One year ago, my advisor, Prof. Charles Leiserson in CSAIL, arranged for our research group to take a stand-up comedy class with Dana Jay Bein, a local comedian with Improv Boston. Charles sold it to us as an opportunity to work on our communication skills while participating in a fun activity as a group. Nobody I knew had ever tried stand-up, so I had no idea what to expect from the process of preparing a set, or from a stand-up performance. My only experience with stand-up comedy was from TV, where the comedians seemed naturally entertaining. I was skeptical that I could be anything like them — I love to joke around with my friends, but the prospect of being funny for a crowd of strangers sparked anxiety.
Starting in the beginning of spring 2018, Dana and the members of my research group met for two hours a week to work on stand-up comedy with the goal of putting on a performance for our friends after about 10 weeks. I was especially nervous about this final presentation — it seemed like it would be even harder than delivering a research talk.
Since we were all beginners, Dana introduced us to the basics of comedy and taught us about the structure of a joke. First, a joke needs to have a setup, which introduces some expectations or assumptions about a topic. The punchline subverts those expectations in an entertaining way. For example, one joke we learned was “one place you should never take your girlfriend when you’re broke is out”. The assumption is that you’re going somewhere nice, and the punchline is that you’re not actually going anywhere.
Stand-up requires making up your own jokes, but how do you decide what to talk about? We learned about making jokes based on assumptions people make about you. Even though we knew each other as labmates, we did an exercise where each of us went up in front of the class, and everyone else came up with assumptions based on the appearance of the person on the spot. That person then used others’ assumptions as a setup and wrote jokes subverting them.
In stand-up, your delivery, or how you present your jokes, is extremely important. Delivery includes your timing (when you stop and how long you wait after each joke) and your tone (what voice you use to tell a joke). In the first few classes, we did an exercise where we were each supposed to talk for a minute (or 90 seconds, or any fixed amount of time) without looking at a timer and see how long we actually spoke for. The results show whether you tend to ramble on and can help shorten your stories. We actually still do this exercise for our check-ins during our group research meetings. Giving talks also requires a sense of timing, e.g. how much time to spend on each idea so that people understand your presentation.
After coming up with some jokes, we had to write them up and practice their delivery for weeks. I never realized that comedy required so much iteration and practice; comedians seem totally natural on stage, but they practice their jokes many times and keep refining them. Preparing stand-up comedy is a lot like writing a research talk: both require a huge amount of practice and editing.
The few weeks before we performed were some of the most stressful of my graduate career. Even though we were going to perform in front of a group of our friends, I was anxious that my material wouldn’t be funny to them, or that I would ruin the delivery from nerves. I practiced every day in front of the mirror and occasionally to my roommates (when I could gather the courage). I practiced my stand-up routine more than I’ve ever practiced any talk I’ve given, and I was still nervous.
I’ll share some advice from our lessons that was especially helpful for research presentations:
1. Try not to let your inner critic control you.
By inner critic, I mean the voice inside you that controls what material you put out, what you share, what you think you have a chance at accomplishing, etc. Your inner critic can come out in comedy and in research by stifling your ideas. While presenting, your inner critic might cause verbal tics such as saying “um” or “right”, or cause you to speed through your material.
2. Record yourself for speed and verbal tics.
This one is somewhat related to the first point. Your inner critic can manifest in your presentation style by making you speed up, shift nervously, or have verbal tics. You can learn about your presentation style by recording yourself. I find it hard to gather the courage to watch a recording of myself - the first time I watched myself on video was during our comedy class. But this helped me identify the things to work on to improve my style.
3. Be confident and never apologize.
When doing stand-up, nobody knows what you planned to say, or what was in your script. If you deviate from it, try not to get flustered and apologize - that makes it more obvious that something went wrong in your presentation. Similarly, when giving talks, if you make an error, you can correct it but don’t apologize, and try not to make too big of a deal out of it .
4. Promise then backfill details.
One of the first skills we learned in comedy was to get to the main point of the joke or story quickly, and then fill in the details. After you get the audience’s attention, you can go into more detail without losing them. Similarly, a good research talk gets to the point as soon as possible without getting stuck in the small details.
Despite all my worrying, the performance at the end of our comedy class was a great opportunity to show our friends what we’ve been working on. I actually enjoyed the class as a way to get to know my labmates and hear their personal stories; I also appreciated the opportunity to practice a new skill with a supportive group. I learned that stand-up is more like research than I originally thought: it requires constantly thinking about new approaches, refining existing work, and executing effective presentation. Just like how great papers aren’t written naturally without huge amounts of work, the stand-up that we see on TV is the result of years of practice and failures along the way.
P.S. Improv Boston (in Central Square) has free stand-up lessons at 1pm every Saturday. If you’re interested in also trying a stand-up class with your research group or on your own, you can contact Dana for more information.
P.P.S. I was inspired to write about my experience in stand-up comedy because I had recently started watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, an online TV show about a woman in the 1950’s who becomes a stand-up comic. I won’t spoil it too much, but I’ll definitely recommend it — it’s won a lot of well-deserved awards.