Zen And The Art of Stand Up Comedy: Lessons Learned

A compelling premise that builds tension, followed by a sudden release of that tension by way of a succinct punchline with a definitive click moment and topped off with an equally abrupt physical gesture…this sketch has it all:

But what the hell does all that jargon mean?? Furthermore, how can it help me be funnier?

Note: I might suggest reading, Applying Lessons Learned from Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy once you’ve completed this post to see a detailed account of how I used these lessons in real life.

Zen And The Art of Stand Up Comedy

Last week, I finally sat down and plowed through Jay Sankey’s Zen And The Art of Stand Up Comedy, which was a fantastic read. In this post, I’m going to outline the best of the best practices that I learned.

If you’re a comedian, going on stage without reading this book is like boxing with one hand tied behind your back…sure you could do it, but why?

Class is in session, bitch.

Lessons Learned from Zen And The Art of Stand Up Comedy

Expressing vs. Communicating

It’s not enough to talk with a microphone in your hand using well-written jokes.

Everyone has that friend that talks ‘at you’ rather than ‘with you.’ It’s excruciating. It’s like they’re having a monologue instead of a discussion.

This is why it’s so important to get a lot of stage time. It takes a lot of practise to be able to connect with crowds that change every single night.

The Anatomy of a Joke: Premise, Punchline, Tag, and the Click Moment

  1. Premise: The premise is the subject of the joke. It needs to pique the audience’s interest as well as create tension. (i.e. I’ve been gaining weight recently…)
  2. Punchline: Alters the meaning of the information, often in a surprising fashion. (i.e. …and by recently I mean the last five years)
    • Click Moment: This is what Jay Sankey calls the key to stand up. The click moment is where all of the information comes together in your punchline.
    • The more sudden and surprising the moment, the better.
    • Suddenness is crafted by having the the surprise culminate with the last word that you say. If they’re laughing and you’re talking, it can diminish the joke’s effectiveness.
    • Delivering the punchline: Deliver every line like it was your last. It allows the audience to give up all of their laughter and allows every line thereafter seem spontaneous.
  3. Tag: Another joke that relates to the previous punchline (i.e. …this is not the product of planning whatsoever [point to stomach].)

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Don’t blame the crowd because they didn’t get it. The challenge is to express abstract, imaginative, and unusual thoughts in clear and simple terms.

When you’re on stage, you need to deliver your material in a much clearer manner when you’re in front of drunk people than when you’re on the phone.

This is definitely something I have to keep in mind. I’m a nerd, and I want to put forth comedic arguments that prove a point. That said, the more complex the premise, the harder it is to include it in a five-minute set. That’s not saying it’s impossible. Rather, it means that that I have my work cut out for me if I want to communicate to a crowd, rather than expressing at them.

Joke Checklist

  • Do people care about the premise?
  • How do you feel when telling joke?
  • Is there a definitive click moment?
  • Punchline as tight as possible?

Gilson Lubin told me that the audience need to be invested or engaged in order for them to laugh. I had to give them a reason to care. When crafting my premises, especially the premises of the first few jokes in my set, I need to start off with material that the audience cares about, slowly bringing them into my world.

Likability

Smile. If they like you, they’ll laugh.

Vulnerability

The audience needs to believe that they have an influence on the comedian. Acknowledge them, let them influence your performance. Stand up comedy is not simply about reciting jokes from memory.

Funny enough, Interconnectedness and Comedy is a post on how I learned this the hard way.

Commit

Half measures avail us nothing – Shakespeare

Illusion of Spontaneity

Give the impression that you’re sharing thoughts that have been with you all day and that you are the same person on stage that you are as off stage.

Quinn C. Martin is the first person to bring this up to me. He’s awesome at weaving the crowd into his act.

Conviction

It’s essential that you believe you are funny and have a right to be on stage.

Belief is the cause – Dr. Robert Anthony

Rationalizing the Experience of Bombing

It’s egocentric thinking people care about our failure when we bomb. They don’t care, especially on amateur nights. No matter how poorly you did, twenty minutes are you leave the stage people won’t remember you or the fact that your bits didn’t work. Tonight doesn’t really matter. What matters is the performer I’m going to be years from now.

Where Do I Go From Here?

art of greg martin

Knowledge is not power; applied knowledge is. It’s not enough to gather information. We must apply this information and test it in the real world, discarding what doesn’t work and keeping what does.

That’s a drawn-out way of saying apply these best practises, i.e.

New Introduction to Set

Premise: People always ask me, hey mike, do you smoke? Nope. Drink? Nah man, not even…so what do you do? *shrug shoulders*

Punchline with click moment and suddness: I eat.

Tim Horton’s Sizes

tim horton's extra large joke

Premise (based on something audience cares about, tension): Tim Hortons’ sizes are getting ridiculous, aren’t they?

Punchline (using suddenness, click moment, and replacing words with gestures): I saw this short chinese girl on the bus the other day, just sipping like this “hand at the waist, slight movement to show tipping of cup, make drinking sound*

Tag: I wasn’t sure if she was thirsty or just buying in bulk.

Tag: and what are they brewing this coffee in…a cauldron?

Tag: 47-year old Sri Lankan lady standing over the medieval wok…’Double Double Toil and Trouble’ *accent and indian head shake*

Sub-Premise: Tim Horton’s hired so many Sri Lankans that they named a cookie after them…

Punchline: It’s called the macadacamian nut.

About Michael Jagdeo

My name's Michael Jagdeo, and I refuse to write about myself in the third person. I'm a Comedian from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In addition to honing my stand-up comedy act, I maintain this blog and write the weekly comedy article for blogTO.com.
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19 Responses to Zen And The Art of Stand Up Comedy: Lessons Learned

  1. Pingback: Welcome | Diary of a Toronto Stand-Up Comedian

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  3. HK Auteur says:

    Great article!

    I do stand-up in Hong Kong, nice to meet you!

    • Hi HK,

      Glad to virtually meet you, too! Looks like we have the same interest in dissecting the elements that make up great art! Any tips on writing for TV/Film that have worked well for you?

      PS – I noticed your email address…I practised Gōjū-ryū for 4 years when I was young. What do you practice?

      @JagdeoComedy on Twitter

      • HK Auteur says:

        Hey man,

        Nice to meet you. Tips for writing screenplays is just keep rewriting it, and stick to character first. Actually you can learn about writing stories from writing jokes I find.

        Martial arts wise, I did kung fu, judo, brazilian jujitsu and then eventually MMA. Now when I have the time, I spar.

        • Hey HK! I recently referenced the concept of Ju Yoku Go Wo Seisu (softness subdues hardness) in a post on How To Handle a Tough Crowd.

          • HK Auteur says:

            Nice post!

            It did seem like a tough crowd. You didn’t even have a spotlight.

            • Hey HK!

              Great to hear from ya. Yeah, 96% of them were not there for comedy at all.

              At the same time, I had the biggest advantage over everyone else: I went last.

              I got to survey the room. I got to see who was listening and who wasn’t. I had the time to digest the fact that just going into my set wasn’t going to work.

              Tough gigs are part of the business, I guess.

              What about you? What’s the screenwriter’s equivalent to a tough gig?

              • HK Auteur says:

                Well, I did an open mic in a bar recently that was not unlike your experience.

                I realized how spoiled I am from the comedy club environment that I’m used to. The low-ceilings, lack of an open bar and the fact that it’s contextualized that it’s a comedy show make it much easier.

                Mostly these kind of shows are hard because people do not know it’s a comedy show and the fact that I cannot hear their response (in which, I can’t gauge what i am doing). But yeah, I attempted what you did, I basically just tried to round 10-15 people and make them laugh as best as I could.

              • Lol it’s the comedy equivalent to segmenting the market.

                In a lot of ways, I’m glad I’ve done those types of shows because it’s given me thick skin and taught me how to enjoy myself and my craft regardless of the circumstances.

                Life in every breath.

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