Standup On TV
After lying on the slab since its death in the 90's,
standup on television seems to be rising from the grave
in the past year. Letterman now has Eddie Brill (former
standup) choosing comics, Leno seems to be opening the door
again, NBC is doing Fridays, Conan and Kilborn showcase a
weekly comic or two, Showtime is getting ready to run a
slew of new half hours with hand-picked comics, Comedy Central
is Premium Blending the entire West and East coasts, and HBO
Comedy is re-running all the old standup specials it taped
during the '80s and '90s.
All which is good. Or could be, if only...
If only we knew how to perform on TV. The truth of the
matter is that most of us do not. We are live audience
creatures. We scan real rooms, not virtual realities.
We connect with real people, not mythical Nielsen families.
Our timing is keyed to pronounced laughter, not to editing cues.
Television is a different medium, and it requires a different
form of standup. Being great live doesn't make you great when
you're taped. Think The Grateful Dead.
This month I'm going to at least introduce some ideas about
making the transition from live to tape. It's Christmas morning
and I should be at church making some kind of last ditch effort
to barter for my soul, but instead I'm typing this, so if it isn't
complete enough, blame the holidays.
* * * * *
First off, you have to realize and accept that your old reliable
standup skills can be a major handicap to you in new situations.
It's hard to get experienced standups to give up what has always
worked for them, but you've got to at least adjust. Don't lull
yourself with rationalizations like "I'm going to just relax and
do my thing. I can't change it now." Wrong. Most of us have
got to vary what we do so that it works for television.
I recommend you get truly expert advice from media-experienced
people on what changes to make. Expert advice. Not advice
from your buddy, your wife, your manager, ultimately not even
from me. Get advice from makeup, wardrobe, the camera operator,
the director. Spend a few hours watching TV standup and decide
for yourself what works and what doesn't. Go to a taping, see
what goes on before it's you on the hotspot. You need to know
the environment so you know how to adjust. So either talk to
people who know the game or get some practice in the game
before you try to play at a professional level.
Dress for TV. TV likes certain colors, doesn't like others.
It likes certain materials and not others. Before you do a
show, see if you can get some advice from their wardrobe
people about what to wear. Don't make the choices yourself,
or you'll end up watching your set on a monitor and thinking,
"I look like shit!" (i.e., Halfway through a Showtime
taping I attended, one of the comics was drenched in sweat
that was pouring through his light blue silk shirt).
Get ready to use TV makeup because they are going to make you
up. If you can get two opinions about how you should be made
up, get them. Make sure they do their best job. Joke with
them. Tip them. Encourage them to make you look better than
you do in real life.
Have your hairstyle together. Don't get a haircut the day
before your taping. Do it a week early.
Control your posture. Keep your body facing the camera at all
times. Don't turn sideways, don't turn your shoulders away.
Audiences feel you are connected to them when you face them,
and the audience is the camera. You can shift, walk, have
tics, do anything you want to get more movement in, but don't
ever disconnect your body from the camera.
Move your face. TV is a close-up medium. We're watching
your face, so keep us interested by varying your face, using
your face. Don't be afraid to freeze an expression for a
second or two longer, as long as it is an interesting
expression. And as long as its got energy to it.
Have your introduction written and ready to give them.
No, they don't know what to say about you. So make it
brief, easy, and hand it to them.
Be aware that you are a holistic product on TV. You're
trying to sell a character, a style, a worldview. Make
sure every single thing you do is within that singular idea
you want to sell. Down to your shoes.
Amplify. Turn up your energy, your voice, your emotion,
your punching, your movement. TV drains energy, so you
have to over-energize to keep from looking flaccid. Drink
some caffeine. Get some pop into your set. I'm telling you,
TV drains energy. Even high-energy acts look like tiny dolls
up there because we are used to seeing tremendous visuals,
edits, changes, music, effects, etc. on TV, and standup has
none of those. Think Robin Williams without all
the fake mania.
Have fun. Truly. Don't act it, have it. You have to be
yourself so you don't seem artificial. In other words, you
have to be at ease doing an amplified version of your live
show. You aren't allowed to act, or seem like your acting.
You have to seem authentic, even though you aren't being
Play to the camera first, to the audience through the camera.
Yes, you need laughs from people who are there. But you
don't need them nearly as badly as you need a camera-oriented
performance that can be edited, with laughter added. So
focus on the camera, bring the live audience into the camera
with you. By which I mean every time you talk to the live
audience, bring their focus back to the camera so they come
there with you.
Be emotional. Television needs emotion to keep people
interested, riveted. And you are there to supply it.
Not to draw on the emotion the audience supplies to you,
but to supply it to them. In abundance.
Finally, be aware of how much the director affects how you
look and how your humor works. I've seen some really bad
directorial work on Comedy Central for standup. They use a
wide shot for so long it becomes boring. They're too far
away when you're punching a joke so the home audience can't
see your facial expression. They cut to the audience for
reaction shots at random times, right in the middle of your
punch. They tell you to stand in one spot and not move so
their camera prep is easy-- and thus boring as hell.
A good director will focus on you, not the setting. They'll
go close when you accentuate a bit with your face. They'll
give you a waist up so we get body movement, but also facial
expression. You can't control who directs your shoot, but
you can let them know its important to you to be shot well.
Ask if you can rehearse with them. Ask if you can pre-plan
some of the camera work so they'll know when to come in tight
and you'll know when they're coming in tight. It's insulting
to standups that most of their TV sets aren't highly prepped.
It's one of the reasons that standup died on TV the first time
My best advice is to spend some time watching TV standup.
Watch the standups who have already made the adjustments and
look good doing television. Chris Rock's "Bring the
Pain" is the best taped set of standup ever, at least
from the way it's shot and the way he performs. Watch
Letterman and see how much facial, voice, and body interest
he gets into a single monologue (at least when he's trying).
What I'm saying is that you shouldn't go in unprepared and
just hope it all comes out okay. If you start practicing
things now, get some advice now, you'll have time to really
prepare. And since your tape will be rerun on cable forever,
its probably a good idea to get it right the first time.