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Skills that can make or break your stand-up routine

If you’ve been doing comedy for a while chances are you’re in a place of constantly trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to writing, editing and performing your stand up routine. As stand up is a live performance like no other, it comes with its own challenges that can severely impact your performance at each show. Therefore, there are some skills that I’ve been developing over the years that have been super helpful when it comes to navigating different stages and audiences. 


Hosting an open mic or a live show

Hosting a live event can be terrifying for every new (and even seasoned) comedian. You are the first person the audience gets introduced to and your whole job is to generate the flow and good vibes of the room by controlling the stage and the audience and supporting all the acts on the line up. A lot of comedians are struggling with anxiety and feel a tremendous pressure to set the right tone at the beginning of the show, and if that’s your fear, that’s exactly why you should try hosting.

There’s nothing like facing your fears even if you know for a fact that you will not always do a good job. When I first started hosting I had a fear of being able to think quickly in English (as it’s my second language) and if you are someone who's an immigrant in America, you know exactly how that feels: it takes a second for your brain to translate thoughts from one language to another, let alone formulate the sentence in a way that will be clearly understood and entertaining for your audience. Practice makes perfect and that applies to hosting as well, and of course, my brain eventually started thinking in English and it became much easier to find words and references that would apply to each performance. I failed many times as a host which is great because I’ve always learned something from it and that eventually led to developing a certain confidence in the outcome, whatever it may be. The whole process taught me how to navigate different types of audiences, deal with hecklers, equipment malfunctions, security issues, and fast transitions from one bit to another. 

You see, when you host a live show you are forced to constantly find solutions on the spot for whatever is happening in the room, and if you do it for long enough you will develop a type of confidence that will allow you to perform anywhere. Thanks to developing a hosting skill I’m now completely comfortable with hosting any event, doing crowd work, being an opener, a feature, doing a “check spot”, etc. 


Reading the room

We’ve always heard this expression Read the room which technically applies to picking up subtle, nonverbal cues and micro reactions of the room you are in. For comedians, that means figuring out what you're gonna be working with, what kind of audience you will be facing and how to prepare yourself to navigate that kind of energy. 

One thing I do when hosting live events is watching my audience as they are being seated, so before the show even starts, I’m picking up their vibe by scanning the room. I try to notice couples, interesting groups of people, and in some cases even briefly talk to some of them before the show just to get a sense of who they are and if I have any material that I can use that they would be able to relate to. I find that the more you dictate your performance in a way they can strongly relate to, the better connection you’ll have with them throughout your entire set. They will feel like they know you, that you are treating them as if they are your close friends and that moment you share is so special because it feels super personal, like your stand up is tailored specifically to them. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to pander to your audience, but if you feel like you have some material that is already part of your stand up and they might love it, use it, and then go into other things you want to talk about. You’ve established a rapport with them so they are open to listen to whatever else you have to say. Even if you are ready to go into some dark, toxic material, it will be much easier to transition because you’ve prepared them to feel for you, and to be on your side. Always capitalize on an emotion and the likability factor, especially if you gonna hit them with some risque topics. 


Utilizing the stage

Big stage, small stage - every stage is a good stage. The beautiful thing about our art form is that we are encouraged to always point out the obvious. Are you too tall and your head is almost hitting the ceiling? Is there a weird stool on the stage and you keep falling off of it? Is the microphone situation giving you problems? Acknowledge it all but with one cardinal rule - never make fun of the venue itself, and instead make fun of yourself in that setting. The reason I say this is because a lot of times venue owners are sensitive to these jokes and you might come across as rude and it can even cause problems for the producer and his relationship with the venue owner. I know, it sounds strange, but you would be surprised how many times these jokes are taken the wrong way. 

Besides utilizing the stage for some self-deprecating humor, use whatever is available to make your jokes hit harder. Maybe there’s a piano on stage that can help you with one of your bits, or there’s a strange object that you can improvise with. For me personally, the biggest impact came from a mic stand. I used to always take the mic out of the mic stand but lately I’ve been keeping it in and it somehow grounded me and helped me be less anxious when trying to figure out how to speak and what to do with my hands. 

I’ve been on really large stages like the one at The Punch Line in Philly and on some really small basement stages where I only had a few feet left and right to move. The bigger the stage the harder it is to cover it because you always have to be positioned at the front but move in the way where you give attention to every side of the room. Be ok with whatever stage you are performing on, take it as a personal challenge to develop that level of comfortability, it’s such a relief when you realize that no stage is too small or too big for you; whatever it is, you got it. 


Slowing down

I, myself, speak fast at times. It’s just my default setting which is not an ideal situation when performing a stand up that is often fueled by adrenaline. A lot of times comics rush through their sets forgetting to communicate important points clearly. The joke doesn’t need to be said fast, just clear, because if the audience didn’t hear what you were saying you technically wasted a joke. You will get frustrated right on the spot, and if you are in a position that you have to repeat the joke you’ve already lost a few professional points, and your confidence will pay the price too. Finished a joke? Pause. Give your audience an opportunity to process what they’ve just heard and yourself a minute to figure out what you're gonna say next. Be ok with the silence, because it’s less a sign of “bombing” and more a sign of the audience paying attention. Silence gives you an opportunity to gather your own thoughts. I still sometimes struggle to find that balance between me being high energy and letting the idea marinate with the crowd before continuing my set, but whenever I’m patient that’s when I really do well. 


Being a comedian oftentimes requires having a certain level of self-awareness. It’s important to understand our shortcomings and develop skills that can help us long term, even if the learning curve is painful and takes some time.


Let me know in the comments what are the skills you’ve gathered over the years that transformed your stand up routine. 






7 comments

7 Comments


Guest
Jul 02

I still struggle with slowing down and allowing the silence especially when you only have 5 minutes sometimes it feels like I need to fill up every single second on stage saying something even if it’s not funny.

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Guest
Jun 29

This is EXCELLENT advice!!! Thank you for sharing!

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Sonja Savanovic
Sonja Savanovic
Jun 30
Replying to

You got it, I'm glad it was helpful!

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Guest
Jun 29

Great advice. Always love your columns! Getting better at hosting is my comedy goal for the year. Not making fun of the venue is key, and I love how you turned it around to "make fun of YOURSELF at the venue." You're so right about owners being super sensitive and taking it out on the producers. My friend's open mic got banned from a Bushwick bar because a comic did an entire set on how crappy the bar was.


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Sonja Savanovic
Sonja Savanovic
Jun 30
Replying to

Thank you. We all learn as we go and the more you do it the more you'll get comfortable with hosting. It is also worth mentioning that not many venue owners like to work with comedians beacuse a lot of comics created problems for them. Being respectful of the space and the owners is crucial for a long term relationship. When they know they can count on you to run your event professionally they will always welcome you into their space.

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Guest
Jun 29

his is so helpful!!!!

You have a smart/practical way here of making sense of the experience of being up on stage, which can be almost nonsensical to the comic--

at least to this comic.

sometimes my brain just reads: chaos when i am on stage. like i enter a state of overhwelm where i am not functioning as well as I could be. but you've encapsulated a lot of shit here in a way that organizes that experience to maybe keep it from getting to that overhwlemd place/chaotic place in my head. me impress big time. and many thanks.

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Sonja Savanovic
Sonja Savanovic
Jun 30
Replying to

I think a lot of times we go into that chaotic space and we are not sure if we will be able to handle something with grace or completely lose it. I've been there many times. The more overwhelmed you feel the slower you should start your set. It will keep your heart rate down and you will be much more comfortable executing your set. Thank you for reading, it makes me happy knowing you find a value in this blog.

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