Stand-Up Comedy Overcome Stage Fright

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Overcoming stage fright is a subject near-and-dear to me. Years ago I suffered from extreme stage fright. I would studying my stand-up comedy performances so much that I’d spend over 75 hours rehearsing a single 5-7 minute set. However, all my work only ended up giving me even more stage fright. As I was learning how to be a comedian I believed that stage fright was only a matter of feeling prepared or not… I was wrong.

As an improvisational comedian I’d never once experienced stage fright. Starting in 6th grade, I’d racked up considerable stage time before I’d even graduated high school. But when I wanted to learn how to be a comedian, things suddenly changed. All of a sudden I was stricken with the worst case of stage fright.

Why did I never experience stage fright until learning how to be a comedian? Because now I had a script that I could mess up on. As an improvisational comedian there was no script. I couldn’t possibly worry about what might happen on stage because I simply didn’t know. There was something very comforting about that. If I scene didn’t go as well as planned, it wasn’t my fault. I shared responsibility with everyone on my team, so I allowed myself not to worry one bit. This was true even though I was the youngest (and probably most driven) improvisational comedian in the troupe.

When I had no control over the audience’s reaction, there was never any pressure to be perfect on stage. But when I learned how to be a comedian, I got intense stage fright because I DID want to be perfect on stage. I wanted every joke to go perfectly. When I was learning how to be a comedian, I wanted every word in its perfect place with perfect pauses throughout the set. I put WAY TOO MUCH pressure on myself to have perfection on the stage, and it cost me by giving me intense stage fright.

Stage fright is always the result of your own illusion of control. You BELIEVE that you have control on stage, when that’s actually not really the case. You can’t possibly dictate the audience’s reaction to you. The more control you try to have on stage, the less control you’ll feel (and the more stage fright you’ll get as a result).

Ironically, it wasn’t until I gave up control on stage that I began feeling 100% in control. The control is still an illusion, yes, but it’s much deeper than simply “word games” or “semantics.” Giving up control in order to gain control allows you to relax on stage. There’s no worry about what might happen when you’re 100% present in the moment with the audience (as I was when I was performing improvisational comedy but not stand-up comedy early on). When this happened the benefits I received were extraordinary. I didn’t just learn how to be a comedian that was comfortable on stage; I begin developing more original material as well as a more creative performance style. There wasn’t a need for control, so I enjoyed a much wider variety of tools I could use on stage, tools that most comedians might be afraid to use because they don’t have as much control over them.

Here’s why no amount of practicing will ever result in loss of stage fright.

Giving up control isn’t just a tactic you can use for learning how to be a comedian, it works in many types of situation and in any type of public speaking. There’s actually a neurological reason for stage fright, and it lies in the imbalance between the left and right hemispheres of your brain. The left hemisphere wants to know all the details while the right want to know the “big picture.” When you’re practicing for a stage performance, there’s no possible way you can satisfy both sides of your brain simultaneously.

If you’ve ever spent hours rehearsing material you’ve probably felt this before. You can study on the individual lines (details) of your set and feel confident in them… but you’re not 100% positive you know which bits go where and that you won’t freeze up on stage because you don’t know how to start the next bit. Simply put, you don’t feel you have a grasp on the big picture.

So you switch over and study the big picture, but you instantly feel that you might not have every single detail down… and on and on it goes.

No amount of rehearsal will ever get you over stage fright for this very reason. You’ll never be able to satisfy both sides of your brain because they want completely opposite things. This means if you want to learn how to be a comedian that doesn’t have stage fight you can’t simply over-practice, because no amount of over-practicing overcomes the problem.

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