what you would teach a child, that they are not a failure, but rather their plan was not adequate to meet the demands of the situation or that they have not yet acquired all the skills they need to meet the challenge. Failure is never permanent if you cultivate a growth mindset. 

My husband has an incredible a growth mindset and I learn much from his example. He was raised with the ADB philosophy, Always Do Your Best. The outcome was less important than process as long as he was doing his best. If he knew that he was and learning along the way he was realizing his potential. My husband has taught me that there is always a solution, one simply needs to find it.

 

2. Discipline

Discipline builds on your gritty foundation. To succeed at anything you must put in the time. More than that, it must be quality, focused time. You cannot phone it in. You must be fully present and bring your complete concentration to the activity.

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For some endeavors, this takes the form of practice. Remember Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours of diligent practice? This is certainly part of the puzzle in situations with stable structures and unchanging rules. Individuals must also be good at practicing and know how they best learn. This means constantly building skills and aptitude, raising the bar constantly so that there is failure at times, and having a feedback loop in order to perceive areas for improvement and to take appropriate action (think of dancers practicing with a mirror or artists attending a weekly class).

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I like to use sports analogies because people understand that athletics entail effort, challenge, focus, hours, practice, and difficulty - elements that some are less willing to apply to other areas of their lives. A person gets stronger quickly at the gym by lifting heavy weights until failure (8-12 reps) meaning their muscles simply cannot complete the exercise with full range and structural integrity. They will use the mirror, peer feedback, and video recordings to improve their form. They will follow a regime that challenges them mentally and physically while ensuring adequate recovery and nutrition to maintain progress. Lastly, they will incorporate enough diversity that they stay passionate and prevent injury, tedium, and burnout. 

For other contexts where there are no set rules or constantly changing frameworks, as is often the case with creative and entrepreneurial endeavours, practice, however diligent is not the X factor, Instead, discipline may take on another form. A choreographer will get into the studio space 4-5 days a week, an artist will paint for a set number of hours a day, a writer will commit to writing a certain number of words before bed. A stockbroker building a client base may determine a quota of cold calls for the afternoon, a medical specialist may read a specific number of articles a week, an entrepreneur building a business will decide upon a minimum number of meetings a fortnight. 

Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most consistent and successful comedians in the industry. On Lifehacker, Brad Isaac relays a story regarding receiving advice from Seinfeld about becoming successful. Seinfeld has since claimed that this advice was never his to give, but the  "Seinfeld Method" remains the stuff of legend. Isaac claimed,

"[Seinfeld] said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

'After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.' ”

3. Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are often described as "soft skills" (to contrast with the "hard skills" of STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and are becoming recognized as more important than ever.

These include:

  • communication skills (verbal, non-verbal communication, listening skills)
  • emotional intelligence
  • team-working
  • negotiation, persuasion and influencing skills
  • conflict resolution
  • problem-solving and decision-making

As Cathy N. Davidson describes, 

"among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas [....]

[Google] enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs [....]

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety.  "

    Source: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/05/facial-expressions.aspx

    Source: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/05/facial-expressions.aspx

    One of the simplest ways you can develop your interpersonal skills is to slow down, listen, and observe without immediately thinking of what you want to say or of the next place to which you must run off. Try it with your friends and romantic partners, listen to them without trying to solve problems or to judge. Try it with your coworkers and notice what changes.

    Another important skill to develop is to understand facial expressions. This will allow individuals to better develop connection, rapport, and trust, in an individual's professional and personal life. Facial expressions have been found to be universal across cultures, both in interpretation and production. There are seven basic emotions, anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. This field has been widely developed by Dr. Paul Eckman. We now understand the concept of micro-expressions, involuntary responses that can be as brief as 1/30 of a second, and therefore can be a very honest portrayal of emotion. 

    Vibrance offers programs to build interpersonal skills in young people and adults.

    4. Failure (is Success)

    You will become clever through your mistakes.
    — German proverb

    Ooooof, this one is very difficult for me!

    Set time at the start of the week and month to set new goals and reassess old ones. Starting now, your aim is to fail at 20-50% of the goals you set yourself while aiming to attain 100% of them.

    This indicates that you are setting goals that are just the right challenge, with the stakes being high enough that  you must exert yourself. If failure is possible, you will work harder - within reason.

    With my school-aged students, I will often pick up a pencil, do a bicep curl, and ask "will this make me stronger quickly?"

    "No," they will say.

    "If I used a much heavier weight instead, will this make me stronger?"

    "Yes!" they exclaim.

    "If I try to pick up a truck, will I get stronger?"

    Mixed answers.

    truck.jpg

    "No, I won't because a truck is too heavy for my muscles to engage at all" (at least at this stage). If the bar is set too high, it can be demoralizing, failure seems certain. Here is where my husband offers another bit of wisdom, how do you eat an elephant? The answer?One bite at a time. Break larger tasks into manageable pieces. Maybe I cannot lift an entire truck, but I could work on flipping one of its tires, once, then twice, then ten times and more.

    That being said, ensure that you don't become attached to output or outcome. Some days may not appear productive. You may be gathering inspiration, learning a new skill,  or finding yourself going down some dead-ends before finding the right path.

    Source: http://www.escapeseriestri.com/philadelphia-escape

    Source: http://www.escapeseriestri.com/philadelphia-escape

    Another sports analogy: I attended a triathlon workshop that focused on transitions. Being new to this sport, I had not realized how much strategy and practice is involved in ensuring smooth transitions that will support your overall performance at a triathlon event! The coach reminded us to keep moving forward and to find economy in movement. When switching from the swimming to the cycling, have your equipment arranged so that you can bend down once instead of multiple times. Then move forward as you finish buckling your helmet and arranging your number. If you practice enough, you can even keep your cycling shoes clicked into your pedals and learn to fasten your shoes as you get onto the bike! Find ways to introduce economy of effort into your day and know that forward momentum (whether a slow plod or a lightning-fast sprint) is progress. Sometimes, just showing up and putting in a diligent effort is forward momentum.

    Failure is how one learns. Whenever I am embarking on a creative endeavour, it feels as if I have to fail a few times in order to figure out how I need to do it. Bring curiosity to your risks and focus on mastery instead of success. We see this in children. A toddler learning to roll over or to walk will try and fail - until they succeed. As we get older, failure is associated with shame and fear of looking incompetent to others. As adults, we must ensure that we support failure in others and facilitate reflection and learning. Perform post-mortems of your own failures without ego or shame, commit to remediating any areas in which you need to improve, and your progress will be exponential.  This is growth mindset in action.

    Embracing failure will also reduce suffering. Think of the opportunities you have missed due to fear of failure, the agony you experienced when venturing into unchartered territory resulted in a mess instead of success. How might you have changed your experience by looking for the learning opportunities in every "failure?"

     

    5. Mentorship

    In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.
    — Phil Collins
    Source: http://zelig880.com/the-power-of-mentoring

    Source: http://zelig880.com/the-power-of-mentoring

    Better yet, conduct post-mortems with a mentor. Find someone you respect, who shares some of our values, and is willing to give you their time. Ideally, this would be on a monthly basis. In health occupations, this is a common aspect of professional development. A mentor can offer you perspective, inspiration, and accountability. Be prepared to be vulnerable and transparent. Picking the right mentor is vital. They must be able to balance empathy with neutrality. Ensure that they do not shut you down or frustrate your vision, but that they still challenge you and hold you to account.

    In the future as you progress, consider mentoring others. Again, ensure this is free from your ego. We often learn best by teaching others and it supports perspective-taking. Don't become attached to your mentee's progress. In my dramaturgy course, I remember my close friend talking about the choreographer she was working with. My friend personally didn't find the performance that they were working on personally engaging however, she realized that it didn't matter. The performance wasn't her "baby." Her role was to support this choreographer in bringing forth her baby.

     

    6. Voice and Body

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    Often, my clients come to me hating the sound of their voices. Therefore, when they speak to others, it is under duress and tension. They will even say their own name apologetically or with contempt, revoking the power of their existence. Listen to your voicemail message and hear how you say your name.

    Voice teacher Roger Love rightly us to percieve our voices exist as a gift for others. If we want to speak to our selves, we can simply speak in our minds. In order to reach others, we much open our mouths.    By thinking of our voices as a gift, this moves our attention away from our selves, our nerves, our inner-talk so we can focus on reaching the other person and reading their responses.

    People may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. The way that you speak informs your listeners as to whether they consider you a knowledgeable and trustworthy person. For example, if I end every statement as if I am asking a question, I am unlikely to convince a client that I know what I am doing or have anything useful to teach them. If I use a monotone speaking voice, I am unlikely to maintain a client's attention long enough for them to retain any information I am trying to share.

    The body, breath, and voice are inexorably linked. Amy Cuddy's research focusses on the way that body language impacts our body chemistry, the way we see ourselves, and the way we are seen. In training the body and voice we can transform our lives. 

    Peter Strick's research uncovered evidence indicating that our stress responses are tied to the primary sensory and motor cortices through complex networks:

    "The motor areas in the brain connect to the adrenal glands. In the primary motor cortex of the brain, there’s a map of the human body—areas that correspond to the face, arm, and leg area, as well as a region that controls the axial body muscles (known to many people now as 'the core').

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    The Pitt team didn't think the primary motor cortex would control the adrenal medulla at all. But there are a whole lot of neurons there that do. And when you look at where those neurons are located, most are in the axial muscle part of that cortex.

    'Something about axial control has an impact on stress responses,' Strick reasons. 'There’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress. And when you see somebody that's depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel.  Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress. And I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.' "

    The body is how we encounter and filter the world. This, in response, shapes our inner world which, in turn, influences how we re-encounter and interpret our surroundings in a constant loop.

    Vibrance specialises in training the body and voice to be free of unnecessary tension, to be dynamic, supple, and supportive of our presence in the world.

     

    Other Reading:

    Six elements of success adapted from Science of People

     

    Whatever your aims, we can aid you in achieving your goals with our individualised approach and flexible sessions. Contact us: