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).

Comedian Movie Poster

Lesson 1: Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn from them, try not to repeat them, but don’t beat yourself up when they happen.

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

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 3: Refine your material; know your material.

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

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

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 6: Good public speaking takes time.

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

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 8: It’s always about the audience.

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

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

Lesson 10: Learn from others.

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 11: 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.

1:13:00 – Jerry meets with Bill Cosby. (This was before the allegations against Cosby and his subsequent conviction and incarceration.) 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.'”

Final thoughts

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 Seinfeld 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 12th lesson.

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.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂 I am a toastmaster and I have kind of drifted away from public speaking but reading this has motivated me to get back there and keep trying!! 🙂 🙂
    And I’ll watch the documentary also very soon!! 🙂 😀
    BTW for me, Seinfeld, the sitcom, is the best!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Abhishek. I wish you the best of success with Toastmasters and with public speaking in general. Always nice to meet another Seinfeld fan.

  2. This is terrific and beautifully written. Thanks. I aspire to becoming a public speaker, I’m relatively young (20) and consuming as much info as I can get. Came across your site 2 days back. Lovely. Informative. Beautiful. Thanks.

  3. I am a passionate Toastmasters from Dist. 41 and a stand up comedian at the age of 68. Still going strong! Loved all the tips and will get hold of the DVD and watch it. Thanks! Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the awesome post, John! I haven’t seen this documentary (to be honest, I didn’t even know about it before now) but after reading the learning gems that you culled from it, I’m definitely going to get hold of it. Incidentally, Jerry Seinfeld was the guest entertainer during this year’s SHRM conference in Atlanta – and he brought the house down. Everything seemed so easy and spontaneous for him but I recall wondering how much of his material he wrote himself and how much came from other comedy writers. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Michelle,
      Thanks for the comment. Lucky you being able to see Seinfeld in person. Based on what I know of him, I would guess that Seinfeld wrote all the material himself. Some of it might have been recycled, but I suspect that it was all his. I hope that you enjoy the movie.

  5. I watched the video. The biggest thing I took from it is that Seinfeld was willing to show himself imperfect. That is something I struggle doing. Of course, he has resources to fall back on that most of us don’t. Nevertheless, it is bold of him to do. Content is a journey.
    Your comments of lessons from the film are good and thought-provoking. I appreciate them. Thanks for having me re-visit this documentary.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Robert. Your comment about Seinfeld being willing to show his imperfection is astute. I think that if we allow ourselves to show something of our humanity and imperfection, the audience will appreciate it. They will meet us half way.

  6. What a worthwhile and thoughtful assignment you gave yourself here. Thank you for taking a entertaining and informative documentary and spinning it into learning curriculum.
    Whenever I have taken on a new hobby or desire to improve something extra like public speaking, it often dawns on me that it is really more than just showing up. My whole experience has been more effortless lately, as I have taken to a practice of writing everyday, rather that holding out for the perfect speech topic to arise in me. The practice and process and ritual of writing gets things going, and then I can adapt my topic to fit a speech. Things are flowing much, better. I just trudge in … like a well respected author and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg put it, You have to have “ass in the chair time” there is no real getting around it.
    Thanks, John

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Lila. Good on you for your daily writing habit. It is the incremental things that we do in our lives that ultimately result in big changes and successes. I had a look at your website. A fascinating line of business you are in. I wish you much success with it and your public speaking.

  7. Great post, John. As a corporate speaker and standup comedian, I can tell you making people laugh is much harder than making them think. Comedian is one of my favorite documentaries. I watch it often and always with the eyes of a student.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tim. I have done a number of humorous speeches myself, so I can empathize a little with you. Comedians have my respect. I plan to watch the film in the future and, like you, “with the eyes of a student”.

  8. Thank you John for you post! I watched the video last night. It was enlightening to see that:
    1. Seinfeld and Adams were so honest and critical on themselves. This really drives them to become better and better comedians.
    2. They worked on their speeches so hard and studied their notes so intensely. This is something I did not appreciate until now.
    3. They get nervous before their speeches just like the rest of us.
    I enjoy reading your posts. There is always something new for me to learn. Thank you!

  9. Hi John,

    Good that you did a post about that Seinfeld’s documentary.

    You recommended this documentary to me a few years ago and I actually listened (for a change) and watched it. It was both inspirational and instructional to see how a top comic like Seinfeld develops his material. This documentary was a great help to me with public speaking and to start doing stand-up comedy.



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