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Building an effective stage persona is the key to becoming a great stand-up comedian, and it’s a process that can take years — even decades — to complete. While some stand-ups act pretty close to how they behave off-stage, others create vastly different identities for their acts. Some even go as far as treating their stage persona as a character — an entirely separate entity. Despite the many differences between comedians who act like their real selves onstage and those who don’t, both groups typically use their real selves as some sort of basis for their acts, to varying degrees.
“They refer to it as an ‘act’ for a reason,” says comedian Nick Thune. “When I'm on stage I'm fighting to keep tens maybe hundreds of people's attention. It's rehearsed. Sure, who I am comes through in my act, but only the good parts. Only the parts I want people to see. The rest of the time I can have my guard down, I don't feel the need to generate a laugh out of every sentence.” While Thune strives to present his best possible self in his comedy, Larry David uses his humor as an excuse to express his worst impulses. When it comes to the fictionalized version of himself David plays on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, David explains, “You can’t be that honest and function in society. These confrontations frighten me so I avoid them and save it up for the show. It’s a little bit of a fantasy.”
While Nick Thune and Larry David’s comic identities are heightened versions of their real selves, stand-up Anthony Jeselnik is playing almost playing a fictional character onstage, that's how far removed his material is from his real life. Jeselnik spoke candidly about his stand-up persona in an interview last year:
I’m very arrogant and mean. I’m almost like a bad guy professional wrestler. I always thought it was hilarious when [wrestler] Ravishing Rick Rude would come out into the ring and everyone would boo him. He’s at Madison Square Garden standing up and saying "New York City is the worst city in the world!’ and everyone’s just throwing things at him. To me that was so hilarious and I thought if you could push that and still be funny that would be the way to go.
Michael Ian Black, Sarah Silverman, and Zach Galifianakis are other examples of comedians who have constructed ironic personas that are like their real selves in name only, while Neil Hamburger and Larry the Cable Guy are all-around fictional characters who perform stand-up.
Most stand-ups' stage personas evolve throughout their careers, while some choose to jump between drastically different styles of comedy. Absurdist non-sequitur machines become raw, honest storytellers, and vice versa. Some of the greatest comedians of all-time have gone through these whiplash-inducing transitions. Richard Pryor started out performing a carbon copy of Bill Cosby’s squeaky-clean act in the 1960s before taking a two-year break from comedy and returning as a profane, political comic capable of tackling race relations and his personal life with brutal precision. Likewise, George Carlin was a clean-cut performer doing safe material for lifeless TV variety shows in the 60s before embracing the counterculture and becoming a long-haired bearded guy who spouted off foul-mouthed material and cultural commentary. In the cases of both Pryor and Carlin, they made a major shift towards performing comedy that was closer to their real feelings and identities and strayed away from masking themselves onstage.
The rise of Twitter and comedy podcasts has inspired a lot of comedians to skew towards more honest, personal comedy that accurately reflects their real identities. Podcasts have given performers a chance to build a stronger relationship with their audience than ever before, getting to share what’s going on in their lives with fans weekly or biweekly, while Twitter has allowed given comedians to send their audience dispatches 24/7. Plus, in the past decade, several leading stand-ups, such as Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, and Paul F. Tompkins, have transitioned from performing absurdist or ironic material to discussing their real lives onstage with a level of honesty and sincerity that wasn’t as common in comedy clubs in the 80s and 90s.
While Twitter allows comedians a constant connection to their fans, a lot of the better-known comedians on the social networking site, like Rob Delaney and Megan Amram, tweet out most of their jokes as ironic versions of themselves. Delaney, though, is also a stand-up who tends to get much more personal in his act than online. As Delaney puts it, “I’m going to talk about things I think are of greater value, and you’re going to see a cohesive person onstage, a unified human being talking about things that make sense, and me being me for better or worse and talking about my life. My stand-up is far more rooted in reality than my Twitter.”
One of comedy podcasting’s biggest success stories, Marc Maron, is a stand-up who has always been a purveyor of comedy based upon his real life, and as an effect of this, he plays pretty close to his true self onstage. In both his podcast and stand-up, Maron shares (and overshares) stark truths about his personal life and gets a lot of laughs from his own identity, rather than hiding behind an ironic character or a safe exaggeration of himself. Maron describes his stand-up persona (or lack thereof):
There are a lot of people who I envy for their ability to create a persona or build a clown that functions up there that doesn’t require them to invest all of their emotions in it in the way that I seem to have to do. The one thing I’ve realized over the years is that I don’t really have a stage persona. I have a way of behaving onstage, but I require a sort of emotional engagement with my audience. There’s a liability to that in the sense that I have a certain amount of heart invested in it—it’s not just about whether a joke works or not. I will sacrifice a show, sometimes, if I don’t feel like the connection is there. Jokes are great, and I have them, you just have to understand the way I do them.
Despite the vast difference between the two sides of the stage persona spectrum (ironic and authentic), both sides have led to a lot of great comedy over the years and they're each still prevalent in clubs and theaters across the country. The best comedians can switch gears, jumping between many different styles of comedy. There's just as much value in material that delves into personal matters as humor that is far removed from reality, as long as it's funny.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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