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 hardly a warm-up. Five minutes is an uncomfortable restriction for me.
Of course, that stretch is part of my reason for doing this.
Based on my limited experience, here are 5 things you need for a tight five:
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.
While 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. And 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 trust that the preceding acts are going to be good enough to warm up the audience. And I must trust the host to create and maintain rapport.
I also need to trust the audience. I’m a natural teacher, and my tendency is to want to explain things. But over-explaining kills jokes. As I review my transcripts from my practice sessions, open mics, and performances, I find places where I over-explain.
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 development process is to feel the time.
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 the stage, you’ve got to be on the stage and in the moment. You must leave everything else aside.
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.
These are also the fundamental elements of productivity. Coincidence? Not at all.