It is possible to hear yourself sweat. It doesn't happen instantly. First, you become aware of the metallic hum of the nearby speakers. Then comes the forlorn rattle of ice cubes in cocktail glasses, then the subtle but unmistakably self-conscious clearing of throats. And then comes a terrifying symphony of creaks, groans, squeaks, scrapes and shuffles you never noticed before, all pouring out of that pitiless black void in front of you.
And then - in the moment, you're absolutely sure of this - you can feel and hear the beads of sweat erupting, like the sound of bubble wrap popping. It's pure, exquisite agony.
Here's why you should try it: Taking the stage as an amateur stand-up comic is as close as you can come in the 21st century to being thrown to ravenous lions in the middle of an arena filled with a blood-lusting mob.
Okay, scratch that. It's not that bad. Honest. It can actually be fun, even intermittently exhilarating. And if you're looking to learn how to control your nerves while speaking to a group - while, coincidentally, learning how to control the group as well - there can hardly be a better training ground. Or at least a more abrupt one.
Recently I stepped out of cozy anonymity and onto the stage at a local club during "open mike" night. There are thousands of these places throughout the English-speaking world, and they're known in the stand-up biz as "workout rooms." These are bars, restaurants and clubs that are designed to showcase the beginners and the smaller fry among comic talent, or to allow more seasoned veterans to work out new material in front of a less critical audience. They are, in short, places where you can flop and get away with it, and come back to fight another day.
The usual amount of stage time per performer is five to eight minutes, which, depending on how you're doing up there, can be an instant or an eternity.
The difference between simply speaking to an audience and doing stand-up lies in the comedian's ability to instantly form a connection with the audience and to elicit an utterly visceral response within seconds. It's one thing to hold people's interest; it's quite another to persuade them to laugh. Again and again.
What's funny? Thousands of books have been written on the subject and very smart people have ended up pounding their heads on their desks over that one. One man's hilarity is another's disgust. Bob Hope and Sam Kinison had legions of devoted fans, but neither man would ever try the other's material. Ever. So let's leave any discussion of what's funny to academics and others who buy their aspirin by the trainload.
Instead, let's talk about a few tools the average public speaker can cull from the stand-up comedian's bag of tricks.
While it may be possible to slip into a stage persona that is 180 degrees out of phase with your actual personality and still get a laugh or two, your audience will see through this quickly and begin to distrust you. The best material, seasoned comics will agree, comes from real life - your life. And your best presence on stage arises from your own distinct personality and unique experiences.
A mantra among aspiring comedians is, "Trust your funny." This means nothing more than believing that what you bring to the stage is worth listening to, and will ring true with an audience.
This self-trust can take time. "Your style is formed in childhood and you can't escape it," writes comedian and comedy coach Judy Carter in her book Stand-Up Comedy: The Book. "Your style will be revealed to you. It is a discovery of who you already are - what you are cut out to do. This process of discovery can happen overnight or, more likely, it can take months or years."
Be an intellectual sponge. Watch successful comedians with an eye to their timing, their physical actions, their particular style, their vocal delivery. Before long, you'll naturally gravitate toward a favorite or favorites. At that point, writes comedian and teacher Franklyn Ajaye in Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy, "zero in on the comedian or comedians whose sense of humor and style of comedy reminds you of the sense of humor you naturally display around your friends and associates when you are relaxed. When you find the comedian who reminds you of what you do naturally, that particular comedian can serve as a guide or influence."
"Where do you get your ideas?" It's a question comedians are asked all the time. The answer is simple: from their own lives and from observing the world around them. However, it's not enough to simply be an observer. Aspiring comedians must have an especially keen eye for the absurd and hilarious in daily life. They must see life through funny-colored glasses.
Jeff Jena, a successful comedian I once interviewed, said that most people who say they have a sense of humor are mistaken. "They have an appreciation of humor," he said. "They recognize a funny line when they hear it. But as a professional comedian I have a sense of humor. I'm able to mine the funny situations in the world around me."
Some comedians practice in front of a mirror; others say that won't work, that you need a live audience, even if it's only one person. The bottom line is that practice is essential, and honing your material in a workout room is the best practice of all. There's no substitute for stage time. Will the nerves ever go away? Nope. Will you gain confidence and presence? Absolutely.
Before one of my first sets in the local workout room, a veteran comedian advised me to "walk up on that stage like you owned it. Swagger. Strut. Jump up those three steps like you're about to get handed a check for a million bucks. Look like you're having the time of your life."
He said that not just to boost my confidence, but to remind me that the previous few rookie comics had taken the stage as if they were ascending the gallows or boarding the Titanic. They were terrified, and it showed. And, as an audience, your heart goes out to them. But pity and laughs are mutually exclusive. On the other hand, if you vault into the spotlight like Tarzan, you can get away with a couple of jokes that bomb. The audience will trust that you'll get it right the next time. And, amazingly, so will you.
Judy Carter's book Stand-Up Comedy makes reference to talent manager Buddy Mora, who discovered David Letterman, when she talks about being true to your own vision. She quotes Mora as saying, "You shouldn't give an audience what they want. Give them what you want. Most comics will go down to the audience level to make it work, when in fact what you should be doing is bringing the audience to your level."
Carter goes on: "It's hard to swallow the idea that you can't make everyone love you. This one's worth repeating: You can't and won't be able to make everyone love you. You must go onstage with a passionate desire and the intent to communicate your thoughts and feelings, not just to make people laugh."
I once witnessed (that's the only word for it) a very skillful comedian perform at a black-tie cigar stag dinner at a posh country club. His act consisted, in large part, of edgy, countercultural, "stick-it-to-the-man" style material. His audience consisted, almost without exception, of uncommonly wealthy arch-conservative businessmen. The silence was deafening.
You need enough flexibility built into your presentation that you can shift gears and, for instance, cut any "blue" bits out of your act when you're working the mayor's annual prayer breakfast.
This is a nifty little trick that applies to speakers as well as comics. You want to get the audience laughing as quickly as possible, but you don't want to hit them with your Sunday punch in the first seconds of the first round. Start with your second-best bit. End with a killer.
If you can make something so monumentally difficult as stand-up comedy look like duck soup, you can't help but succeed. This means developing polish. Which means, again, practice and perform, practice and perform. If it looks to the audience like you just wandered in off the street to share a few yuks with them, if your act is so seamless that it appears you're just talking off the top of your head, if you can stand up under those intensely bright lights and look out into that bottomless blackness and feel like you just settled into your own personal recliner chair, well...
It's not impossible. And the journey truly is energizing, both physically and creatively. Even if you only get up onstage two or three times, you'll be a better and more confident speaker. It's worth breaking a sweat.
Want to give it a try? A great resource for aspiring comics - which also offers listings of comedy clubs and workout rooms throughout the U.S. - is www.chucklemonkey.com.