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DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

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Dan French

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development

"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming

"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set

"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.

Why move to L.A.?

"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?

What should a manager do?

"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?

"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars

"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living

"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says

"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience

Casting Season in L.A.

"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period

"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!

"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.

"How Edgy"
Column #2

"How Hip"
Column #3

"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?

"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"

"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column

"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise

"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development

"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!

"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money

"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned


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 authentic.

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 around.

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. HOME Back to the Top