Friday Exercise: Stand Up to Standup

Posted on 22 August 2009

I recently had a chance to catch up with some of my TV watching. Top on my list was the 2009 Raw Comedy Finals on the ABC. This is the national competition that uncovers some of Australia’s finest comedy talent. It was an interesting mix of comedians.  We had men, women, duos, musical acts, doing their thing in a variety of styles. It was so diverse that I sat wondering how each state arrived at their winners, who was judging, and what it said about the local humour.

Overall it was a great night of fun. I did have one niggle. A number of the comedians were wandering all over the stage higgledy-piggledy, forcing cameras this way and that and making me feel motion sick. I’m currently reading Franklin Ajaye’s Comic Insights, a very fine book. He strongly recommends the use of stage movement. I don’t disagree with him, but I would say that budding comedians should follow a few guidelines in this regard.

Certainly standing motionless like a mortified rabbit in gunsight during rabbit season (duck season) often won’t endear you to an audience. But the problem isn’t the standing still. Elliott Goblet, Australia’s answer to Steven Wright, uses very little physical movement and his performances are well loved. The problem is, how much fear are you communicating?

Swaying from foot to foot, nervously scuttling all over the stage, or standing stock still are all ways that indicate you aren’t comfortable in the limelight. You have cast the audience as a pack of evil minions who are about to eat you alive, and they can read that from your body language. Who likes to be cast as an evil minion? This is why the audience becomes uncomfortable and eventually can turn on a comedian.

I have seen comedians fumble lines, trip over mic cables, and the like and still keep the audience on side. This is because they have engaged with the audience and shown that they believe in the audience’s goodwill. When someone thinks well of you, most people want to live up to that image. The same is true in the comedian/audience relationship.

So the trick to stage movement is that it must always be purposeful. If you move from left to right of the stage, then you must have a reason for that movement. If you wave your arm up and down, you must have a reason for that. If you scrunch your face up in a moue, that too requires a reason. These are the sorts of reasons you must have:

  • You are imitating the movements of some person during an event (eg a paramedic running to a victim who has fallen because they were stepped on by Godzilla).
  • You are generally illustrating movement through time or space (eg you have a joke about rockets being shot from the Earth to the Moon).
  • You are building tension as you gradually lead up to a punchline (eg you enumerate the things that are going wrong for the father of the bride at a weddding, ending with the bride running away with the best man).
  • You are punctuating important points in your story (eg you emphasise with body and voice the word “luck”, so when your next line is supposed to end with a rhyme but is completed with the word “fudge”, everyone knows what you mean and laughs).

I find it absolutely invaluable to plant my feet shoulder width apart, take a deep breath, smile, and look into the audience’s eyes before I begin a performance, and often again after I complete a performance. Planting my feet and breathing grounds all that nervous energy, so I can direct it into a confident performance. Any time I don’t know what to do with myself, being self-assured enough to plant my feet again until it becomes clear where and when the next movement is needed will continue to keep my performance strong. Extraneous movement is just going to heighten nervous energy and wastefully send it in all directions. Energy must flow in a single cycle of power. You must clearly and directly send energy to your audience and graciously receive it back from them, using their energy to help you propel more their direction.

You must be one hundred percent committed to what you are saying, to the world you are creating with your stories and persona, and to the movements you make. Take a tip from actors who ask, “What is my motivation here?” Why am I making this movement here and now? Would some other movement or no movement be better? Be aware of where you are coming from: what are the thoughts, experiences, and feelings that are propelling you. Be also aware of where you are going to: what change is this movement creating within yourself and within the story.

Your Friday exercise is to take a short routine and 1) perform it a few times while keeping your feet planted on a single spot, see if you can get yourself comfortable with the power of that sort of stability, then 2) purposefully choreograph all the movements you feel will add to your words and keep yourself to those movements without a single added gesture.

Movement can certainly add dynamism to a performance, but so can a simple powerful presence.

Peace and kindness,


1 Response to Friday Exercise: Stand Up to Standup

  • toby says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you, K, that nothing drives me crazier than a “wandering” performer. Sometimes watching new kids, I want to rush onto stage and drive nails through their feet into the floor, to stop them pointlessly shuffling from foot to foot!

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