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The Trick: Record your set, then actually listen and watch.
(A little foreshadowing in the picture)
Sounds easy enough, but I'm sure I'm not alone when I say:
I hate listening to myself. I hate watching myself, but for some reason feel the need for complete strangers to watch and listen to me.
As comics, we are always striving to create more material, but this article is focused on honing in and supercharging the jokes you already have and what you should look for when recording.
In 2014 I passed an audition to compete in Treehouse Comedy's The Funniest Comic on the East Coast. It gathered comedians spanning from Florida to Maine and the final rounds were held at the 400 seat Cabaret Theatre in Mohegan Sun Casino. Little did I know this is where I would meet one of my best friends in comedy who very quickly was able to headline shows regionally, and more recently on a national level. We have some amazing laughs on and off stage, but I also have learned so much from her, and continue to do so.
Jess Miller and I outside the Cabaret Theatre from the night we met... Phones have improved dramatically since.
Skip Forward a Few Years:
Last summer Jess headlined the show I was on at the Portland Comedy Festival. Always great when you get to do a festival with friends, so I met up with her beforehand. She was listening to a set she had recently done and trying to figure out what to include from it while I debated which obnoxiously colored sneakers to wear. Big decisions.
Jess closed the show with a bang and as per usual had my cheeks hurting. She had recorded her set on video and listened back to the audio almost right after the show. When I said I didn't record my set, she looked at me like I had just curb-stomped a puppy, asking, "Why??"
I hate listening to myself. I would sometimes record and sometimes would never listen back, or only record a video when trying to submit to a new club or festival.
Jess said that was something she has to do for her performance. I initially thought that was insanely meticulous, but it truly is the easiest way to improve your set.
Everyone has their own way to go about writing material, but this one simple trick has changed everything.
After many different conversations in person and on the phone with her about this process over the year, I knew it needed to be an article shared with other comedians. This information is truly invaluable.
Sidenote: I recorded a two and a 1/2 hour phone interview about this which was very informational and fun. (We went on a lot of tangents, comedic ADD.)
Here's the boiled down version without giving away any of her jokes:
Sarah Martin: I've seen you with a camera at every show, but you're not showing those videos. It's for your own record. What sparked that off?
Jess Miller: When I first started I signed up for a class taught at Carolines in NY. The class was taught by Linda Smith who is absolutely amazing. Her career has spanned over decades working for Comedy Central, HBO, Caroline Rhea, and more. I was just told that's what you do.
So you took that advice and actually started recording from the get-go?
I record every performance. There's so much to get from it, especially if I say something unexpected. I can work that into my material the next time. There's bits that started as one liners that have now transformed into several minute stories because of this.
What are you listening to when you review your set?
I'm listening for the laughs per minute. A good comedian will get 6-8 laughs per minute and a professional will get 8-10 or more. I'm listening to the silence from the audience too. If they aren't laughing at those marks, I know I need to change it or add something in. I feed off the energy from the crowd anyway, so I need those laughs to be there. If you listen to someone like Wanda Sykes, she is getting 8+ laughs per minute.
I've always thought it was 4-6 laughs per minute or every 10-15 seconds. I have new goals now. I feel like the hold up for some people listening is not wanting to hear their voice, at least for me. How do you get over that?
Just listen. It's how you learn the most.
How long does it take for you to review your set? Do you always listen right away?
Jess: I try to listen as soon as possible. Most of the time I'm able to do so on the ride home from a show. If I'm driving back from New York or something especially, I have a few hours drive, so I have time to listen back to a headlining set. It helps me with knowing how long each of my jokes is too. When we recently did the Women in Comedy Festival, we mostly had 7-8 minute sets. I know how long the jokes take, laughs included mostly. There have been times where I know I need to wait up to a minute for the laughs to die down before I can say my next line. Especially in a shorter set, I need to know how long that bit truly is.
You can't teach funny, or learn comedic timing, but know your time.
I know that you take it to a different level sometimes and even transcribe your set. What's the reasoning behind this?
When you are forced to write every single word that comes out of your mouth you realize how much you say "but," "um," "uh." This is so I cut out the "but," "um's," and "uh's." When I was very new I didn't know what to do with myself after a punchline got lots of laughs. Instead of waiting for it, I would just say "Oh my god, that's so awesome!" I think I said it about 20 times in 20 minutes.
When I have listened to myself do this, I start making fun of myself in the car basically spitting in the mirror and mocking myself going, "but," "um," "uh," "Shut up Sarah." Probably more effective to just not use them the next time...
Do you ever feel like a joke is done and can just be told the way it is?
I view it as more unfinished ideas. They are constantly transforming by listening back and if I can get another laugh in there, why not? Sometimes things will just come out of my mouth off stage that I go back to include in my set. Such as freaking out a sales guy in a shoe store by blurting out the first thought in my head.
Why videotape as well?
When I started I would do this weird thing where I would twirl my hair and rub my belly.
(Laughing hysterically) Things you don't do in real life...
(Also laughing) Right?! So I look at what else I'm doing on stage. Sometimes I will watch it on mute to be able to notice these little things and take them out.
Do you have any advice for new comedians?
Stage time, get out there as much as possible, and record what you're doing. There's those little things that you pick up on when you see yourself. Even when I'm watching a tape from someone else and see them practically using the mic cord as a jump rope, if it's not part of the joke, it's distracting. I learned so much more than all this by just taking Linda Smith's course at Caroline's and I can't recommend it enough.
I forgot to mention she also produces pro shows.
Jess is back in Boston May 12!
- Record your set with audio, video, or both. It's for you to review and help you get better.
- Aim for more laughs per minute.
- Know the time of your jokes.