I had to speak at TEDxSanDiego and five minutes before I went up I left the building and wasn’t planning on coming back.
Speaking before me was the amazing Gabrielle Ury. Differently-abled from birth, I was crying by the end of her talk of resilience.
I was the last speaker. And then after me was the San Diego ballet.
HELP! I was sandwiched between the two most amazing events in the world.
I was going to go on stage and die.
I walked around the block. I walked again. I went back into the hall.
“Where were you!?”
They wired me up. Everyone in the crowd was crying because of Gabrielle.
“Congrats,” I said to Gabrielle and she ran into her dad’s arms and cried.
Then I had to speak in front of 5,000 people. I threw up in my mouth a little I was so scared. Then I walked onto the stage.
One time my company had just been bought by a much bigger one. I had to speak at their annual event.
If I bombed the talk, then they would regret buying me (and the final check hadn’t come through yet).
Well, I said, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve ruined my life. But I was terrified.
I had just gotten a divorce.
I was on a date.
We had spoken before the date. We had met on a website and she wanted to make sure I wasn’t a weirdo. We spoke and it was like we knew each other forever.
We went on the date. Before the date I did the below technique for four hours.
I was scared to death. I hadn’t been on a “date” with a stranger in about ten years.
It was the same terror I felt before public speaking.
I did the below technique I describe for public speaking. In the middle of the date she went to the bathroom and I texted my friend, “I’m going to kiss her”.
And I did, and it worked, and we began dating, and we saw each other again and again and again and each time I used the techniques below.
She was a therapist. I lived in the Chelsea Hotel. She said to me, “If you live in a hotel, it means you’re not ready to have roots.”
I said, “But I lived in this hotel for four years BEFORE I got married. This IS my roots.” Doesn’t matter.
I moved into a real apartment. And then we broke up. A week later she wrote to me, “As a therapist, I can tell you that you need serious help.”
Nevertheless, the public speaking tips worked. But I was insecure and scared and I did need help.
Before going to every party. Before going on a date. Before going to a meeting. Before giving a talk. Before doing stand-up.
I watch comedians. I’ve been doing this for 12 years. EVERY SINGLE DATE. EVERY PARTY. EVERY TALK. EVERY MEETING.
I am going on a podcast today. “Impact Theory”. I highly recommend this podcast done by my friend, Tom Bilyeu.
I’m nervous. But I will still do this technique. I will watch stand-up comedians on YouTube along the way.
A) The best comedians are the best public speakers.
They know how to make a solid premise that everyone can relate to in as few words as possible.
They then know how to “pull the rabbit out of a hat”. Surprise! A punch line that reverses the premise or underlines it in some unique way. The best comedians use laughter as the vehicle to deliver a unique thought. A new way of looking at life.
B) They know how to Act.
A good comic will “act out” a joke. Play voices. Give a visual image of the idea they are trying to convey.
Even the best public speakers rarely do this. But comedians ALWAYS do it.
Since starting stand-up comedy (I’ve performed 3–4x a week for the past 4–5 years) my public speaking skills have gone up 10x.
C) They are fearless.
Comedians commit to the joke, commit to the act, commit to the outrageousness no matter how scary it seems.
Commitment to the moment, no matter how scary, is part of the micro-skill toolkit of the best comedians. Think of Gilbert Gottfried in his filthy joke “The Aristocrats” or Andy Samberg in his Harvard Commencement Speech. Watch this for commitment.
Or TJ Miller at the Critics Choice Awards when he runs into the audience and nobody knows what he is doing but he runs from person to person making jokes with people.
D) They are modern day philosophers.
The worst comedians go on stage with their jokes. The jokes are funny. They get people to laugh.
They have premise, then punchline, then some acting-out, then maybe a continuation punch line.
But they say nothing meaningful.
This is what separates the D- comedians from the A+ comedians.
From Richard Pryor to George Carlin to Dave Chappelle to many, many others I can list, comedians have become our modern day philosophers. Is it crazy to say Dave Chappelle is a Socrates? Yes it is. But it’s true.
E) They are funny.
The average child laughs 300 times a day. The average adult… five times a day. FIVE TIMES.
We lose the ability to laugh as an adult. Or we have too many responsibilities and stresses.
And yet laughter is shown to be a natural medicine. It reduces stress. it’s anti-inflammatory. It’s blah blah blah. It’s great.
Also, people remember what is said immediately after they laugh.
And, finally, laughter increases oxytocin, the “pairing” neurochemical. So this great on a date.
(Neurochemicals released upon laughter)
F) A great comedian has his or her own unique voice.
The great comedians have a unique take on society, people, relationships, creativity, politics, observation of the absurd, and a perspective on how to live life.
Not that they live exemplary lives. But they have a unique voice and all creative people should develop one. Artists, writers, speakers, businessmen, parents, people.
If you are just starting stand-up comedy, don’t think about jokes. Think about what ideas and perspectives you have that are unique.
Make a joke around those.
Example: I saw Chappelle at Radio Music Hall. One time he said, “We call Caitlyn Jenner when she changed her name, but we threw Mohammed Ali in jail.”
That was his joke. It’s not even funny. And there’s no punchline. And maybe it’s not quite accurate. But it’s an interesting point about race and gender and identity politics and worth thinking about.
Everyone laughed. Not because it was funny. But because Dave Chappelle said it and then he laughed and he backed up a little and leaned down and hit his knee with the mic and laughed more.
He taught us to laugh at that joke so the entire audience did because we were under his control.
This is a great public speaker.
G) Mirror neurons.
If I want to learn how to climb a ladder, I won’t climb one. I’m afraid of heights.
I’ll watch you climb one.
My mirror neurons kick in, at least for awhile, and now I know how to climb a ladder.
When I watch great comedians, for a short time, I can “inherit” their skills and perform, speak, talk at a party, overcome being an introvert, be courageous on a date, or in a negotiation.
This has saved my life 100s of times.
(Watching Gilbert gives me confidence and permission to be as silly and outrageous as possible)
H) Ability to observe.
A “civilian” walks into a pizza place and eats a pizza.
A comedian might walk into the same pizza place, notice it’s run by four African-American women and wonder if he’s racist for noticing that. (Louis CK’s SNL monologue).
They observe everything. They try to find the strange and unusual in everything.
Seinfeld made observational humor famous. But all comedians have developed a sixth sense for observing the absurd.
I was doing a podcast with TJ Miller. I asked, “How do you find the absurd?”
He said, “We can sit here and talk about the weeds of comedy or I can point out how this table we are talking at is like a big table for a doll’s house, the wallpaper in this club is like out of ‘The Shining’, why are these mics so big when we are right next to each other, and you should put chicken bones in your hair and let them fall out in front of people.”
Look around you every moment. Find the absurd.
The “Absurdity Muscle” is important to exercise every day.
You won’t laugh or pay attention to someone (particularly a comedian) if you don’t like them.
The best comedians have the skill of making an audience of diverse strangers like them in a matter of seconds.
If all I can do is learn this skill from watching how comedians do it, then this is a great skill to have.
Comedians pull the rabbit out of the hat.
They say something to create tension. The entire audience looks up. Tense.
Then the comedians release the tension in unexpected ways.
This is how we, as a species, practice unsafe or tense situations.
This is great public speaking.
Learning how to get people to LOOK UP when everyone is looking down at their phones is the most valuable skill.
I’m an introvert. I’m shy. I re-energize by myself.
I started doing stand-up myself to get even better at so many other ancillary skills (public speaking, idea generation, observing, negotiating, selling, likability, frame control, etc.).
Always go to the place least crowded.
The place most crowded is the comfort zone. Because it’s comfortable!
It’s so hard. I hate it. But I watch these comedians. And I do it.
I WATCH THESE COMEDIANS
[NOTE: Everyone should have their own list. I am a man so that skews my list.]
A) LOUIS CK
One of the deepest thinkers out there.
He knows exactly what words to express, to pause on, to look around on, to bring the audience in.
He knows how to create a premise in as few words as possible.
He knows how to act out the roles of every participant in a story.
He knows the arc of a story and tells it in each joke.
He can see the absurd with x-ray vision.
He can say something hateful and two seconds later bring the audience on the ride with him.
B) DAVE CHAPPELLE
He speaks in joke.
But he’s not just saying dumb one liners I see from so many comics.
He tells a story about his life that is meaningful and deep and changes the perspective of the listeners.
PLUS, he’s INSANELY likable. Watch his comedy as a teenager. Watch his recent Netflix specials 30 years later. It’s insane how he’s held on to that likability despite his successes.
C) JERROD CARMICHAEL
The master of communicating a message while at the same time acting as if he’s trying to figure it out right there, on the stage, with the audience.
His delivery, his pace, has created his own unique style. I watched his special “8” at least 40 times. Directed by Bo Burnham.
D) BO BURNHAM
Master of the surprise. He is a performer’s performer. Watching him I learn how to create surprise out of every opportunity.
Plus, it’s such a pleasure to see raw genius in action.
(The Bo Burnham Kanye West rant is genius in action)
E) GILBERT GOTTFRIED
Yes, Gilbert Gottfried.
He’s only been doing stand-up comedy for FIFTY YEARS.
He is so silly. He commits so hard to his persona. Even absorbing one percent of his skill frees me from all conventions when dealing with others: from a negotiation to the most serious talk.
I never took him seriously before.
Now he is the only MUST-WATCH comedian before every thing I do that requires courage with a dash of the silly and absurd.
F) ANDY SAMBERG
Not a traditional stand-up comedian.
But I have watched his Harvard Commencement speech a million times.
I’ve watched it before every talk I have ever given in the past 3 years.
Every time you think he’s about to get serous, he takes another swerve into the ludicrous.
And he never stops. It’s like watching the movie ‘Inception’. You never get back to reality. And then you realize suddenly that’s where the message is. That’s where the art is. That’s where the courage is.
And he’s funny.
G) DREW MICHAEL
Maybe the smartest comedian out there.
I watch him for the depth of his thoughts. And the insane way he delivers his perspective.
I also like that Jerrod Carmichael directed his recent HBO special. I like how all of these stand-up comedians are growing up together, helping each other out. That, by itself, is a lesson.
Drew comes off as angry, but then you realize the compassion underneath that, when mixed together, creates his likability and humor and perspective.
H) ANTHONY JESELNIK
Imagine being arrogant, abrasive, and insulting, every second of a comedy hour.
And the entire time the audience LOVES you and every minute of it.
Jeselnik is THE master of timing and delivery. Nobody does it better. And his ability to play an unlikable persona that is extremely likable is key.
I) BONNIE MCFARLANE
She goes back and forth between multiple personas in a single joke.
She told me: always try to start with a premise that is funny. That makes it easier to make a punch line.
So instead of saying, “Busses are crazy” [premise]. The premise might be “My therapist is a refugee from ISIS”. (Dealing with housewives complaining about how to decorate their houses, etc.).
J) TONY ROCK
He gave me three pieces of writing advice:
- Write down all the important events in your life.
- Write five sub-points between each item.
- Find the punchlines.
He also said, “If you have writer’s block, take on the perspective of someone else and write a routine for that person”.
So when he had writer’s block he wrote an entire 60-minute special for an Eddie Murphy comeback (when he described it, it was hilarious). I don’t know if he’s ever approached Murphy with it.
K) TJ MILLER
Watch his special “Meticulously Ridiculous”. His joke, “8 reasons I don’t give a ****”.
He told me, “I am the hardest working comedian out there. It’s amazing to me how many people feel entitled to results but don’t put the work in.”
He showed me his calendar. He was performing at SEVEN different comedy clubs that very night.
This is a small list. It’s not a list in any order. It’s not a Top 10. I could keep going:
Marina Franklin, Michelle Wulf, Chris Rock (study his movement on stage), Jim Norton (ultimate vulnerability), Sebastian Maniscalco (mastery of persona), Geno Bisconte (laughs per minute), Aaron Berg (laughs per minute), Ashley Morris, Greer Barnes, Allan Havey, Todd Barry (crowd work), Judah Friedlander (crowd work), Sherrod Small (calling out what the audience is thinking), Sarah Silverman (likability, combines innocence with sharpness), Gary Gulman (the master of joke writing), Jim Gaffigan (vulnerability, taking every day like and piercing through to the funny), Rich Vos (delivery, observation, fearlessness), Godfrey (sheer intelligence, turning “extreme alpha maleness” into funny), Steven Wright (dryness and one liners), Mike Birbiglia (master of storytelling while still punctuated with punchlines), Neal Brennan (the brilliance of his special “Three Mics”), Seinfeld (master of observation), Larry David (observer of the absurd), and this list is only limited by my faulty memory.
The other day I had to perform for 20 minutes.
I watched Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, Jerrod Carmichael, Drew Michael, Todd Barry, Aaron Berg (who was performing right after me), Geno Bisconte, Judah Friedlander, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg.
Some of the comedians were too lazy to even memorize their jokes. They had their notes on stage with them and they would say things like, “Well that joke didn’t work!”
To me, that’s not comedy. I can watch that on YouTube. Comedy at a comedy club is humor + experience. Not just humor.
And I don’t want to know that I am just there for them to practice ‘jokes’.
I wanted to see the comics with real perspective. I wanted to be challenged.
I was scared, though. And when I went on stage, I ended up doing NONE of the material I had prepared.
The audience was 90% from other countries. (It was Thanksgiving Day in the US).
I pretended that we (the audience and me) were the UN and that we would solve each country’s problems. Everyone in the audience told me what country they were from and I “solved” their problems in ludicrous ways.
I stood on the bannister surrounding the stage so it would appear like I was looming over the audience.
It was fun for me. “The party is where I am at!” is what I always tell myself. You’re just invited.
Tomorrow I have to give a talk at a conference. Wish me luck!
James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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