As I wandered along towards a karaoke night, as someone who finds singing along with songs playing in my car difficult, this theory came up about being timid and doing stand up comedy. I thought I was an exhibitionist. I keep thinking I have sorted out the difference between nerves (fight or flight) and anxiety, but no I haven’t yet.
Have you heard the one about the shy comedian? You probably have heard it too many times to be surprised by it any more.
You’ve probably heard the one about the depressed comedian too.
If you don’t do comedy, you’ve probably been tempted to ask a comedian to tell you a joke on the spot, haven’t you? This is why I think delivering a joke at a party in conversation is more scary then doing a ‘tight 5’ on stage in front of an audience that expects to be entertained.
A ‘Tight 5’
I knew what a ‘High 5’ was, so the first time I heard someone say ‘tight 5’ I was scared they meant fisting.
Boom boom crash.
Nerves are like a free high. I can see why people get addicted to adrenalin, whether from roller coasters, exercise or by performing. It seems that the people who most want those natural highs are the ones they make the biggest difference to, to help them feel more in control of themselves.
This is my theory on timid comedians, speaking from personal experience. For me, being timid is not being afraid to speak, it is just being afraid of how people perceive others and not wanting to be mis-perceived. This makes it really hard for me to relax and speak to people I don’t know. I have never learnt how to put on an act and so if people respond negatively to me, I take it straight to heart which I think people sense, which makes it worse.
Going back to the depressed comedian: Depression is linked (I read it somewhere) to a lack of endorphins, so the adrenalin rush that nerves give you before a comedy gig can balance that out and give you a feeling of sharpness and clarity. This feeling is a brief relief from the person’s normal feeling of despondency.
The best sketch I’ve heard about what happens when you tense up at a party and feel out of control is by Roisin Conaty, the 2010 winner of the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Festival. She delivered this scene with the movements and the conversation content that inevitably ended with the other person saying something like ‘I’m nipping to the loo, see you in a sec’.
Spoken language is wonderful for saying something that you know the other person knows exactly what you mean (through ‘memes’ – phrases like ‘is there anything else I can help you with?’ – or conventions) which allows you to say something very different to what you mean. I’m still trying to get this to work in my stand up material. Heaven forbid they call you on it.
The nerves I get before a stand up gig are a natural high and help me focus. I know they’ve kicked in when I want to bail out of the gig. Your mind can feel as if it is operating at its peek. The problem is to keep the momentum up as, once you feel safe, this sharpening effect diminishes, as with any drug.
Context Versus Content
I find most people take their hat off to anyone who gets up to do stand up comedy, so there is a level of acceptance and wanting the person to do well on stage. This isn’t the same when you ask a comedian to tell a joke at a party. The two contexts are very different from each other.
I took up stand up comedy to help me get over my fear of job interviews. It did work for getting jobs in the sector I was already working in, and it helped in the job of media sales itself.
As with stand up comedy, the job interviews that make me most nervous are the ones I do best at. However, to reduce anxiety, I need to prepare properly. I need the nerves to kick start that fight or flight mechanism and the preparation to give me confidence.