Developing Your Voice

There are very few indisputable rules in comedy. One of them is that your voice has to be honest throughout your set. Whether your voice is really you, a heightened version of you, or a completely different character, it needs to be honest.

As soon as one joke contradicts another, you become less believable to the audience. And if the audience doesn’t trust you, it’s over. I have seen many comics do jokes about how they’re a ladies man, or how they have trouble finding the right woman. Followed by a joke about how much they love their wife. How did that happen? Because they wrote the first joke, and then their life evolved and they wrote the second joke, without being smart enough to drop the first one.

The other reason to have a defined voice is because so much of a comedian’s success is based on word of mouth. Imagine an audience member leaving and telling a friend they loved your show. The friend asks what your comedy is like, and the audience member can’t answer succinctly. They’re not going to convert that friend into a new fan. Very often, I see comedians getting some laughs, but their jokes are just a series of disjointed jokes any comedian could do. The acts that stand out are those that have a distinct voice. Those are the acts that people talk about.

When you define your voice, your jokes get easier to write. Think about the act of buying a car. Now think about the jokes that George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Jerry Seinfeld would write about the experience. They’d all be vastly different. Carlin might deconstruct the language used by the salesman (or saleswoman and he’d deconstruct the difference between the two). Pryor might discuss how he was disrespected by the white salesman, even though his station in life is above that of a clerk. And Seinfeld might focus on the minutia of the process – like the silliness of how many different sales people a customer gets shuttled between.

Their clearly defined personas do the writing for them. So when you find your voice, it is both easier to write material, and easier to write material unique to you.

So how do you find your voice, other than years of experimentation and failure? To get philosophical, I believe we exist in the world as the sum total of how everyone else sees us. Our actions might influence those opinions, but the total of those opinions are who we are. And the chasm between who the world thinks we are and who we think you are is more commonly known as “delusion.”

Similarly, we exist on stage as the sum total of how the audience sees us. Want to learn what that sum total is? Just ask. Ask ten people who you’re close with and ten people who barely know you to describe you in a few words (without sparing your feelings). The words that repeat are usually who you really are.

When I tried this exercise, the pervasive ideas were that I stubbornly always had to be right and that I was a people pleaser. Those are two ideas that fly in the face of each other – but human beings are complex. Unfortunately, even performing for an hour is not enough to truly explain the complexities of a person, so I chose one idea and ran with it. At the time, my act was about 85% being right and 15% self-deprecating. So I removed the self-deprecation, and I turned a corner on stage almost immediately.

The other part of how your audience perceives you is how you’re dressed. If you wear a suit, don’t talk about being poor – it’s a contradiction. If you sexualize yourself, don’t talk about how hard dating is – it’s a contradiction. And if you wear shorts and a “funny” t-shirt, please stop doing comedy, and instead become a camp counselor. Pay attention to your “look” – it is part of your voice, because it is part of your persona.