Jerry Seinfeld is a living legendi who needs little introduction. Whether you’ve watched Seinfeld, the eponymous TV show that defined network television in the 1990’s, or seen his new web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, or enjoyed A Bee Movie with your kids, or even read the logs for long enough, you’ve been impacted by this incredibly talented, successful, (surprisingly dark-haired)ii and really very hilarious man. I know I have.
While perusing YouTube recently, I came across an interview he gave that was largely about transcendental meditationiii but for which the Q&A session quickly evolved into a Jerry Seinfeld’s Guide For Aspiring Stand-Up Comedians… of sorts.
Since there doesn’t seem that such a thing otherwise available on the internets, it’s high time someone codify Jerry’s nearly 60 years of wisdom, as relayed in this interview from eight months ago, into the following 8 points. So, for your enlightenment and entertainment :
- The specific element that occurs in every single successful joke is SURPRISE! A line of logic is going one way and then suddenly it doesn’t. Jerry calls this ‘making nonsense.’ It doesn’t make any sense and yet the audience gets it. That’s how we affirm a successful joke, isn’t it ? “I got it.” Well, what’d you get ? You got from here to there even though it doesn’t make sense.
- Life is funny and the comedian is just pointing it out. What the comedian does is describe something that the audience has thought of or is aware of but has never analysed and put to words. This works because the audience largely perceives the same reality as the comedian. If this isn’t true, the audience doesn’t relate to the joke. And that’s the whole act, that’s the whole gig. The comedian is exploring the audience’s mind, he knows what they’ve experienced because we all largely experience the same things.
- You have to try out 10 things before you find 1 that makes the audience laugh. The comedian, of course, doesn’t know exactly what the audience has experienced and that’s why there’s a lot of experimentation required in finding jokes that work. A stand-up routine is therefore putting 500 things in the hopper and figuring out which 25 of them actually work. The audience will never hear about that other 475 and that’s ok. Stand-up is a very scientific and exhaustive study of the human experience, looking for what will make the audience laugh.
- Always start with your best joke, the one that fails the least frequently, because the first laugh is the hardest one to get. A successful early laugh relaxes the audience and builds their confidence in the comedian. From there, you can continue down your set list.
- If you want to be funny, you’ve got to have ENERGY ! Energy sells jokes. Stand-up is a hard sell of a product that the audience doesn’t even need.iv
- Stand-up is like a martial art. It’s voice, it’s action, it’s gesture and everything has to be synchronised to land on that single focal point that’s needed in order to elicit a laugh.
- Stand-up is very adversarial. It’s the comedian against the audience and the odds are against the guy on stage. There’s definitely an aggressive aspect to it – there’s a winner and a loser with no possibility of a truce. The comedian is in a boxing match with the audience and the he wants to get that first punch in early and keep pummeling the audience before they realise that the guy on stage has beaten the odds (1 person vs. many dozens or hundreds, even thousands).
- If you stay out on stage too long, the audience will win eventually. Leave on a high note when you’re still in command and control.
Just follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a better stand-up comedian !v
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