Show, don’t tell is an old adage that means whenever you have an opportunity to introduce a piece of information, don’t just tell us about that person (or thing, or event), show us. By showing, you bring the audience into the present moment. The action starts happening right in front of them, so it becomes very urgent and alive.
“Show, don’t tell” when bringing characters into your standup comedy routine because good bits become great bits with fully fleshed-out characters.
Here Are Some Tips on Using Characters in Your Standup Comedy
Find More Characters
First of all, look at your material and see if there are characters in it you have overlooked.
Do you have a joke about Home Depot and you’re just telling us that the check-out guy was a jerk? Are you telling instead of showing?
Why not act him out and show us how he scanned your items in a menacing way? You may be surprised how many opportunities you have in your current material to bring in funny characters.
Let Go of Reality
But what if the character in your joke is your mother and it’s just not getting the big laughs? A lot of people get stuck when they’re writing a bit based on a real person, but as the joke evolves—maybe it becomes a back-and-forth dialog—that original person may not fit into the joke anymore.
Give yourself permission to use your mother as a starting point and build a weirder, funnier, more neurotic character from there. When you let go of the real person and ask yourself who is the fictitious character that’s correct for this bit? the material funnier and funnier because you won’t feel restricted by the real person you originally had in mind. And you’ll have more fun with it!
Study the Character
Sometimes new comedians will do act outs and speak their dialog to a vague imaginary character in front of them, or what I call a “ghost mannequin”; it’s just somebody, without any real qualities or characteristics.
When asked, the comedian will generally say something vague like “it’s just some guy” But by not being specific, the bit loses a whole dynamic.
The difference between run-of-the-mill comedians and top-notch comedians often comes down to their characters. Richard Pryor was a master when it came to creating clear, fascinating characters.
When he and Gene Wilder were shooting Stir Crazy, he spent some time in an actual prison, studying life on the inside. In his stand-up comedy routine, he describes meeting a convicted murderer and asking the guy, “Why did you kill everyone in the house?” …
Before giving us the answer, Richard suddenly becomes this guy; his face softens, his eyes change focus, and he shifts his voice as he delivers the punch like it’s the most obvious reason in the world for committing murder:
“Day wuz home!”
And that was it. It’s just a snippet, and we never see that character again in the routine, but Richard found the mindset of a character who thought that that “Day wuz home” was a reasonable answer. Richard Pryor knew to show us this person, not just tell us about him, and that pulls us into the situation, making it ten times funnier.
In Part 2, we’ll consider several ways of uncovering the best character to act out in you stand-up comedy scenes.
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