Manner of Speaking

12 Public Speaking Lessons from “Comedian”

I just finished watching, for the second time, Comedian, a terrific documentary about the efforts of Jerry Seinfeld to get back into stand-up comedy after a decade of starring in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, Seinfeld.

The documentary follows Jerry over a period of several months as he works to develop material in small comedy clubs in New York City with the objective of getting his act to a level where he can take it to a big stage. It also follows Orny Adams, a young up-and-coming comedian who is trying to make it. The film is very candid. You see the effort that these guys make. You feel their pain and frustration and disappointments. Comedy is not easy!

Even if you have no intention of doing stand-up comedy, even if you are only interested in becoming a better public speaker for your presentations at work, you should watch this movie. The insights are incredible. As I watched Comedian, I took several notes. Below are 12 lessons from the documentary (with the approximate time when they occur during the film).

5:00 – One of the most memorable scenes comes very early. Seinfeld is trying out new material in a small club … and he forgets his lines! Jerry Seinfeld! He forgets his lines! For one-and-a-half minutes, we see him on stage, fumbling through his notes, trying to remember a joke and slowly dying on stage. (And he does so with great dignity.)

Lesson: Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn from them, try not to repeat them, but don’t beat yourself up when they happen.

7:00 – Jerry is sharing a bite to eat with some other comedians in a small club. They are discussing some new material that Jerry is trying to work into his routine. The other comedians come up with a couple of lines for Jerry that work very well.

Lesson: Bounce ideas off other people. Try things outs on your friends and colleagues. Get feedback. Brainstorm.

16:50 – After a bad set, Jerry laments that he made the mistake of opening his show with new material before he was ready to use it.

Lesson: Refine your material; know your material.

17:30 – As Jerry is driving to a speaking engagement, he says, “It does not matter [who] the audience is. Get up every night anywhere you can. Early, late … it doesn’t matter. When you’re crafting an act, you need to see how that material works in each situation.”

Lesson: Take every opportunity you can to get on your feet and speak.

19:50 – Jerry explains why he went back to stand-up comedy after having one of the most successful sitcoms of all time: “… I’m doing [stand-up comedy because] I’m scared that I’m not going to be able to do it if I don’t keep doing it. That it might leave me.”

Lesson: Good public speaking is a skill that must constantly be honed.

22:00 – At this point in the film, Jerry has been working on his new act for four months. However, he states that it is only in the last month that he has started to feel comfortable. And he estimates that it will be an additional two months before he will be able to take his act to a bigger, more prominent location.

Lesson: Good public speaking takes time.

28:45 – Jerry Seinfeld has long been one of my favourite comedians. I find his style, his wordplay and his demeanour terrific. My respect for him went up a few notches at this point in the movie. It is late in the evening and Jerry is walking the streets of New York after doing his own show, and going club to club just to see if it would be possible to go on stage after the other comedians just to try out his material again.

Lesson: Success comes when you do more and give more than is expected of you.

43:15 – Before a big show, Jerry says, “I have this image in my mind of what a comedian is supposed to be that I’m always trying to live up to and that I always fall short of. I’m the show for the night. I have to make that evening work for those people.”

Lesson: It’s always about the audience.

1:00:15 – After a particularly tough set, Jerry tells the people back stage, “I make no excuse; I just wasn’t good.”

Lesson: If you’re on stage, you’re responsible.

1:06:30 – Jerry visits the Museum of Television & Radio. He takes a headset and goes to a private booth to watch some old stand-up comedy greats.

Lesson: Learn from others.

1:13:00 – Jerry meets with one of the true giants of modern stand-up comedy, Bill Cosby. At one point during their conversation, Cosby says, “Isn’t it fun that you have taken what is comedy and what is you and now you have a body of work. … I think it is one of the great moments of being a performer when you can say, ‘You know, I took what I had and I knocked it out of the park.'”

Lesson: When you work hard and put yourself into your speech or presentation and you deliver it well and you connect with the audience, it is a fabulous feeling.

Comedian is worth watching if for no other reason than to remind us that most things in life that are worthwhile take time and effort. If you want to achieve something, you have to work at it. That sentiment is captured in what is, for me, the best quote of the film. Jerry is standing outside a club in New York after a performance and he shares an anecdote from his early days as a comedian when he realized that if he was going to make it, he would have to work hard, even when he didn’t feel like it. And that is the best lesson with which to finish this post.

You know when I was starting out I used to sit down and write [comedy] a couple times a week. And then one day I was watching these construction workers go back to work. I was watching them kind of trudging down the street, and it was like a revelation to me. I realized that these guys don’t want to go back to work after lunch but they’re going ’cause that’s their job. If they can exhibit that level of dedication for that job, I should be able to do the same. Just trudge your ass in.