Maybe it’s nerves or the adrenaline rush of doing what we’ve waited all day long to do, but many comedians tend to talk a bit too fast on stage. Comedian and owner of the Komedy Korner, Leo DuFour once suggested when I got off stage that I slow down and enjoy my time like I would a delicious meal. Maybe that was a health tip and I’m forgetting that I was scarfing down a Poutine platter at the time….it was Canada after all. Let me find another example.
One of my best friends asked me after a show why I don’t speak on stage like I speak normally off stage. He was right. I didn’t believe in my material at the time so on stage I would yell and ram my jokes down the throats of the audience as quickly as I could.
We need to remember that we’re performing for people who more often than not are in various stages of inebriation. Maybe they’re stone cold sober, but there’s room noise around them so it’s hard to stay focused on you. When we speak slower there’s less of a gap for the audience to hurdle to catch up with you.
Dave Landau is both one of my funniest friends and funniest comedians from Michigan. He speaks on stage about a half a beat slower than he does in real life. I’d argue that in addition to being a great writer, another reason he’s so good at the craft is because he has a slow, clear delivery. His jokes are punchy and his timing is impeccable.
There’s also an added sense of confidence when you speak slower. Rushing reeks of desperation. Very early on in my comedy career Steve Brewer said, “What you say isn’t as important as how you say it.” To a degree I believe that’s true. Delivering “edgy” material confidently tends to make that material hit harder. If you show the audience that you’re not sure of what you’re saying, they won’t be sure either.
If I can’t understand you, I can’t laugh at your jokes. If you tend to be a person who doesn’t enunciate well, slowing down may compensate for that. I have a friend who I understand without any problem off stage. When he gets on stage, I have a hard time deciphering a good chunk of what he’s saying. Here’s the one thing I learned from broadcasting school 22 year ago. Are you ready for this? This is eight grand of wisdom I’m going to impart on you for free. W. That’s is. W. Double You is a word that just about everyone mumbles their way through. Most people say dubyou or dub-o-you. There’s an L in the word. They stressed saying W correctly in broadcasting school because this side of the Mississippi and the Canadian border, all radio and television stations start with the letter. When I’m nervous before a show or feel like I’m just wrestling with my own tongue I’ll repeat W over and over again making sure I hit each sound of the letter. Dub-bul-you. I find myself speaking clearer when I’m on stage. You can paypal me four grand if you want to. In all fairness I also learned how to edit audio tape with a razor blade and tape on a reel to reel when I was at broadcasting school too.
I love metal. The best metal bands are the ones who didn’t just play million mile an hour blast beats, but varied their tempo. Dave Lombardo from Slayer blew away headbangers in the late 80s with his double bass fill near the end of the song Angel of Death. It’s only because the rest of the song wasn’t all double bass that makes that one of the most monumental moments in Slayer history. Since then, a lot of drummers have entire albums worth of double bass, but it’s not as impressive because that’s all it is. If you start at as fast as humanly possible, where can you go from there? It’s the same with speaking. If you’re speaking as fast as you can, how can you speed up for impact to stress a point or feeling? You can’t. Speaking slower gives you a wider range of things you can do with your voice to make your delivery stronger.
In two weeks I’ll have been doing comedy for ten years. I learn something new all the time…and I’m always trying new things. In the past month or so I’ve tried slowing down even more on stage. I’m speaking slower than I normally speak. Honestly, I think it’s helping. I am noticing that I’m speeding up during the beats where I’m not as confident in the material. That’s making me take a second look at that material to see if I’m not confident in it because it’s not ready yet. By slowing down a half a beat more than I’m comfortable it’s allowing me to be hyper aware of things like this.
I don’t have a good short set. For the past few years I’m always most comfortable doing a 35-50 minute set. Even as my material changes, 35-50 minutes just seems right. Having a strong short game is just as crucial in comedy as having a long game. Arguably a short game is even more important. No one does 35-50 minutes on Conan. My short set stinks because I try to cram ten minutes worth of material into a five minute set. My challenge to myself is to practice what I preach and do five minutes of material slowly and confidently in a five minute set.
Remember in the fable about the tortoise and the hare…it’s the tortoise who wins. Oh…oops….spoiler alert! In closing, a visual pun on tortoise and hare…er…hair.