January 16, 2018
You know that friend of yours who is always funny?
They're quick and always have a funny retort. They know a ton of stories and have you laughing every time they tell one. Something ridiculous happens and everyone looks around to them knowing they'll have the perfect line.
You're sure they're funnier than most of the comedians you've seen.
James Altucher says being funny - having a good sense of humor - is like third on the list of things you have to have to make it in stand-up.
So, if humor isn't the number one skill for a stand-up, what is?
Altucher says "likability".
You already like that friend of yours who you think is so funny. Maybe you don't like them, but you know them and already have an expectation about them.
People come to a comedy club and pay money and want these people they don't know to make them laugh.
In a theatre the audience probably knows the heaedliner. But they may not know the opening act. The opening act is standing between them and the person they came to see.
In a club, the audience may have come to see one of the comics or they might have just wanted a night out. They've had a rough day at work, with their kids, or both. They've paid their admission, bought over-priced drinks, and had more to drink than they might be used to.
Now, your friend takes the stage.
Your friend can't wait until something funny happens to comment on. Your friend is the entertainment. An audience filled with a mix of sober and drunk strangers is waiting to laugh.
Your friend had better be funny - fast.
Altucher says your friend better be likable even faster.
Actually, he clarifies, your friend must either be likable or somehow control the situation as quickly as possible.
OK so humor is third, likability is first. There are also lots of skills lower down on the list such as handling hecklers and reading the room.
Well picture the comic on stage.
You see a look come over their face.
They may have noticed that people are too quiet. Maybe the audience isn't responding to their jokes the way other audiences have. Maybe the wait-staff is delivering drinks and somehow distracting enough people that the vibe has changed.
The comic on stage is sensitive to things that you don't feel in the audience.
But you are sensitive to the comic's face and demeanor whether or not they are your friend. In fact, if they are likable and won you over, they are your friend in that moment.
If the comic isn't having fun, the audience can sense it and their experience will start to go downhill and it's very hard to right that ship.
If you are nervous, you make the audience nervous. If you are bored or disconnected, the audience feeds off of this.
Altucher says that this is the second most important skill for comics: a commitment to what you are and what you're doing regardless of what the audience is doing.
He says that you need to know immediately if you're failing and any of these top three skills. You need to know if you are panicing in a tenth of a second - before the audience knows - and get yourself back immediately to recognizing that you are the one on the stage, you are the one in control.
The newscaster interviewing Altucher, Dan Harris, says there are analogous rules for news delivery and connecting with that unseen audience.
I see similar situations in so much of what I do in vastly different contexts.
Take that thing you do - that thing that is your equivalent of humor - and make it third on your list.
If I'm teaching, then I need to have expertise in the thing that I'm teaching.
Above it, make sure you are likable or in control of the situation.
I love fielding questions when I'm teaching, but some of the questions are going to take me too far away from what most of the class needs to hear or can handle at that moment. I'll sometimes have to take a line of questions and answer it during a break. Being in control doesn't mean that I'm not sensitive to the needs of my students - it means that I'm sensitive to their needs individually and as a group and I try to meet both.
And don't forget number two: commitment.
There are topics that I've taught a hundred times. But I get just as involved on the hundredth time as I did on the first. For someone in the room, it is their first time seeing this. If I'm bored and just flipping through slides or typing code then I'm not going to engage and excite them.
Likability or control.
Then, what you think you do is third.