Wednesday, December 24, 2014


The concept of standup I am totally down with. There you are, a clown, standing in front of a live audience, trying to make them laugh. If they laugh, you’re funny. If they do not laugh, your funny needs some work. It is the ideal feedback loop for a performer. 

And a great standup comedian, I mean, a really great standup comedian, is so so good and so three-dimensional, that even if she gets famous and does shitty movies or shitty tv shows, any shitty piece of shit she’s in you still love her, because she is so HERSELF. 

(Hilarious that I used a female pronoun in the above paragraph. How many female standups with extensive tv/film careers can we come up with? Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr… anyway. I’ll get back to all that woman stuff soon.)

When they’re good, they’re pretty much good forever. I was watching Louie CK’s show the other day. I don’t really like it, but I love him. He is so himself, and even though he is clearly an actor, he has built a powerhouse performable persona for himself. It can have different names and say different lines and have every different character motivation under the sun, but we will believe it and like it. Every time. 

So in terms of this Business We Call Show, in terms of creating any kind of persona that you want people to laugh at, it would seem that standup comedy would be the perfect vehicle for creation, giving a performer that three-dimensionality I’ve mentioned before. 

Except for all the reasons why it isn’t. Except for why the culture of standup could totally fuck you. 

Here’s something I’m troubled by: loads of comedians take improv and sketch classes. They have a teacher, a coach, a director. But the culture of standup is different. There are standup classes here and there, but not entire schools built around it like there are for improv and sketch. The audience is your only teacher, the standup world says. If they laugh, great. If not, go fuck yourself. 

It’s a hard and scary world, when you put it like that. Yes, of course it’s the right idea that the audience is your primary teacher. But if a standup comedian isn’t sure why an audience is laughing, or why they’re not laughing, then he is just beating his head with a failure stick over and over again. He may get his laughs eventually if he stays with it and grows a horrible lizard skin of self-protection, but he’ll get laughs a whole helluva lot faster, easier and without all those lizardy scales with feedback. And by feedback I don’t just mean laugh-related grunts. I mean helpful words from an outside observer

Another thing that troubles me about standup culture is that I’ve seen so many developing comedians focus primarily on their jokes, and not on who they are on stage. Great comedians have figured out some crucial things about how to make the audience root for them from the get-go. Not-great comedians have not figured that out, and no amount of brilliant joke-writing is going to change that. 

It doesn’t matter what you SAY. You can tell us about your fucked-up childhood, and even though it’s fabulous material, we won’t care, unless we care about you, in that instinctual way we can’t put a finger on. You have to do that to us, first, before we hear two words about that childhood of yours.

It’s real nice to be able to say funny things. It’s better to be funny before you even open your mouth. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Coming Out is a hard exercise for some people. It is wonderful for others. Having it be hard and/or wonderful doesn’t predict that much in terms of your future in this work. The biggest predictor is how honest you are willing to be about your own experience. 

Here are two stories about two different Naked Comedy workshop participants in two different cities. Both of them we’ll call Lucy.

Lucy #1 is in her mid-20s, wears a goofy t-shirt, loves improv. She looks very nervous before the exercise. She goes backstage and pushes her stretch pants up into bulky little shorts. We sing the clown entrance song for Lucy, and she enters nervously, eyes fixed on me.

“Good,” I say. “Relax your jaw.” (I will talk more about jaw release in a later blog entry. Together, we will worship at the altar of jaw release.) 

Lucy’s jaw releases and her mouth opens slightly. Suddenly her face appears to open up, and the audience laughs at how open and lovely she is. She looks surprised.

“They like you,” I say. “Do you know why?”
Lucy vigorously shakes her head. The audience laughs louder.
“Because you’re being honest,” I say to Lucy. Lucy tips her head and stares at me, taking that in. Her eyes are wide. Everyone in the audience is leaning forward in their seats, taken with her.

Lucy goes through the exercise, moving from one audience member to another, seeing and being seen. Each new person she sees engenders an entirely new reaction in her. Some people make her immediately light up with delight, others make her look curious, or nervous. But she is totally with each person, and the audience is engaged with every little way her energy shifts. 

“How was it, Lucy?” I ask her when her attention comes back to me. In this exercise, the person is not allowed to speak; she has to answer the question non-verbally. She smiles slowly, like she is still deciding how she feels. She tips her head left to right to indicate, it was so-so. Her eyes roll with the magnitude of what she has done, and the audience laughs again. She looks mystified at their laughter. 

Afterwards, in the debriefing, Lucy says she doesn’t understand why everyone was laughing. “I was just reacting to what I was getting,” she says. 
“Exactly, Lucy!” we all say. 
Lucy starts to get it.

Here’s a story about another Lucy. Mid-to-late 30’s, tattoos, very into yoga and dance. We sing the clown entrance song for this Lucy, and Lucy enters the space with her t-shirt up around her neck and her sports bra showing. Great choice, Lucy! But she also has a big huge grin on her face, like Mama Rose was standing backstage whispering to Lucy as she entered, “SMILE, GYPSY. THEY WON’T LOVE YOU UNLESS YOU SMIIIIIIILE.”

“Go back,” I tell this Lucy. “Why are you smiling? There is nothing to smile about yet.”

Lucy leaves and enters again, less sure. Slightly more interesting. 

I ask Lucy to release her jaw.
Lucy’s mouth is still smiling, just close-lipped now. 

“Stop smiling,” I tell Lucy. Lucy glares at me.
“Good!” I say. The audience laughs. Lucy shakes her head, confused. I say, “That was honest, and the audience likes you being honest.” But Lucy doesn’t really see. She won’t relax, she won’t just be. Her jaw stays tight. 

As her eyes move from one audience member to another, we see her discomfort with being seen, and her inability to see us. She just doesn’t look interested in us. Her eyes move from one to another, completing the assignment, but not stopping to connect and wonder at the uniqueness of each audience member’s gaze. She can’t see past herself. Her eyes finally come back to me. She looks vaguely pissed off, or like a photocopy of a pissed-off person.

“How was that,” I ask. She shrugs, then gestures that it was “ok.”
“Really?” I say. “It was okay? You looked miserable up there.”
She shakes her head, shrugs, sticks to her story: it was okay. 

After the exercise is done and she has come out to debrief, Lucy explains that she has had some major dental work, and that was making it hard to release her jaw, and that was what was frustrating about the exercise.

But come on. It didn’t have dick to do with dental work. 

Lucy’s jaw was tight because she didn’t want to let the exercise in, because she was not comfortable being seen without a big fake smile on her face. Why? I’m guessing that Lucy was holding a lot of shitty feelings inside, so if she had released her jaw, she probably would have bawled her eyes out. And while that would have been awesome for the rest of us, Lucy was not ready to be that vulnerable on stage. On that day, she was not ready to be a clown. 

Remember: The word “CLOWN” could originate from the old English word “CLOD,” meaning wet earth. Clown is wet! So don’t worry about getting moist on stage. Moisture should be the goal!

Plus, when you cry on stage, you give everyone in the audience more than their money’s worth, no matter how much they paid. We love watching people experience things, and pain is one of our favorite things to watch! 

Friday, December 12, 2014


You love comedy. Maybe your dream is to write and star in your own web series, which will get snatched up by a major network but don’t worry you’ll still get to keep your artistic integrity. Maybe you want to do your standup show at Carnegie Hall, with an HBO special and a book deal and a podcast of you sounding clever, relaxed and very, very popular. You live to make others laugh, that much is clear.  And you know it’s essential to polish your craft. But why clown/bouffon? You aren’t sure how this work could help you. 

Okay, you say, I get why someone who wants to do live theater would do interactive comedy. But I want to be on TV and film! So wouldn’t it be pointless to put all that work into developing my relationship with a live audience?

Nope. In fact it is the difference between being a good and a great comedian. It’s all a question of your dimensions. 

If you are working on developing, say, a comedic character, and you are not considering how this character lives in front of a live audience—if, in fact, the character is not BORN in front of a live audience, and cultivated there—then you are building a flat square, when what you need is a cube. You need to create something that takes up space in the world, that has shape, weight. Something that comes from your heart and not your head. Something that jumps off the stage (or out of the screen) and touches us, grabs us, gets spittle on us. 

Developing a character with an audience adds that crucial three-dimensionality to what you do. Your character knows how to be still and just be, because she was born in stillness and self-acceptance. Your character knows how to breathe captivatingly, how to move through space charmingly, how to say that one thing that everyone will laugh at. Because every inch of that character has been tested in real time, in front of live human beings who either laughed or didn’t laugh, every step of the way. 

Consider the strength of the character you develop through interactive comedy. It is like the toughest tree in the Arctic circle. It has known adversity and triumph, darkness and light. It has no fear of existing in front of people, because it could not exist without them. It has a palpable trust in the universe, and that pulls people in, every time. 

Any terrifying audition you walk into, any hot-shot casting agent’s office, any high-stakes performance opportunity you can name, any performance opportunity at all, that character will be ready to roll. 

You wanna be great at comedy? That’s why clown, clown. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

COME OUT, CLOWN! (the first exercise)

There you are, poor clown, hidden away from the world. You want to come up and say hello, fly your freaky clown flag for all the world to see, but you are afraid of getting hit with big shoes and oceans of grease paint on your way to the surface. Don’t be afraid of what anyone will think, clown! Make the trek! It’s great out here! 

The seminal clown moment—really, the building block for all of your work as a comedian of any kind—is Your Coming Out Party. It is when you come out to the world as the clown that you are. 

To start off, you go backstage, you put on a hat. Sue Morrison (clown/bouffon teacher based in Toronto), who first introduced me to this exercise, explains it this way: When you clown, you are exposed to powerful spirits, and the hat protects you. 

I also like the hat for other reasons. My Jewish soul likes the humility before a deity/deities that inspires the yarmulke. I also find that a hat neutralizes gender: I’ve got a big sexy mane I’m real vain about, but when it’s all tucked up in a hat, suddenly I’m just a person. Better for comedy. 

For this exercise, I recommend a simple brimless hat that just covers your head and holds in all your hair.  A skull cap, a ski hat. I think you Canadians call those things “toques.” A simple pull-on hat: no bells, whistles, brims or feathers. And no bangs when you perform, hat or not, no bangs ever ever ever. 


The most ideal hat is a pair of pantyhose. They hold all your hair (INCLUDING YOUR BANGS), they stay snug on your head, and later you can wear them out for cocktails. 

I used to lead this exercise with clown noses, but I don’t anymore. Sure, there are some benefits to working with a nose. It is, after all, the smallest mask, and a mask is so helpful for transformation. Plus, you do look different with a big dumb red nose on your face. It accentuates your eyes; it takes away the sophisticated adult-ness of your fully formed nose, and gives you instead a baby-esque button. 

And there is something powerful about truly “coming out” as a clown, standing in front of the world (or at least, an audience of fellow workshop participants) and saying, Yes, this is who I am. I will put something stupid and red on my face. I will do anything, anything to make you laugh. 

But I don’t work with clown noses anymore. And I don’t think you should either. More on that later.

Instead of the nose, what I do now instead of the nose is this: I tell the person, go backstage, get your hat on right, and make an adjustment to your outfit that you think is amusing. This way, the clown is still “coming out” with an intentionally comedic costume of some sort—a symbolic clown nose, if you will. 

When the clown is ready to enter, s/he knocks. 
We the audience clap in rhythm and sing a “clown entrance song” for the clown. I like Stars and Stripes Forever. But any ridiculous, circus-y sounding song will do. It should feel like the audience’s pre-show sea chanty, getting us all excited for the entertainment to come. 

Now the clown enters. Just enters. The audience is the first thing the clown sees. The clown finds her light center stage and stands there and sees us. The clown does nothing but see us. Silently. 

Before you can do anything onstage, any kind of clowning, any audience interaction, any comedy of any kind, you must be able to do nothing. You must be able to stand in front of an audience, and see them all—not just the audience en masse, you must see the individuals that make up the audience. See each of them in their eyes, and let one of each of them see you. 

This is the only way. The key to being totally loved on stage is first to be able to stand there and do nothing. Of course “doing nothing” is not really doing nothing; being present with us is the biggest thing you can possibly do. If you can do nothing and just be with us, and make us fall in love you (or more to the point, LET us fall in love with you) you are ready to be a great clown. 

But first, take this hair clip, and get those fucking bangs off your face.