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SAVAGE: Stand-up comedy: it’s serious business

• Apr 10, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Recently, the gnomes that live in my head suggested that I try stand-up comedy. I’ve told you about these fellows before: the little guys in the pointy hats who come up with all the ideas, then leave me in charge of operations. I’m at their beck and call, but they come up with some pretty good stuff.

It started when Mr. Smokin’ Hot and I attended a comedy show. The gnomes were apparently awake for the performance, because the voice in my head said, “Gee, you’re funnier than these guys.”

At the next show, I chatted up the owner, an affable fellow named Mike. He thought I was funny and asked if I would ever consider opening the show. One of the gnomes said, “Of course! I’ll open next week!” It wasn’t me, I swear.

And so, I did. In seven days, I morphed from a writer to a performer. I burned up the internet studying technique, mic handling, stage presence and comic point of view.

For any of you readers who aspire to stand on a stage and make an audience laugh, I’ll gladly share what I have learned.

First, written humor has almost no relationship to performance comedy. We write (most of us) in complete sentences with proper grammar. We flesh out ideas with logical foundations and reasoned conclusions.

Stand-up comedy is quick, snappy and disjointed — more like one would speak to friends on a quick lunch break or while dashing out the door. Right to the point, stream-of-thought, grammar rules optional.

The first thing a comic decides are her or his own ground rules. What’s your type of comedy? Observational, think Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano; anecdotal, Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle; anti-humor, Steve Martin; deadpan, Bob Newhart; character, Phyllis Diller; one-line, Zach Galifinakis; improvisational, Robin Williams; insult, Don Rickles; and heritage, Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. The brilliant satirist Mort Sahl. And Ellen DeGeneres, who defies all labels and can do no wrong.

How you look is important. Most comedians wear all black, because the action is all happening from the neck up. Women generally don’t wear dresses, because legs are distracting. Plus, in pants, no one can see your legs shaking from nerves.

The best comedy clubs have strict rules for open mic amateurs. Five minutes means five minutes. A warning light goes on at four. Exceed the limit and you won’t be invited back. If you ever decide to give stand-up a whirl, visit all the clubs you can to get the lay of the land. And make notes. Lots of notes. It’s much easier to learn from others’ mistakes than to make them all yourself.

Next, decide on your look. I chose a 62-year-old woman with glasses, teased-up gray hair and plenty of jewelry, because she was already staring back at me in the mirror and it was an easy fit.

Writing your material is a brutal process. Personally, I write, write, and write some more — then I start speaking it aloud, cutting every word that isn’t getting me straight to the laugh. It helps to have an objective second ear, because you’ll be performing for lots of second ears and, trust me, they’re objective as heck.

My initial critic and editor was my youngest daughter. No. 3 has a razor-sharp ear and didn’t hesitate to use it. “That’s terrible, cut it.” “That’s too old for your audience, get rid of it.” “Geez, Mom, how did you think that was funny?” She was efficient and spot on. I was cut to the quick and proud of her at the same time.

My husband brought me through the final stages of prep work, listening to me rehearse again and again. The wooden spoon I was using for a mic was wearing out.

This can’t be stressed enough: If you want to perform, rehearse like your life depends on it. Nerves will wipe out anything that isn’t honed to perfection, and you don’t want to be reading your material from a sheet of printer paper.

Finally, the big day came. After an hour of rehearsal, I suddenly realized that the Michigan winter had given me hands like a bricklayer. In comedy, hands are a tool, and everyone notices. So, off I went for a quick manicure, followed by more rehearsal.

The club owner said 5-10 minutes. I had my act down to a perfect eight, allowing a little extra time for what I hoped would be laughter and applause. When we arrived, the owner had the night off, the manager knew nothing about it, and he finally gave me three minutes. Three. In a panic, I handed my material to my husband and he made the big decisions, giving me back an index card with cues for only the bits I would use.

The manager introduced me by the wrong name, but told the audience to be kind since it was my first time. Knowing my time was short, I went through the material like a manic wind-up doll. Then something magic happened: The audience laughed their heads off and asked for more.

I won’t make this a career, but there’s a real thrill of bringing a funny tale to a willing audience. I’ll be at Dr. Grins in Grand Rapids on April 12 at 8 p.m. Come and laugh!

— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist

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