Actors Make the Best Stand Ups

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People tell me I should do stand up comedy. Taken academically, that would seem to make a lot of sense. I’ve got a good wit, after all, with a clever and acerbic sense of humor to fuel it. Add natural comedic timing to the calculation, along with the fact that I’m a silly-looking bastard, cursed with a Mitch McConnell turkey neck and a rubbery, hound dog face, you’d think I was simply BORN for the mic stand.

Not really.

The truth is, stand up doesn’t really interest me. I don’t like the idea of having to develop my routines in cocktail lounges in front of indifferent audiences. I’m not a guy who can bat back the unsolicited contributions of hecklers with good-natured and clever repartee. I’m more of the “Fuck you, sonofabitch!” type of guy. That’s why I like theater … people sit and politely watch the play; you don’t have to worry about being distracted by the noise the boy/girl spat at Table 7, plus hecklers don’t usually pay a ticket price of twenty-five bucks to cause trouble for all of thirty seconds and knowing full well they’ll be booted from the theater.

I’ve taken the stage with a stand up act only once or twice in my career as an actor. Once, blowing it so badly, that I cannot help wonder if phrase “epic fail” was spawned the same day. Another time, doing so well and engendering such laughter from the audience that the owner of the theater in which I was performing (as part of a talent showcase) encouraged me to take the act on the road and launch my career as a stand up comedian. But I never did. It just didn’t interest me. I had no passion to be a stand up comedian. But the reason I succeeded (in this latter instance) was because I was recounting funny stories from my life and acting out the details without feeling self conscious. I wasn’t delivering ham handed gags, I was telling stories. More importantly, I was being myself. One hundred percent myself.

I stand in awe of anyone who charts their course for a worthy career in stand up comedy. It ain’t an easy gig and is just as hard to succeed in as movies and television. Looking back, the times I epic failed as a stand-up comedian, I realize now it was because I was trying to force the material. They were jokes spewed at the audience like phlegm, one-liners delivered from the proverbial outside-on and made to fit like a bad hat, as I like to say. Although I wrote the material myself, and it read hilarious on the page, all I was doing was delivering prescribed gags, not telling the stories behind them; and I wasn’t being myself. 

Acting is, above all things, about being one hundred percent yourself. True, you are playing fictional characters — sometimes characters that are far removed from your normal way of life — but those characters have no other host but you, the actor, through which to express themselves. If you block your true self off with artifice, if you intellectually make up things for character to say or do rather than allow that character to announce itself through you naturally, from the within, your performance renders much like a bombed stand up routine.

It’s not surprising that the best stand up comedians are also fine actors. Take the classic stand-up comedians turned actors, Robin Williams and Richard Pryor for instance. And Bill Cosby, if you don’t mind me citing the name of a convicted serial rapist. All three were 100% themselves on stage when doing their stand up routines, and while it takes a bit of digging to draw a comparison from the looney antics of Robin Williams, it’s obvious that Pryor and Cosby’s genius lay in the fact they presented their humor through the telling of stories.

The best stage and screen actors tell the stories of their characters, by allowing those stories to be shared through the actor by way of the material (the script). By the same token, it doesn’t take a Masters degree in acting to understand how actors often make the best stand up comedians… if only they’ll allow themselves to be one hundred percent themselves.

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