March 15, 2010

Lessons from Seinfeld

Download audio here.

In the documentary, "Comedian," Jerry Seinfeld has decided to scrap all his previous material from decades of success as a standup comedian and TV star, and start over with a new standup act.

This film shows the challenges of this monumentally successful performer as he makes his rounds from comedy club to comedy club, trying out first five minutes of material, then ten, then twenty, attempting to work his way up to a full hour of material worthy of a one-man show.

In a parallel story, and crossing paths with Seinfeld, comedian Orny Adams has been working in standup for several years and is looking for his big break.

I found some excellent lessons on writing, preparing and presenting material, whether it's a comedy bit or a presentation.

1. Take good notes and keep them.

Orny Adams has dozens of notebooks full of ideas for jokes. He may never use them, or he may find one that becomes his signature. You never know where an idea will take you, so write them down and save them!

2. Don't add new material at the last minute that you haven't practiced.

Sometimes we think of a new opening or a story that seems to fit, but we haven't taken the time to integrate it into the presentation. Make sure you practice new content to determine how it fits into your overall message and how you'll transition into and out of it. I've added new material at the last minute before and found that it threw me off sync.

3. Figure out how your content works with different kinds of audiences.

Jerry Seinfeld takes gigs at all times of the day and night, on weekdays and on weekends, in order to craft a routine that works for a variety of audiences. You may not like the 8:00 a.m. gig or the one during lunch with the waiters clanking plates and glasses, but the more experience you have with different venues and audiences, the more you'll improve.

4. Don't make excuses.

If your audience doesn't "get" your message or if they don't respond the way you want them to, chances are it's your fault. It's your job to find out what the audience needs and wants and then give it to them. If you're not meeting their needs, they're not going to love you.

Seinfeld says, "Every comedian has a f'n excuse. 'It's the candles, it's the smoke. Put these candles out -- I gotta go on.' I make no excuse. I just wasn't good."

5. Take the time to make your presentation excellent.

Seinfeld started over. Not a single joke remains from his previous routines or TV show. He started with five minutes of material. Three months later, he had 20 minutes of material. A month after that, 40 minutes. At this 4-month mark, he still wasn't sure his routine was going to work.

This is a seasoned, veteran comedian who could easily rest on his laurels, walk on stage and say just about anything to his adoring fans. But he cares about giving the best performance he can give and is taking as long as it takes to make his routine the best it can be.

6. Everyone struggles, even the pros.

Seinfeld says, referring to being on stage again, "It's so hard to get comfortable. It just comes and goes. There are just glimpses, little moments where I feel like myself and I feel comfortable. And then the rest of it, I'm like in my father's suit with these huge sleeves and legs and I'm going, 'What am I wearing, what am I doing here?'"

After his Tonight Show performance with his new routine, he says to his wife:

"It felt like my first Tonight Show [1981]... in that I came off the stage and I have really no idea what happened. Did I seem normal and comfortable?"

He later commented about the performance, "I just did things that I wouldn't normally do. Little lines, little words that -- I just totally focused on the little tiny mistakes that I made. I got 30 phone calls though, which is, I think, the most I ever had in my life for anything."

Even hugely successful performers and speakers are constantly improving their material, always striving to give a better performance and always working to be the best they can be. This is precisely what makes them so successful.

What are you doing today to improve your presentation?

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

TechEase said...

I agree, comedians must be so finely attuned to their audiences. They must elicit an involuntary response that gives instant and continuous feedback on how they're doing. Their mastery of pacing, storytelling, attitude, and their ability to get the audience involved makes them a great study for public speakers. Thanks for pointing it out. I particularly like #4 and #6.

Now I'm off to rent that movie. Comedy documentaries fascinate me.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

The continuous feedback loop is something a lot of speakers miss out on by never learning how to read their audiences.

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