“A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me; I’m afraid of widths” – laconic US stand-up comedian Stephen Wright
Perhaps the single most commonly admired attribute of stand-up comedians is their demonstration of courage and management of fear – preparedness to stand alone in front of an unknown, potentially hostile, and sometimes huge audience – risking failure: not amusing them, not being liked, being heckled or boo-ed off. This is a visceral and quite fundamental fear, which feels like it’s about one’s very survival. Not for nothing is a bad comedy experience on stage termed ‘dying on your *ss’.
Of course, not everyone needs or wants to be able to get up on stage and do this, but wouldn’t it be great to have access to something like that amount of courage in your own life situation – to be able to overcome your most basic fears, expand your general comfort zone, reduce the amount of stress you feel, and confidently get on with doing what you want to do in life, rather than be restricted or incapacitated by fear?
How do they do it?
Comedians have a wide repertoire of means for handling fear and for cultivating confidence, all of which can teach the rest of us a great deal.
In the first place, comedians need to reflect upon the things they are fearful of, and distinguish between things they need to worry about and things they don’t need to worry about – and between things they can’t change and therefore have to work with, and things that they can take precautions to avoid or reduce the incidence of. In terms of things they really need to do something about, comedians have evolved plenty of methods that will help, taking measures:
- to reduce actual risk, and
- to reduce adverse effects on their confidence.
One of the most important things to do about fear and risk is to be realistic and ask, what is the worst that can happen? A bad stage experience – or indeed worrying about it – can indeed feel like a matter of life and death, but it actually isn’t; it’s just a bad stage experience. Comedians obviously don’t like ‘bombing’, but they know that it happens to everyone at some point in their career – and not just once. You have to get over it; if you’re a professional, you have to get back on stage for your next gig. So keeping things in perspective is an important measure we can learn from comedians – distinguishing between vague or exaggerated fears, and a more realistic assessment of what could go wrong, and what will be the results of that.
For instance, comedians can remind themselves that, although audiences can be fickle and although individuals in an audience can sometimes be a pain, those audiences are not generally looking for faults in you, or looking for you to fail – they mostly want you to succeed, they want to have a good time, they want value for their money.
Furthermore, a serious comedian will learn from a bad stage experience – what went wrong? why did it go wrong? was it new material? was the material presented in a different way from usual? did he or she manage to connect with the audience? was it a tough crowd? and crucially, what can be done about all this so that things will go better next time? This is not so much of an occasional consideration for comedians – it’s an ever present risk, so managing it is a totally on-going process – an ingrained mental habit that runs in the background all the time. There are two broad choices here:
The most common reason for failure among new comedians is not a difficult audience, or a lousy venue, or a poor MC, or bad luck, or ‘just one of those things’, or ‘it wasn’t meant to be’, or ‘I’m just not cut out to be a comedian’ – it’s none of these things. The prevalent reason for failure is not preparing properly. It’s just like preparing properly for an exam – or anything else in life, really. Most of the time, anything else is just an excuse that lets you off the hook. What this means is that your success is more down to you than you think, which can only be a good thing; it’s not about just hoping that things will work out – even though there is still an element of unpredictability in comedy, and even though comedians do that very good job of making it look like they haven’t bothered to prepare at all.
So perhaps the most important thing that a comedian can do to reduce fear and build confidence is to be prepared. The primary area of this preparation is in terms of that material – writing it, testing it out, practising it, knowing it inside out. But preparation extends into other practical matters – being organised, being on time, knowing your place in the running order for a show, observing the crowd while other comedians perform, being focused and ready to go on – all these measures both increase chances of success, and reduce anxiety. Then there’s mental and emotional preparation.
Ways with fear
One of the crucial skills to develop is that of not showing fear – the over-worked but perfectly valid cliché of ‘fake it till you make it’. Every day, in just about every performance, just about all comedians need to pretend that they’re not nervous when they start their act. Until they start getting laughs, they have to behave as if everything is fine and as if they know that the laughs will come. It’s a leap of faith; they have to ‘go for it’. And the audience needs to be reassured that the comedian is fine – if they sense that the performer is suffering serious nerves, they will get nervous too and everything will get a whole lot more difficult. Comedians know they just have to press on, and do everything they can to get it to work.
Perhaps the most radical thing, though, that the comedian can teach the rest of us about managing and preventing fear and increasing confidence is in creating value out of things going wrong. A great comedian can transform something going wrong from a potential disaster into comedy gold – indeed, this is how most comedy material is created in the first place. A great deal of comedy is actually about things going wrong- things going right isn’t very funny. Comedians embrace and trade in the very material that causes us all fear – embarrassing experiences, failure in relationships, frightening and daunting stuff of all varieties. Fear itself is a very productive comedy topic, so the comedian’s familiarity with it can be turned to good value.
Furthermore, comedians learn how to harness their nervous anxiety and turn it away from being out-of-control, falling-apart, forgetting lines and losing the plot, into a buzzy, manageably scary kind of excited energy, which the audience feels and greatly admires. All performers know this – they know that the primitive fight-or-flight adrenalin rush serves an incredibly valuable purpose; without it, performances can be flat or dull, lacking in excitement or drama. This is part of what is called ‘storming it’ – stand-up comedy success – when the material is going down well, the audience likes you, and the nervous energy is working for you rather than against you, building to a frenzy. It’s an exhilarating experience. That nervous energy is a natural everyday human response, and experienced comedians know how to live with it – and how to use it. Fear itself is not necessarily a problem, if it can be managed – it’s when it gets totally out of control and gets into one of those self-reinforcing spirals that it’s a real problem – and this can often just be sparked off by the worry of that happening.
But fear needs managing, especially for those starting out. Most comedians get that chance to start in a small way, in front of a few people at an open mic venue, and this represents a sensible approach that we can all follow – taking on small challenges at first, becoming comfortable with these before gradually upping the ante and increasing the risk, overcoming fears gradually, step by step.