In my new pursuit of stand-up comedy, my biggest challenge is the time limit. The “tight five” is the bread-and-butter of a stand-up comedian.
For some people, five minutes alone on stage is an eternity. For me, it’s an uncomfortable restriction — hardly a warm-up.
Of course, that stretch is part of my reason for experimenting with stand-up comedy.
Based on my limited experience, here are 5 essential elements for a “tight five”:
(1) Preparation: Know Where You’re Going
I never wanted to be an actress because I don’t like to memorize things. I don’t like to be scripted. I like to go with the flow.
“Winging it” is my comfort zone. (I understand that I am not normal in this regard.) I tend to feel that the more I prepare for something, and the more scripted I am, the less authentic I come across.
Although part of the process of honing your material requires delivering it to an audience, you can’t just get on stage and shoot the shit. In stand-up comedy, you must know where you’re going.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room to improvise. I’ve seen some great comedians who can take something and run with it, but those skills take time to learn and master. The comedians who are the most conversational are still prepared.
Most of the writing I’ve done has been long-form writing: high-school essays, college and law school papers, legal briefs. I have a deeply ingrained conditioning to provide context before getting to my point. This is how I tell stories too. It’s not great for blogging. And it’s deadly for stand-up.
Five minutes isn’t a lot of time (unless you’re really bombing, and then it’s an eternity). To keep a set to five minutes requires economy of words.
If you’re funny, that “tight five” really needs to be a “tight four” to allow time for the audience to laugh.
You have to know exactly what you want to say and you must be precise.
No extraneous words, either in the set-up or the punchline.
Keep only what’s critical.
At the outset, I want to ease in so that I can build rapport with the audience. There’s no time for that in a five minute set. I have to build instant rapport.
I also need to trust the audience. I’m a natural teacher, and my tendency is to want to explain things. I’ve learned that over-explaining kills jokes.
Trusting the audience is a huge component of crafting material. When you trust that the audience will get it, you can be precise and dive in without giving context.
It’s harder than you think to know what five minutes feels like when you’re not looking at a clock. Part of the skill I’m developing in this process is to learn how to feel the time, even when crafting the jokes.
I’m not there yet, by far.
As I try to edit down my set into a “tight five” I’m constantly wondering how many words do I need to cut?
Experienced comedians likely know just on paper how long a set will be and how to cut thirty or sixty seconds.
Once you’re on stage, you’ve got to be in the moment. You must leave everything else aside. And you can’t let yourself get flustered by distractions. It’s mindfulness in action.
The first time I got the one-minute warning light, my mind shut off and I abruptly ended my set. It takes a while to get comfortable with the warning light and still continue. I’m not completely there yet. In my first show, I saw the red light once it was on. I knew the light came on with one minute left, but I didn’t see it go on. I know that the last minute of my set I was partially in my head, wondering when did that light go on?
If you’re in your head, you’re not connecting with the audience. Even the best jokes won’t land in that situation.
As it happens, these are also the fundamental elements of productivity. Coincidence? Not at all.