Editor's note: "Have you ever considered approaching a venue owner about putting on your comedy show (be it one-time, nightly, weekly, or monthly)? Do you have an idea for a local radio or television show? Planning to hit Hollywood and pitch your sit-com idea, animation short, or feature length script?
Read this article and do a little reverse engineering. While this was written by professional funny person for "non-funny" people, it is written from a Hollywood insider perspective. So use the principles Bruner offers and adapt them to your comedy projects.
What Do Pitching Your Business to a Venture Capitalist and Stand-up Comedy Have in Common?
Expert Advice on Perfecting Your 2-Minute Spiel
Part 1 of 2 parts
by Steve Bruner Comedian © April 2000
All rights reserved. You must request permission to reproduce this material in any manner whatsoever.
In both cases, a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered spiel can make or break your career. developerWorks asked veteran comedian Steve Bruner for a quick primer on perfecting that spiel.
The urban legend regarding startups (it's even filtered down to my level and that's saying a lot, considering I'm on AOL) is that you get a 2-minute shot to reveal your plan and why it's good, all in such a way that this venture capitalist that you've jumped into a cab or elevator with one day will write you a check.
You want to win over your audience so that they support your idea with their heart and soul, their mind -- and their money. Then you'll be able to use that money to help solve all those problems of mankind (like that pesky student loan), and maybe get yourself a car, and then of course some therapy.
Many times in business you have to construct a very short spiel to pitch your proposal. In L.A., face time is limited, just as it is in Silicon Valley. Producers and venture capitalists have time constraints. So you have to be prepared to take your best shot when you can. You can use a perfect spiel to introduce a longer presentation or sales call -- it's not limited to "chance" meetings in cabs and elevators.
A comedian's perfect spiel is that funny routine that has a killer opening, and then keeps rolling just in time to peak a couple of minutes later, with you saying "thank you, good night" and gracefully exiting to the yelling, whistling, and clapping of the audience. To get a similar response from the start-up capital guy, try some of these hints for perfecting your pitch.
Elements of the mercenary pitch Let's break the pitch down to the basics. It needs, in my order of preference: good material, preparation, and enthusiasm, and -- to a lesser degree -- talent, good appearance, and luck. Of course, it also helps to have good timing, a good audience, and a good place to perform (like, if you catch somebody on the way out of divorce court, it's a bad time for a business proposal). But while you hope for the best with these last three, the truth is that fate has a cruel and twisted sense of humor. Every good comic knows that some gigs will be in crummy places, and the best way I know to overcome the situation is to accept it and be prepared for it.
- That's your business, the thing that makes you glow. Make the idea coherent, and make it coherent quick: cut it down to the essentials. A bouquet is nice, a single red rose is better. And it's attention-getting, too: People yell "Fire!" and not, "The house next door seems to be in the middle of burning."
In comedy, the setup is nearly as important as the punch line. Don't reveal the secret first and then keep talking. The punch word (or thought, in your case) is best served at the end. Like a catchy name that distills the idea into one thought. It's like revealing a secret: You don't say, "I'm pregnant." It's much more dramatic when you say: "Guess what?" as this tends to create interest.
Choose your words carefully. In my gig, pickle is funny; peach, not so funny.
Make sure the idea flows, and I don't just mean logically. Say your piece out loud: if you can't speak the words, find new words. Tripping on your tongue is fine in the bar when you are celebrating that the deal has been made, but it's not OK during the sale.
- Prepare what you're going to say -- don't wing it! The best comics have a plan, and every great comic I know has a set list (a list of premises or jokes in an order that seems to flow best). Even the acts that look like they are completely improv know where they're heading.
Once you get the material down, and say it out loud, try it in front of your co-workers -- but make sure they are able to give (and that you are able to take) criticism. Try it out on your dog, or your friends, and if you don't have any of those, try switching mouthwash.
Also the mirror is your friend. Watch and question your movement and your gestures, and plan your choreography (don't pirouette after you're done). If there's a point to make, don't try to emphasize it with your hands behind your back. Most of my act is standing and talking, but when I move to "act out" a joke, I know where my hand will be and which way I'm going to walk. Videotape the spiel if you can, then watch it and videotape it again to get your moves better and better.
Prepare to "not be thrown off." With me, that knowledge comes from the painful experience of not having been prepared (I didn't have this article you're reading when I was starting), and as a result of trying out the wrong new joke on the wrong new audience. The good part is I'm more prepared now, so if someone heckles, or yells out, I'm well equipped to handle it. To avoid being the target of a virtual tomato, come up with the obscure and not so obscure questions or situations you might face. Come up with a clever (or failing that, succinct) comeback. Do this for all the problems you see in your plan, because the odds are that the VC will see them too. These are smart people. That's why they have the money.
In almost any show, I try to include the audience. When I do a corporate show, I find out what they do or make, and come up with some bit on that. On a cruise ship, I make fun of the life boat drill, and they feel I'm part of the team. Which is always better than being an outsider. When I play a Panama Canal cruise, the folks are much older. I make a comment about their skepticism. "Yeah, I know what you're thinking, who wants to laugh at a kid who can't even get the senior citizen discount at Denny's." The point is to include their opinion in such a way that it's got a positive spin.
Handling the unexpected. Some things you just can't see coming -- try to use them to your advantage anyway. Once a piano behind me came unbolted on a rocky ship. The audience was laughing very hard, but I wasn't saying anything. When I noticed, I had 5 new improv minutes.
Remember that persistence is a strong part, if not the key ingredient, of preparation. If you are having trouble coming up with the right pitch, have your whole team write out what it is you're doing, and pick the best of everyone's ideas for the presentation. Don't be afraid to edit: my best jokes have been rewritten 10 times. Remember, keep it to the essentials, and keep it short, because short is sweet. My best advice on how to do this is: Once you have what you're going to say, cross out every third word. You'll find you can live without a few of the "that's" and "I"s and "I think"s and so on. Pick out just the essential words that verbally paint your thoughts the best, and you'll find some of the other words are just in the way. Remember that we write with one vocabulary and speak with another -- try to find the best combination of the two.
You have the pitch and the problems down. You've practiced and now you memorize; but don't let it sound like it's memorized. We love it when we think we are the first ones to hear something; we hate to hear a recording.