Let me tell you a couple of personal stories to help drive a very important point home.
Many years ago, I was a young worker in a large industrial plant. My first supervisor was retiring and the people who organized his retirement party asked me to say a few funny words about him. They allowed me about 8 to 10 minutes of time. Writing this was no problem because I enjoyed writing comedy. However, I had never spoken in front of an audience before. Naturally, the stage fright was a real threat.
The solution seemed to be solid preparation. I would take the monologue I had prepared and read it aloud each evening. The idea was to become familiar with it, to get used to forming the words correctly and in the proper sequence. I repeated each phrase time and time again. The rehearsals paid dividends. It got to the point where once I began a gag, I couldn’t stop myself until I finished the gag.
Nevertheless, appearing before my co-workers still terrified me. The routine was such that I could read from a script, which I did. The material played beautifully. The audience enjoyed it, and I was asked to do almost every retirement party after that. In fact, it was the beginning of my comedy career.
However, a friend complimented me afterwards by saying, “I enjoyed your routine tonight, but I noticed that the whole time you were speaking, the pages in your hand were shaking.” He was absolutely on target. The stage fright hit me so potently that I was trembling the entire time I was speaking.
But – and here’s the important point this article is making – my voice didn’t falter. My hands shook, but my voice was strong and confident. Why? Because the rehearsals worked. As I mentioned, this was the beginning of my professional comedy career. The company invited me to emcee many parties after this. My comedy reputation grew and eventually led to contracts with several comedians and writing assignments in television.
One of these assignments reinforced the lesson of this article.
I was writing for a Bob Hope television special. We had a dinner break and Mr. Hope asked me to come to his house for dinner. That evening, after the break, we had to tape a “talk spot” with Bob Hope and a guest. During the ride to his house, he had me read the part of the guest in the script. I did. We did it again. We did it five or six times during the ride and then countless time during the meal. We did it many times during the ride back to the studio. Frankly, we did it so many times that I got sick of it.
When the lights were lit and the cameras turned on, Bob Hope’s delivery and timing were flawless. Why? Again, because the rehearsal did what it was supposed to do. To me, this was an interesting lesson in performing. My career was born as a result of dedicated practice. Bob Hope who was an established show business legend maintained a rigid rehearsal discipline to perfect his performance. This should indicate to all of us who entertain, that we have a duty to give each audience our best. We do that with determined rehearsals. If you watch sports, you’ll often hear the announcers comment on a certain players “poise.” He or she reacts to whatever happens during the game with a certain calmness, confidence and presence of mind.
To give equal time to the opposite side of this coin: On a sitcom, the writing staff wanted to revise a scene, but the main performer rejected that. This star said, “Just give me something physical to do and I’ll be hilarious.” So we decided that she would have to open a window that was stuck. It was physical comedy, but nothing she did was hilarious. Had the scene been rewritten and some time devoted to rehearsing it, it might have been funny. As an improvisational experiment, it wasn’t amusing at all.
A seasoned veteran once told me that entertainers have three main responsibilities. First, the performers must deliver what they agreed to deliver. If they hired you to sing, you should sing. If they pay you for 30 minutes of comedy, you should perform a full half hour. Whatever you promised, you’re responsible for. Second, you should be on time. Third, you must be prepared. That’s where the rehearsal is important.
Proper rehearsal is especially applicable to vents. Vents have to play many roles. You perform as yourself and as your stage partners. You give the appearance that there are other performers sharing the stage with you, but you know it’s all you.
Beside the delivery of the material, which requires rehearsal time, a vent must also master the acting roles that the dummies must play. Each character you bring to the microphone has a different character, a different delivery. You’re the one who has to perfect those performances.
Also, the vent has the responsibility of controlling the actions of the vent figures. You must move the dummy in a realistic manner. You have to give the appearance of a live partner on stage with you. It’s a difficult skill to master without much time devoted to practice.
A great entertainer named Bobby Darin was opening his show once when he someone in the audience said to him, “You’d better be good tonight, Bobby.” Bobby Darin said, “Sir, you didn’t have to tell me that. I spend a lot of time before each show telling myself that I’d better be good tonight.”
My advice to young vents is to do the same thing. Devote a lot of time in practice and rehearsal. It will pay dividends when you get in front of an audience. They’ll recognize how good you are when you have spent so much time teaching yourself to be good.
And have fun doing it – both the rehearsing and the performing.
Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter. Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store. Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines. Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com. You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.
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