Things I Learned in Comedy Clubs
by Don Stevens © 2001
That I Translated to Business
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I once worked Ross Perot's company EDS. We put together a proposal for Cantu and I to teach presentation skills to my co-workers, who were all paranoid - terrified - about speaking in public. My boss read Cantu credentials and nixed the idea, saying, "I don't want to turn my workers into a BUNCH OF COMEDIANS!" That's probably when I first started thinking about the idea that humor habits and business are not mutually exclusive fields. There are 10 items, simply because I always like to do at least 10 if I have an assignment.
- In a comedy club, you learn to pay attention to what the people around you are doing. The audience. Other comics. The club owner. It's amazing to me how oblivious a lot of people in big companies are to their fellow workers. And how detrimental that can be. (Simple things like noticing someone is lifting something and needs help.)
- You learn how to put things simply and quickly. There's so much bullshit in business, if you can get someone on and off the phone or get him the information he wants quickly, you score points.
- On the other hand, you learn how to schmooze. Some people love to schmooze. The other day I got a seat on a "sold out" flight because I said something inconsequential (I don't remember what it was) that made the American Airlines operator laugh, and then I said something else to make her laugh, and that's when suddenly the "sold out" flight became, "Hold on, Mr. Stevens, let me check into something here."
- You learn how to deal with office intimidation. After dealing with hecklers (or pickup trucks), bullies in the office are a piece of cake.
- You learn how to be patient with difficult/frustrated people, which is different from the above item, because there you need to put the person in their place without causing a scene; with frustrated people, you need to mainly just listen and let them vent. After you've been through hell in a comedy club, what's one other upset comedian or customer? Who may very well have a justifiable bitch? Jim Edwards was frustrated over his perceived lack of quality spots - he was wrong, but I didn't have a problem dealing with that.)
- You learn the importance of rhythm and cadence in written communication. When I write a business memo or letter, I'm hearing it as if I'm speaking it on stage. I've found it makes the writing so much more effective than the usual deadly dull business prose. (Some business people should not be allowed to use a keyboard for writing.)
- You learn to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Cantu: "Get Robin Williams' intro! And bring him up!"
"Oh, thanks Robin, I'll get you up in five minutes, but now I have to run - the toilet in the women's bathroom is overflowing and I have to clean it up." The classic union line, "I'm not doing that, it's not in my job description" does not apply after you've worked in a comedy club.
- You learn that more often than not, you are wrong. (Your jokes aren't going to work.) This both helps in the things you write in business - you have to be more careful - and how you deal with people. Your brilliant ideas or flourishes better be well-thought out, because they aren't as clever or intelligent as you think they are. Nobody likes an arrogant, pompous blowhard in the office.
- You learn how to take criticism objectively and even learn from it. And not get defensive about it. (Cantu used to teach us in his classes, "All criticism is valid.")
- And the most obvious. You learn how to speak in front of a group. How to give a presentation.
Things I Learned in Comedy Clubs
by Nicole Bilotti ©2001
After Stevens wrote "Things I learned in comedy clubs that I translated to business" he showed it to comedian Nicole Bilotti. Here's her take on the subject:
You learn that timing can save the day. At a previous job the boss and a co-worker were having a very heated yelling "discussion" about a customer's order. Exasperated, my co-worker yelled at the boss, "Well, I guess you can't teach an old dog new tricks!"
It was the perfect time for me to observe, "That's probably why they canceled 'Lassie'." They both laughed and did wind up agreeing about the customer situation.
Another learned "thing" is a tad more subtle, and maybe not as universal for people in comedy as most of what Donald wrote. However, I really have to give comedy clubs a lot of credit for teaching me:. . .
You learn racist/sexist/etc.-ist humor judgment.
By and large, the majority of racial/gender/etc. jokes we get exposed to on t.v., movies, and internet are aimed at the lowest common discrimination denominator.
One of the few places to see cutting edge, well done, actually funny jokes that reference race/sex/etc. is in comedy clubs. It gives you quite an advantage in reacting to the typically lame, hostile, and/or poorly written stuff in most office environments, (including e-mail).
If all else fails, with the dying out of comedy clubs, healthy doses of old stand-up videos of Lenny Bruce & Richard Pryor are highly recommended.
Ahem. Now Donald had nothing about SEX stuff.
As for the SEX stuff, maybe there ought to be a separate publication, such as "How to Survive Being Hit On As a Female Comedian." Of course this reminds me of my old rules for performing:
- Never sleep with anyone to get a gig
- Never date audience
- Never bring your date to be audience (they never find you funny after the third date)
- Never take it personally when a fellow comic hits on you (at least not when you're still doing stand-up)
- Never accept a cocktail from audience (it might lead to finding out why "never date audience" is rule #2, instead of #5)
And just for the sake of posterity, I wanted to add the following to one of my performing rules:
- Never bring your date to be audience (They never find you funny after the third date because they're too busy stealing your act, or, more likely, mercilessly picking your material apart, bit by bit.)
"valid" Cantu notes:
What I mean by that is that while the criticism sometimes may not be true, you have to look at WHAT IS MAKING THE PERSON HAVE THAT FALSE PERCEPTION. I am not a mean guy nor am I fighter. Yet I discovered that people were physically afraid of me (I would occasionally get anonymous death threats by phone at the 'Zoo'. "Cantu, I got a rifle with a bullet in for you!" I will write about the threats in a future essay in my HumorMall.com website column "Back Stage Pass.")
By listening to feedback I learned that my appearance emphasized a "bad boy of comedy" perception. I have said, as a comedian, in my early days I went from terrible to mediocre. As my comedian buddy Tony DePaul once told me, "Cantu people can't laugh when they are cowering under their seats in fear." (see pic from those days here).
Now go here and see me today: Big difference because now I have consciously added a big smile, glasses, gotten a new hair style, etc. all to offset my innate mean visage (I can still put the mean face on at will which is how I got cast as Clarence Carnes in an "Unsolved Mysteries" episode. Clarence was so mean, he was sent to Alcatraz at age 18 and I played him in the TV show when he was age 40.)