GUEST POST: A Trial Lawyer Tries His Hand at Comedy
GUEST POST: A Trial Lawyer Tries His Hand at Comedy
by David Swanner
"You’re doing comedy? Cool. Uhh….Why?"
When I tell people that I took a comedy workshop and started doing stand-up comedy a few months ago, people typically are pretty amazed. I think because I might not be that interesting. Also, I think it’s one of those Walter Mitty dreams. “I wish I could do that.” But public speaking is scary, and stand-up comedy is the kamikaze of public speaking. The second response is why. I’ve always loved comedy and always wanted to do comedy. I also have a creative mind that doesn’t always get an opportunity to stretch when practicing law. So I did a comedy workshop.
The workshop was taught by Manny Oliveira who has been in comedy and performing for 27 years. Manny is not only one of the top headliners in the business, he’s also a tremendous teacher. I’ve seen him do three workshops now and have been amazed at the way he pulls the funny out of people. He helps people work up a routine where it brings out the best of them and their style.
We met for three hours on Monday night. Four weeks of the workshop, a week off, then a showcase performance where we would all go on stage and perform.
We had nine people in the workshop. In addition to myself, we had Vern, Lucas and Scott who were starting comedians with experience, but wanted to get better. We had Marjorie who is a divorce attorney from North Myrtle Beach, Danny a business broker, Chris a painter, Boz who is in the service industry and ‘Mad Max’ a morning drivetime radio deejay. All great people with a wide range of backgrounds, styles and senses of humor. Manny doesn’t use formulas, but lets the comedy come from each person.
Week 1 – Manny had prepared a workbook that had a number of comedy exercises to get our mind thinking a certain direction. The exercises included making a few ‘Top 10 Lists’, making Comparisons, Exagerrations, Finishing the Joke and things of that nature. The workbook also included information on developing a persona that includes a comedy personality and style. Manny then taught us the following about comedy:
- Edit. Editing is not necessarily the paring down of material. It is finding all you can in the material verbally, mentally and physically. I agree with that. As I’ve gone along, I’ve worked to trim down the exposition, but add more punchlines to get the laugh factor up. It’s a never ending process.
- Challenge. Challenge yourself to find new ways of telling the same story. There’s always more if you look for it. A suggestion he made is to try to find 10 different ways to tell a joke. The first 4-5 will be obvious, the next one or two might be fairly easy to come up with, but you normally strike gold when you the last one pops in your head.
- Change. The willingness to change material or delivery gives you a greater opportunity to convey your message.
- Adjust. You must adjust to the audience before you. You must maintain the integrity of the message but make it palatable to the audience before you.
- Commit. You must be committed to the material and the performance. The only judgment issues come from you. Don’t judge, just deliver.
- Don’t Anticipate. Never anticipate a response. The audience will respond as they wish. Anticipation will be your doom if you don’t get what you expected.
- Be Prepared. Know what you’re going to say and how you will say it. Plot points are essential, memorization is not.
- React. Nothing will endear you to an audience more than being human. If you react to the moment in a genuine way they are yours for the taking.
- Be Honest. Let the audience know how you feel. If you’re nervous tell them. Don’t make them suffer alone.
- Feel. If you don’t have any feelings about what you’re saying neither will the audience.
- Accept. People may not have the same opinion that you have. Accept their opinion and continue.
- Move On. Don’t get stuck on a reaction or on a particular joke. When things don’t come to you move on to something else.
- Persevere. The audience wants you to succeed. If you keep going forward they will stay with you for the whole ride.
- Be Patient. Whether it is writing or performing you cannot allow yourself to impede the process just because it doesn’t come to you immediately.
- Energy. You have to be up for the game even if you’re not necessarily an overtly energetic person. Your mind can be the source of your energy.
Whew. That’s a lot to take in for one night. Manny covered all of the points in detail with us. But looking up at them, don’t those look like a lot of good traits for trial lawyers to adopt while preparing for and trying a case? Our class assignment was to do a number of exercises in the workbook and come up with two jokes. They either had to be totally different or very similar. Together that would be about a minute of material and our goal was to have 5–7 minutes by the time we finished the workshop. We met everyone and I was happy to see that everyone was pretty cool.
We went up on stage and told about ourselves for about 15–30 seconds. I was fine with this. No worries mate.
Week – 2 I flew to Seattle, Washington to visit my mother and missed week 2. Oh oh, I hope this doesn’t create a problem.
Week – 3 I had a case that had been in house for while that came up for mediation on the same day as the third class. The week before, I started pulling the case apart and looking to see what had to be done for it. I looked at it and knew that I had to do a focus group, get video clips, do recorded interviews and do a good workup on the case. Based on the short time span, I knew that I would be working late hours to get everything done. In the long run, the focus group really changed our opinion about the case and helped tremendously at settling the case at mediation, so I’m glad that we did it that way.
The day of the third week, we were in the mediation for close to 8 hours, plus I had about four hours of driving. I was up until 3:00 a.m. putting the finishing touches on my PowerPoint presentation (complete with video clips, audio clips, pictures, scanned images of selected focus group responses and selected medical reports). I was beat. I called Manny and told him that I would have to cancel out. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to do the performance, I didn’t have time to gather the material. I just didn’t have time to work up a routine.
Manny told me. “Dave. You’re ready. I can feel it. You need to get up on stage. Just put something together. If you do 3 minutes instead of the five to seven minutes, then that’s fine. Just get up and do it. Don’t put if off.” Okay. Fine. Call my bluff.
Building the Routine
I started pulling together scraps of jokes and stories I tell at parties / bars. Things that have struck me as amusing along the way. Five years ago, I read a newspaper article of a small village in India that uses elephants to plow fields. The elephants had snuck into a hut and drank vats of rice beer. When the beer was gone, the elephants got angry and went on a rampage and smashed up the village. I took that article and twisted it a bit. I put the elephants in a fraternity at college and talked about why you wouldn’t want to invite them to a keg party.
I have always been amused at the angry snorting sound that camels make, and how you can’t argue with a camel. (You really can’t.) So I talked about what it would be like if we could get angry and do that. How would that be at work, or at home? I added a bit about not getting spam and not even knowing what it is, but that I do like getting e-mails from hot teenage chicks that want to do me.
Okay. I had another bit or two, but I needed a closer. Something to tie it together. All of a sudden, my closing bit fell into my lapwhen I saw this article on Yahoo News. Hmmm….Scientists artificially inseminate whales? You don’t even have to write jokes for that, the jokes just jump up and slap you in the face. The jokes not only write themself, they also print their self out, address an envelope, stick a stamp on themself and mail them to your friends. (Okay, maybe carried away, but this was a goldmine.) The key part of the article, or as Dennis Kennedy would say, the ‘money quote’?
Kela and Naku, the aquarium's female belugas, were not ideal candidates for the procedure because neither had ever been pregnant and because of their advanced age, Robeck said. However, they are extremely well trained, which made the procedure easier.
What were they training them for? As much as I love that phrase, I didn’t use that. I twisted it a bit and turned the scientists into ‘whale pimps’ and riffed on that for awhile. But their is a lot of comedic potential in that article.
I added a transition or two (which I believe that Manny made up/ gave me) and I was at 11 minutes. Holy cow! I had to trim it down and cut it in half, but I had my 5–7 minutes in spades.
Week 3 Supplemental / Makeup Session – Manny was kind enough to meet with us on Sunday afternoon for those of us that needed it. I needed it. I had missed 2 out of the 4 sessions, so that meant I would only be half as funny. He had covered microphone techniques and they had been practicing with a microphone. I hadn’t gone on stage to tell any of my material before, so was uncomfortable with the mike and asked to just do it without the mike the first time. Instead of building the routine a bit at a time, I had to just go up there and flop the whole thing out. I was nervous.
Afterwards, they told me that they were nervous for me, too. We were near the end of the workshop and they hadn’t heard anything I had put together and didn’t know what to expect. I went up there and started telling my routine. I had pulled it together in two days so didn’t have it memorized yet. The stage lights were on and shining bright into my eyes so I could barely see out. I started telling the first joke and they were laughing. They were laughing hard, but I didn’t stop to give them time to laught or enjoy it. The hell with them, I wanted to get through this.
I made it to the end and they told me that they liked it a lot and Manny gave suggestions for tightening, tweaking, expanding… Everyone went through their routines twice and I started getting more comfortable with it.
Four days before we were to make our comedy debut, I went up to the club to get used to the stage and to get used to the microphone. I wanted to practice a number of times on the stage with the mike. I was ready to take a step up from practicing in the shower. I had a friend go with me and videotape the performance, so I could watch the tape and see what looked good and what didn’t. The first time (which I think was the first time I had all of the pieces into place) was bad. Very bad. The second time was much better.
At that point, it was somewhere between seven and seven thirty at night. The owner of the club said “Dave. We’ve got a headliner this week that has so much material and likes doing a long show, so we only have two comedians this week. Why don’t you open the show for him?” Hmmm… My first time on stage with an audience. I wasn’t sure about that, but Jeff said “Look, there’s only about 20 people in the audience, how bad can it be?”
I have since learned. Pretty bad. The smaller the audience, the harder it is to get them going. 20 people is about five groups of 4. There was a retired group from the country, there was a husband and wife with matching mullets and matching NASCAR ball caps. I swear. And a few other sundries. My opening bit with the elephant at a keg party did not go over well. Okay. At all. My only laugh of the night, was when I did a transition from one animal joke to another and said “I don’t want to stay on the animal thing, because there are laws against that. Even in South Carolina. You can marry your cousin, but you can’t screw a goat. What’s up with that?” That transition got a big laugh. Go figure.
Well, I did the elephant bit, the transition and thought to myself “You know what? I’m not getting paid for this. This is not my crowd, they’re not buying my stuff. I’m going to get off the stage.” So I did. I promptly bailed out of the rest of the set and brought up the feature act. I went to the back, did two shots and watched the pros at work. Afterwards, both of the comedians gave me tips and congratulated me for getting up on stage for the first time.
Week 4 – The Day Before the Performance – We all went through our routines and they were getting more set. Some had theirs pretty polished, others less so, but everyone was coming together. Manny set the order of the show so that there would be an ebb and flow in the show based on the personalities and styles.
The Showcase Performance
We all got there early and everyone was dressed in appropriate stage attire. I was wearing black pants and a silk camp shirt. We were all pretty nervous, but also psyched. I had just written my entire routine together about 8 or 9 days earlier and was still working on memorizing the punchlines and working on not forgetting any of the material. I went outside so as not to be distracted and ran through my routine a number of times.
I had a number of friends there, my wife and my father and his wife were there. Everyone brought a crowd with them and the place was packed. The guys had gone on Mad Max’s radio show that morning to talk up our show. I couldn’t make it because I was in court, but we had a full house.
I was really impressed with how well everyone was doing and when it was my turn went up and did my routine. This is what I remember. I remember my left leg shaking, almost doing an Elvis Presley thing all on it’s own. I was halfway through the elephant bit when I got my first laugh, then the leg started shaking a lot less and I felt a lot better. I got some laughs and then got off the stage.
When watching the tape later, I realized that I had burned through the first minute or so of the show until I got that first laugh. It was like JOKE. JOKE. JOKE. and not even giving people enough time to think about it or catch on or even laugh. But I slowed down quite a bit after the first laugh.
After I got off. I quickly drank two shots of something to calm my nerves.
Stand up comedy really is the kamikaze of public speaking. I have no problems with speaking in a courtroom. I am an advocate for my client and telling my client’s story. As a plaintiff attorney, I have great stories to tell. Of the problems my people have had and what they have gone through to overcome those problems. I have no problem conveying that to a jury. I taught platform instruction and one-on-one instruction for three years in the Army. I have no problem getting up in front of a roomful of people and talking. I’ve written one-day classes and given those. No problem. I give presentations in front of people all of the time and I don’t have any problems with that. I even debated for four years in high school and didn’t have any problems with that public speaking.
But stand-up comedy is some scary shit. At the end of the night, everyone really had done a pretty good job. We weren’t professionals yet, but everyone did pretty well. Manny’s guidance had really paid off.
The three most imporant keys to getting better at comedy is stage time, stage time, stage time. I’m very, very fortunate to have Jeff and Christine as the owners of our local comedy club. They are very supportive of new comedians and work hard at bringing local comics along. I have seen them help develop a number of people throughout the years I’ve been going there. Jeff will give me a 5 minute special ‘guest spot’ pretty much whenever I want as long as it’s on a weekday and I call in advance. There’s only one show a night on the weekdays as opposed to two shows a night on the weekend and there’s a looser schedule.
I competed in their ‘Open Mic’ Night and made the finals. I’ve done a number of guest spots and have started to host and M/C the show. That’s where I would be the first of three comedians going up and part of the ‘regular lineup’ instead of being a guest spot. I found out that there’s a big difference between a friendly crowd that is expecting first-timers and regular comedy club patrons that paid full price for the show.
Last month, Manny and I put together a Comedy Workshop for Trial Lawyers and had a total of four lawyers show up. A lot more were interested, but with scheduling lawyers in the summer is tough to do. At that point, I had about 20 minutes of material, I had been writing new stuff non-stop. In fact, one of the problems I had was that I was writing new material faster than I could memorize it, much less test it. I asked the other lawyers if they minded if I used all of my material and they didn’t object. So, we put on the show, got a pretty good crowd and I closed the show the with 20 minutes of material. Not quite feature material yet, but getting better. I was much more relaxed this time. I had a lot of lawyer friends in the crowd and I slowed down, played with it some and really enjoyed myself.
I’ve since dropped the elephant and the keg bit. I think it’s funny, but it really wasn’t getting any laughs. I’ve got a new opening bit that is more accessible and gets the people laughing and just works better. I’ve re-worked and tightened up or added on to nearly the entire routine and added a number of other bits. So depending on what I need, I can give 10–12 minutes, 7 minutes or a tight 4 and a half to five minutes.
I think that I’ll come back to the elephant bit in the future, maybe put it later in the routine or find a different way to sell it. I think there’s something funny in there, but I wasn’t pulling it out of the bit. I’ll set it down and come back to it later when I have a better comedy skill set.
I’m getting more comfortable with the hosting and M/C spot. It’s one of the toughest jobs because you have to warm up the audience before they’ve started laughing, and probably before they’ve started drinking. I’m getting to the point where I can get more interactive with the audience and learn to play off them more. I pause more and just give them a chance to drink it in.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Two weeks ago when Manny was in town as a headliner I went up three times. Two guest spots and a hosting gig. But that’s a bit much. I think I would like to average once a week or every other week. When my wife and I go out to the comedy club on Saturday night like we usually do, instead of seeing three comedians, she’ll get to see two comedians and me. And I’ll get to perform.
I would like to get to the point where I have a strong enough act to be a feature or potentially headliner. I’m constantly writing new material. Some of it fits into the routine, some of it doesn’t. Some of it is funny stuff that happens, or that I see. Some of it is clippings from the internet. And if you think there’s not enough material to keep the ‘animal theme’ going, check out some of these stories: A dozen penguins die at zoo after chlamydia outbreak and 450 Sheep Jump to Their Deaths in Turkey:
First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the same cliff, Turkish media reported.
In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile, the Aksam newspaper said. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned, Aksam reported.
So you see, the world keeps giving you new material. Those are actual news stories, not stuff I’ve made up. But they can turn into nice bits.
I do not want to do comedy for a living. I love being a trial lawyer too much. I like fighting for my clients and knowing that I am their voice in the world and without our legal system, that no one would even know they existed, much less compensate them for their injuries.
While doing comedy is a lot of fun and builds similar skill sets, it doesn’t reach down into my soul like being a trial lawyer does. It’s a lot of fun, but I like teaching and trial work more.
If you want to know when I’m going up on stage, I’ve set up a Yahoo group MakeMeLaughDave. Next up? We’re doing a comedy show at the South Carolina Trial Lawyer Association’s Convention.
And that is my brush with comedy.
About the author: Dave Swanner is a plaintiff’s attorney in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He has previously been a computer programmer and consultant, an interrogation instructor for the Army and cooked in the world chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas. When he’s not at the beach, he can be found at his firm or his weblog South Carolina Trial Law Blog.