Applying Lessons Learned from Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy

So it’s April 4th, which means I’m on stage at the Hard Rock Cafe with Quinn C. Martin in 11 days.

Did I mention that I haven’t been on stage since February 19th? Did I also mention that I need a COMPLETELY NEW five-minute set for that show?

But as Parkinson’s Law states, Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.‘ Now that the pressure’s on, it’s time to get to work.

But it didn’t feel like work last night.

How I Get Comfortable Before Going Up On Stage

how to be a comic - becoming comfortable on stage

One of the things that I use to get comfortable before a set is to socialize with the other comedians. Other comics don’t do that at all, preferring to pour over their material and rehearse before going up. However, I’ve found that the more comfortable I am with the people in the room, the more comfortable I am talking to them when I’m on stage.

And that’s how I see my performance on stage; it’s not a speech or a lecture. I’m having a conversation with them, telling them what’s on my mind, just as I would talking to a friend on the phone. I want to take to the stage like a bird to th’ air (someone said this, I dunno who).

After the show, Hannah Hogan, winner of a Canadian Comedy Award for her work on YTV’s, ‘That’s So Weird’ mentioned to me that I looked like I was having fun on stage…she was right.

Engaging the Audience Using Improvisation

how to be a comic - engaging the audience

I love starting sets with improvisation based on the feeling of the room and the previous comedians’ jokes for a few reasons:

  • It fosters audience engagement off the top, which is the most important thing you can do besides getting them to like you in the first 10-20 seconds of a set. Audiences listen up when you’re talking about something relevant to them.
  • My favourite comedians always include room for improv in their sets.

Is it absolutely necessary? Nope. But I can’t say this enough: Audience Engagement is one of the most critical aspects of stand-up comedy, especially when the audience is drunk and on the edge of rowdy.

Applying Lessons Learned from Jay Sankey’s Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy

jay sankey zen and the art of stand up comedy

Reading Jay Sankey’s Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy has introduced a new world of technical elements and artistic understanding to my act. It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that, from a best practices point of view, my written material is giving me a great chance at doing well on stage.

So let’s dig deeper. Here’s how I crafted the improv I used to start my set:

What Comedian Said / My Observation What I Said On Stage Technical Elements Used
I observed that the audience was 95% white people. To the white people in the room, I want to sincerely apologize…I know you were really looking forward to an evening free of minorities…Rene and I have thoroughly ruined that for you, and for that I apologize.
  • Engaging the audience by using their name and talking directly to them (To the white people…).
  • Premise that builds tension (What does he want to apologize about?)
  • Punchline that releases the tension in a surprising fashion.
Rene Payes made fun of the fact that he’s overweight, something we have in commmon. Give it up for Rene! [audience claps] Rene has inspired me…he’s inspired me to become bulimic.
  • Engaging the crowd by having them clap for Rene.
Hannah Hogan lamented that she was only going to get fatter and uglier. Hannah mentioned that she’s only going to get fattier and uglier. But don’t worry…come to Scarborough; being fat and overweight’s an aphrodisiac where I come from. You can get any black guy you want.
  • Apparent Spontaneity – I’ve used the ‘black guys love overweight white women’ before, but reworked the material so it seemed like I was coming up with the joke off the top of my head. Quinn C. Martin was the first person to mention this to me.

Testing Out New Material

how to be a comic - testing out new material on stage

Man, it took me 4 months to come up with five minutes of material, how the hell am I going to get another five minutes in the span of less than two weeks?!

That had me really worried before tonight. But a little voice whispered to me, ‘You’re not the same comedian you were back then. Your writing is fifty times better than it was before.’

And the material worked! Did every punchline get a laugh? No. But enough did to know that I’m on the right track.

In case you’re curious, here’s one of the bits I used:

Buying Crappy Shoes
  • Premise: Grew up poor, man. My dad never took me to Foot Locker or Athlete’s World to buy shoes…
  • Punchline: My dad took me to Honest fucking Ed’s.
  • Sub-Premise: They don’t put shoes in individualized boxes at Honest Ed’s…
  • Tag:They just toss the shoes into big ass bins.
  • Tag:Like they’re saying, ‘Yo find the sizes yourself, you poor assholes.’
  • Sub-Premise:And like bad fruit the shoes started turning yellow at the bottom.
  • Punchline:…like they were so embarrassed be there they started pissed their soles.
  • Sub-Premise:Honest Ed’s doesn’t sell Nike…or Reebok…
  • Punchline:They sell Captain Planet shoes.
  • Tag:There’s no air bubble…
  • Tag:You can’t pump them up…
  • Tag:They use velcro instead of laces because too many people were hanging themselves when they got home.

You’ll notice that I don’t use that many words in the above bit. Jay Sankey said that we don’t speak in the same way that we write. We often omit words in casual conversation without even noticing it.

For example, instead of saying, ‘I grew up poor man‘ I’ll say, ‘Grew up poor, man.’ It’s a small thing, I know, but Jay really opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing as tightly as possible, balancing the written part of my act with the expressive, ‘acting’ part of my act.

Tonight I’m touching the road again, but not before I go over my material with a comb and practice it another 30x.

Wise Words from the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

I’m a gigantic fan of every podcast that involves Joe Rogan and Duncan Trussell. Both are well-read in addition to being seasoned comedians.

Just last week, Joe and Duncan were reflecting on our precarious existence in the universe (click here to go to the podcast). Duncan said:

If the sun just got only a tiny bit hotter…we’re done. Gone. And how dumb would we feel that we were wasting our time on bullshit instead of having beautiful orgies…’

He was right. Do what you love, homies. It’s fun. I wouldn’t trade places the anyone in the world right now.

Michael Jagdeo


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
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4 Responses to Applying Lessons Learned from Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy

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

  2. Great post again bro. Wish you had posted the video of your stand up as well

    • Hey Mike!

      Thanks, dude.

      Yeah, I hated myself afterwards for not taping it. My bits were so new that I took my phone up with me in case I needed to glance at it in case I lost my place.

      Taping sets is one of the most important things you can do. You have to inspect what you expect, as it were.

  3. Pingback: Zen And The Art of Stand Up Comedy: Lessons Learned | Diary of a Toronto Stand-Up Comedian

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