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One of the toughest parts of doing standup comedy at an Open Mic Night was deciding exactly what to say. I have never written a joke in my life, so the idea trying to write five minutes’ worth of jokes seemed impossible.
So I decided to do what I already knew I could do: tell stories. I knew I had a much better chance at being funny with stories than if I tried to make hilarious observations about airline food.
A few hours before I went onstage at the comedy club, I was talking to a friend who asked me, “What are you going to say when it’s your turn?”
I’m going to tell a couple of stories,” I said.
My friend seemed concerned. “Is that what they’re going to be expecting?” He asked. “Don’t most comedians tell jokes? Are there very many comics who tell stories?” I told him he was probably right but that I did have any jokes, so it didn’t really matter what people were expecting. I could only use the material that I had.
As it turns out, there are lots of different styles of standup comedy.
- Some comics tell traditional jokes and specialize in rapid-fire setup/punch-line delivery (such as Rodney Dangerfield and Mitch Hedberg).
- Some comics are “observational.” This is the “Have you ever noticed…?” brand of comedy (such as Jerry Seinfeld and Brian Regan).
- Some comedians are “Insult comics,” who are at their best when they are making fun of people (such as Don Rickles and Lisa Lampenelli).
- There are comedians who are often talked about as “Confessional,” and they basically specialize in raw honesty and tell you things about themselves that most people would never want to admit to anyone (such as Richard Pryor and Louis C.K.).
- And then there are story-based comedians such as Bill Cosby and Mike Birbiglia. These are the kinds of comedians who tell long stories and hope to glean as much humor out of those stories as possible. This is what I was attempting to do at the comedy club.
Of course, these categories are not set in stone, and there are lots of comedians who flow in and out of a couple different styles. There are also lots of other “types” not mentioned here.
The point is that there is not merely one single type of comedian, and style has everything to do with the personality and strength of each specific comic.
A comedian needs to know specifically what is funny about him (or her). When a comic tries to take on a style—or a voice—that is not authentic to that comic, it never goes well.
There’s a scene in Mike Birbiglia’s semi-autobiographical 2012 film Sleepwalk With Me in which main character Matt—a struggling comedian—learns that a club owner wants him to perform thirty minutes of comedy when he only has ten minutes’ worth of material. Another comic—played by Marc Maron—advises Matt to fill the time by doing “crowd work” and making fun of people in the audience. Matt tells Marc, “Whenever I make fun of people they punch me.” Regardless of his reservations, Matt gets desperate and, while onstage, he points to one guy in the audience and says, “Nice shirt, loser!” Nobody laughs. Matt tries to recover by saying, “Sorry… No, I like it. It’s nice… Sorry.” This illustrates a crucial principle in standup comedy as well as all of public speaking: Never try to be something you know you are not.
As with standup comedy, there are lots of different styles of preaching. People tend to identify the style that they prefer and assume that Jesus likes that style best, too.
If you are a preacher or a public speaker of any kind, here is something you need to know: You are not some off-brand version of someone else’s favorite speaker. You are you, and that is who you are supposed to be when you preach.
What comedians understand and what preachers need to learn is that you do not have to copy someone else’s style; you have your own voice, and you should use it.
So here are some things to do as you develop your voice-
1. Accept the fact that you will never make everybody like you.
I have served as a teaching pastor at two different churches, and I have received feedback that was highly complimentary and other feedback that was… not.
I was once standing in the foyer of the church where I was the teaching pastor, and I was wearing one of those microphones that sits on your face—this is the universal sign for “I’m going to preach soon.” A woman walked right up to me and asked, “Where’s the senior pastor? Isn’t he preaching today?”
“No,” I said, suddenly feeling the need to apologize. “It’s just me.”
“Oh man!” she said, disappointed. “I was really hoping he would be preaching today.”
“He’ll be back next week,” I offered, being placed in the odd position of having to console someone whose biggest problem in life was that I would be preaching at her church.
Her shoulders slumped, and she said, “Okay.” She then turned around and walked out of the building. After getting up and dressed and out the door that morning, she bailed out on the whole plan once she found out that I would be preaching.
I don’t care how good you think you are; that kind of thing will affect your self-confidence.
I used to take every single bit of criticism personally. I actually believed it might be possible to become such a good preacher that I could make everybody like me. But it’s never going to happen. Not for me, and not for you.
Another preacher I know once told me, “Rob, as a preacher, you’re a lot like bleu cheese. People either really like you, or they really don’t.” He then said, “And that’s okay.”
2. Learn what people like about you.
I once heard an interview with Mike Birbiglia in which he was discussing how he developed his comedy style. He said this-
“I listened to this interview once with Jerry Seinfeld that really influenced my comedy… [he said] that when you’re starting out in comedy it’s the audience that tells you what’s funny about you… You need to listen to that” (Interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, August 20, 2012).
As with comedy, the people who like your preaching can tell you a lot about who you are as a preacher. Your audience will tell you who you are and what exactly you are doing when you preach.
So perhaps a question preachers should ask themselves is, “When I preach, what kinds of people give me the most positive feedback?” The answer will tell you a lot.
If you prepare sermons that you would want to hear and deliver them as yourself, you will learn what people like about you as a communicator.
3. Pay attention to your listeners while you are speaking.
When are your listeners most engaged? If they are laughing, what makes them laugh? If they are feeling some other kind of emotion—sadness, anger, relief, fear, regret, etc.—at what point were those emotions triggered? Noticing these things will help you know when you are strongest when you preach.
4. Learn to appreciate styles that are different from yours.
I have several friends who are communicators, and they are very different preachers than I am. As public speakers, it is okay to celebrate diversity in our craft and to recognize the skill that other communicators bring to the platform.