By SJ Tannenbaum
Recently, I attended an “Open-Mic Night” event held at the Beren Campus, which was an unbelievable experience for me. Students from both YC and Stern got a chance to read poetry, stories, and songs, and share many kinds of personal artistry in front of their fellow students and friends in an open, safe, friendly, and non-judgmental environment. I was the only student to perform stand-up comedy, which didn’t frighten me; however, I did feel badly that more students didn’t want to try it.
For those of you who may not know me, my name is SJ Tannenbaum, and I’m an (aspiring) stand-up comedian, impressionist, and freestyle rapper. I’ve been doing my 100+ famous impressions (which include presidents, rappers, musical artists, celebrities, TV/movie characters, and more) for over nine years. Similarly, I’ve been freestyle rapping for around eleven years, since I was eleven years old. I was a finalist in the 2019 Funniest Jewish Comedian Contest, I’ve opened for comedians such as MODI and Ashley Blaker at various synagogues around the New York/New Jersey area, and I’ve performed at comedy clubs all over New York City and New Jersey, including Gotham Comedy Club, Broadway Comedy Club, Dangerfield’s Comedy Club, and The Stress Factory Comedy Club. Even though I’ve only been doing stand-up comedy for a little under one year (as opposed to my vast experience doing impressions and rapping), I’ve had an amazing journey so far. I’d like to share with you all some reasons why I think everyone should at least try stand-up comedy, even if only a few times.
Overcoming Stage Fright/ Enhancing Public Speaking Skills
Regardless of if you want to become a professional stand-up comedian or not, developing strong public speaking skills and overcoming stage fright are extremely important goals that everybody can achieve. Many jobs will require you to perform some type of public speaking at some point in your career, whether it be presenting a PowerPoint or giving an oral presentation to clients or your company’s board. Even if the job does not require it, you may have to speak publicly at non-professional occasions, such as family events (i.e. funerals, weddings, birthdays, etc.) or other events, such as if you are on the board of your synagogue or school. To put it simply, you don’t need to aim to be the next Tony Robbins (or Charlie Harary) of public speaking, but developing good public speaking skills such as stage presence, eye contact, para-verbal variety, and body language are essential life skills that stand-up comedy can help you develop.
Becoming Open to Criticism/ Receiving Negative Feedback in a Positive Way
One of my favorite things about doing stand–up comedy is seeing how different crowds react to my material. Some crowds (and individuals) love my sense of humor and roar with laughter, while others seem like they are sitting in a library while I’m on stage. Every crowd – and every show for that matter – has its own unique experience, different from any other. What will happen over time, if you do stand-up enough, is that you will eventually have a bad show, where you get little-to-no laughs, and that will not feel great. You will be confused as to why your material wasn’t received the way you thought it would be, and you will want to make sure that in the future, it receives the laughter and reaction you were hoping for. The way to make sure that happens is to go out, ask people what they thought of your act, and LISTEN. Ask people what they thought of your material, your stage presence, your overall demeanor on stage, and your delivery, and just listen and accept what they say. You don’t have to agree with everything anyone says, but it is an extremely important skill in comedy – and in life – to be able to listen to someone’s honest feedback and to understand and appreciate their unique point of view, as valid, even though it may be hard to hear and may even hurt at times. If you argue with everyone whenever they give you feedback, nobody will want to give you their thoughts and feedback, and then you won’t be able to grow in your comedy – or whatever it is that you are trying to get better at. You can ask questions and express that you feel differently from what they are saying, but be very cautious with this, as people are wary of giving their honest feedback if they feel their words will offend or cause an argument.
It Teaches You How to Deal with Failure – FAST!
Related to the previous point, but an important lesson nonetheless, is learning how to deal with failure in a positive way. In stand-up comedy, you will get feedback as to whether a joke went well or not, INSTANTLY, in the form of laughter or silence. This is nice if you are someone like me, for instance, who hates waiting a week to get your test grade back from a professor; in comedy, the feedback and results are received and felt RIGHT AWAY. What this will teach you – both during your actual performance and over time – is how to take that success or failure and internalize it properly. Comedy is like anything in life — sometimes you will succeed, and sometimes you will fail. However, it’s important that when you fail, don’t give up or let it destroy you and your self-confidence. Likewise, it is also very important when you succeed, to not let it get to your head and convince you that you no longer need to work hard and continue getting better. Comedy humbles you and teaches you that no matter how many times you succeed or fail, you must always continue to work hard and keep improving to get better. And just because you fail once – or a thousand times – doesn’t mean you will continue to do so going forward, with the right amount and quality of work.
Learn to Laugh at Yourself/Develop Your Self-Confidence
A big part of stand-up comedy is developing the ability to laugh at oneself. This is an extremely important skill to have both as a comedian and in life, because nobody likes someone who can never take a joke about themselves, or is too full of themselves to acknowledge that they have their own unique flaws and quirks. If you watch a comedian like Mark Normand (highly recommend), he is always making fun of himself in a way that people appreciate, because it’s honest, real, and done in a way that people can relate to. Being able to make fun of yourself is great because it helps you build up your self-confidence and prevent yourself from getting bullied. If others see that you are able to make fun of yourself and enjoy it, they will know that making fun of you to hurt you simply will not work. I find that this mentality is extremely helpful for those like myself, who use comedy partially as a way to deal with past bullying.
It Forces You to Learn How You are Perceived by Others
This is very similar to point number two, but there are some qualifiers that are unique to this point that I would like to touch on. While we have already established that it is a crucial skill to be able to listen to feedback in a humble and non-combative way, it is also crucial to learn and understand how you are perceived by others in general. Do others see you as someone who always needs to be the center of attention, while you perceive yourself as just a friendly person? Do others perceive you as annoying, while you perceive yourself as social? Do others perceive you as nerdy, while you perceive yourself as cool? Do others perceive you as selfish and lazy, while you perceive yourself as a dedicated hard-worker and team player? These are just some examples of how one may view themselves differently from those around them. It’s important to understand how you are perceived by the public, both for the purposes of writing stand-up comedy, and so that you don’t have a misleading and imaginary sense of reality. A practical example of this is as follows: Gabriel Iglesias is a famous and very successful comedian who is a very large person. He knows this, and he knows that others know this as well. He uses this to his advantage in his comedy writing and performances by crafting jokes in a way that evoke humor, even without his having to explicitly say why it’s funny. Just look up “Gabriel Iglesias” on YouTube or Netflix, watch his comedy, and you will see what I mean.
Develop Your Writing Skills
For those of you who want to become better writers – whether it be for school, work, or personal reasons – writing stand-up comedy will help you do that. While it may seem, when you watch your favorite comedians perform, that they are just speaking and telling over their jokes for the first time on stage, this is far from the truth. The jokes you hear comedians tell have probably been worked on – both through writing and on-stage delivery – for months, if not years. Flow, timing, structure, word choice, and nuance are just some of the things comedians take into strong consideration while writing out their jokes (or “bits”) and practicing them on stage. Sometimes, it will take many years and possibly even decades for a comedian to perfect a bit. This work comes across as regular and conversational to the audience. That is the beauty of stand-up comedy writing. If done well, the audience will perceive a joke as fresh, smart, and “in-the-moment,” whereas only the comedian knows that much time and effort went into writing, performing, and editing it to make it that way. If you like writing and want to become better at it, try writing stand-up comedy. You can find many videos on YouTube about writing stand-up, and you should also check out Greg Dean’s comedy resources. He offers a book, workbooks, a PDF, an audiobook, and even an online course in comedy writing and performing. I own all of them (except the online course) and find them extremely helpful.
Last but not least, comedy is a great time. Comedy is all about having a blast on stage in front of people you will probably never see again, and trying to see if you can connect with them and find things in common that make both you, and the audience, laugh together. Try this by checking out open mic nights and going with your friends. A great resource is Badslava.com. There, you can check out all the open mic opportunities around you, organized by city, cost (if there is), location, and time. It’s a great resource, whether you just want to try stand-up comedy once, or if you are constantly testing material at open mics to see what does well and what still needs work.
All-in-all, I hope the points I’ve made will resonate with some of you, and that a few of you reading this will take my advice and try out stand-up comedy, even if only for one time. Who knows? You may leave the audience cracking up and realize that you’re meant to be the next Jerry Seinfeld or Sarah Silverman. You’ll never know unless you try.
You can check out my content and follow me on all social media platforms at “SJ Tannenbaum” or “@sjtcomedy.”