How Do Comedians Find Their Stage Persona?
One of the most difficult things to do in standup comedy is to find your stage persona and then mold it so it becomes who you are on stage. Even comics whose acts are straight forward observational, and the material does not emerge from an obvious comedic character, have a persona. It comes out more like an attitude—a mood or angle from which a joke or bit is delivered. It’s like pitchers in baseball, who throw a fastball, but the pitch is delivered at slightly different arm angles effecting its movement—some downward, or left or right, or even appear to move upward—all the movement occurring at different times on its decent toward home plate. Every comic has to find that angle or arm slot (to use a baseball term) that maximizes his or her joke’s potential. Finding that character anchor takes repetition in different sets of circumstances. The comedian’s core has to remain the same even though situations are dramatically different. We have to learn to be in character through a barrage of heckles, with bad or no microphones, in different size rooms, to audiences that vary widely in temperament, on late or early spots, and indoors or out. Most of the time it takes several years to find out who you really are on stage, and to be that persona consistently. Jerry Seinfeld says it takes ten years. I tend to agree with I him.
I had the opportunity through Andrew Solt, who owns the Ed Sullivan Library, to watch several comics grow and develop their stage personas. Interestingly enough the comedian who really stunned me was Rodney Dangerfield. In his early Ed Sullivan appearances he had yet to find his “get no respect” character. Ignoring his hound dog-face, his material was a mix of observational bits and jokes, none of it defining the loser the country fell in love with. With each additional spot on the show his material consisted of more jokes than observations and in many of the jokes he started to become the loser. His facial expressions became more pronounced and I think he actually sweated more.
Finally, in one of his latter shots, he became the ultimate loser, clearly defined when, for the first time on TV, he said “I get no respect.” I have no idea where or how he came up with that catch phrase; I never asked him. I’m sure it’s written somewhere, but that’s not the point. The point is that it developed over time with lots of trial and error.
After watching comics like Gilbert Gottfried, Mark Schiff, Larry David, Bill Maher, Steve Mittleman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Richard Lewis develop, I noticed a certain pattern: germs of who they eventually became were evident from the start. Even with Jerry Seinfeld whose material is observational by nature had his own special persona. If you look back on his early sets, the germs of it were there—a sort of neurotic confidence—they just become more pronounced and engrained into the on-stage Jerry. His material got stronger, his confidence grew, which made his material work better, grow stronger and more definable—a Jerry Seinfeld brand emerged.
In my book (Standup Guys) I go into more detail about Richard Lewis’s transition to Richard Lewis the neurotic’s neurotic. Larry David’s often misunderstood stage presence, went through audience shouting matches, to television’s George Castanza and came out fully developed on Larry’s show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Sure his character is very much like LD himself. In his TV persona he acts out what he thinks in real life, but doesn’t do–well not all the time–anyway; although, if you check out my book, in his early stand-up years he did more than his share of acting out.
To sum it up, it takes lots of stage time, persistence, and a certain fearlessness to face the crowd while you grow up on stage—become your material. I think when comics find out who they are on stage it’s because they touched the part of them that is damaged, and then they twist it and filter it through their protector, their sense of humor, until it arrives on stage ready to take on a world that looks up from their seats prepared to laugh—well, hopefully.