What can we learn from comedians about being a confident performer?

This week, I was talking with Chippenham born and bred, comedian and compère, Wil Hodgson. Alongside performing professional stand-up, Wil also compères Burlesque performances and hosts his own comedy nights, featuring comedians from all over the world.

“What’s the first thing they teach you when you learn to paddle a canoe? They teach you how to capsize!”

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

Wil believes that at the start of your career, dying on stage is only just part of the process of learning to perform. For the performer, a plan of action for when things go seriously wrong makes perfect sense. Keep this in mind and compare it to your own ethos of performing. We will be looking at this a little later on in the article but at this point, you may be wondering, why am I interviewing a comedian about performing when the blog is about being a confident performing musician. My own process of research is drawn from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes, just observing how children learn new skills can give me valuable insights into my own practice. Simply watching the way in which a dancer moves can clearly illustrate key aspects of interpretation and performance. In fact the more we improve as musicians, the more inspiration we are able to draw and interpret from non-musical art forms. My reason for asking Wil Hodgson about performing and nerves was led by my knowledge of the many similarities between performing stand-up comedy and the role of the improvising musician. The extreme “putting yourself on the line” aspect of stand-up is also something from which we can draw inspiration.

My first questions to Wil were about his background and any possible fears he and other comedians have about performing stand-up. He agreed that he can experience fear when facing an audience if the performance has not gone well. Hethen paused and said slowly; “Mmm, Onstage death”

On-stage deaths

He wryly commented that the phenomenon is aptly named given the intense feeling of loss and grief that can occur, akin to experiencing the death of somebody close. Later in the interview I asked Wil how he can salvage a performance when he has had an onstage death. He said quite emphatically that you cannot turn an onstage death around. I was heartened at this point, in the knowledge that as a musician, it is more acceptable to make mistakes and even stop mid performance. It is then possible to start again and still deliver a satisfactory performance, reclaiming the trust of the audience. As a comedian, this is simply not the case, when you fowl up, it is pretty much game over… If you are a musician reading this, count your blessings that you are not a comedian!


I asked Wil how he coped with the event of an onstage death, one, which results in a premature offstage exit. He emphatic advice was to leave the stage as soon as you can. You don’t want to ruin the atmosphere for other comics on the bill. Some booking agents and venues and managers have different views on this so it is quite a difficult area. He said it is often a process of looking at the situation and then thinking was this situation right for comedy? A stag night or a hen night for instance often give incredibly bad performance opportunities to a stand-up comedian and in his eyes, the two types of event should never be mixed. He admits that an audience cannot sit still after a few drinks and yet alcohol and comedy regularly appear on the same bill. Holding the audience responsible for an early exit or stage death is an interesting idea. Wil stated that there does tend to be a certain amount of audience blame in these situations, but it is not always the case and it is important to have a degree of balanced self-perception to draw upon. He does know some “bad” comedians who will only play open mic nights. These performers often have little or utterly warped self-perception, and fail to critique their poor performances in a rational way, in spite of many years experience. The same may well be true of some musical performers. I have observed certain musicians at open mic nights, playing the same tired songs with no positive response from the audience either now or when I first saw them, 5 years ago. A healthy self-perception is good.

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

I then raised the subject of playing it safe in terms of material and delivery, deliberately aiming from the outset to please a specific audience. Wil immediately put me straight on this point. His opinion is that comedy is reinforced by the quote:

“Working through Laughter rather than working for Laughter.”

(A quote from Eddie Waters, comedian and writer.) Wil went on to reinforce that there are countless comics who supply, “chicken in a basket” comedy, with well-trodden jokes carefully crafted and delivered to please a certain audience. Wil’s brand of humour is anything but predictable, nor is it “formulaic crowd pleasing” in any way. He referred to performers who employed these tactics as HACKS and indicated that such individuals are usually hated by other comedians. I began to sense the much higher levels of exposure and personal vulnerability the stand-up endured compared to the average musician. In contrast, much work by musicians is by nature background music and there is a slight difference in the approach taken here. There is a similarity in aiming to be truthful to your music though. Always aim to keep it alive by exploring it in new ways. It is of interest to note that while there is competitive behaviour amongst professional musicians, in my experience they are almost always supportive of each other. This is a really positive distinction between the world of stand-up comedy and that of music performance. As Wil described the cut and thrust of the stand-up circuit it appeared to me that comedy audiences and other comedians have a gladiatorial instinct, wanting to see blood and some dangerous hand-to-hand combat. If so, whose blood do the audience want to see?

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

Gladiators and Bloodthirsty Audiences.

Generally today’s audience, as in the days of the Coliseum, initially want to see a gladiator (comedian) do well, however, they also wanted to see an underdog, newcomer (a heckler) do well OR be put down brutally. Audiences have a group dynamic and understanding this as a performer is really useful in any type of performance. This does seem to foster a rather unfortunate character trait in comedians, a kind of gallows’ humour as Wil put it where no comedian wants to hear about another comedian doing well and they only want to hear stories from other comedians about how badly something went. News of a 1 star review travels faster than wildfire and even attracts a plethora of comedians to the next show, presumably to see just how bad it really was! Stories of onstage deaths go particularly well in greenrooms. I noticed that there was a difference there between comics and music performers in that most well-rounded professional musicians (I use the term reservedly!) refer to a good gig as, “The audience were great” “It was a great venue” “They really looked after us” It seems in comedy, its pretty much everyman for himself! If it went well, nobody wants to hear about it. I guess it is like somebody saying how great they were at a party and how they were the life and soul. Again the differences between Musician and Comedian are clear, and the positive culture and experiences are more likely to be experienced by the musician. Audiences are usually more willing to support a performer and other musicians are usually more supportive of each other than comedians.

Wil Hodgson (C) Isabelle Adam

Preparing for your performance is really important in the few hours leading up to gig and I asked Wil to describe his pre-performance ritual. I was expecting that he would tell tales of meditation or reveal some miraculously deep and inspiring process. On the contrary, He watches TV and has a bit of food! One thing he was absolutely emphatic about was his need to have adrenalin pumping prior to getting up on stage. Without it, he wouldn’t have stand-up comedy. As a musician, there is an obviously similarity there, an adrenalin fuelled sense of hyper-reality is essential for me. Wil then compared the career of stunt man and comedian in that both professions attract the attention of females. I asked him why he thought this was the case and he said that both appear to cheat death, and for most people, we have an obsession and curiosity for the morbid. I asked Wil what he meant by morbid, he was quite clear in his analogies: Stuntmen cheat death literally and comedians cheat on-stage death and deal with matters of psychological devastation. He pointed out that Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) had received a great many inquisitive letters from women. I was really puzzled by this and Wil pointed out that morbid curiosity and interest for psychological maiming meant that comedians receive a lot of adoration from women. I asked myself were there any similarities here for musicians? There is certainly a willing fan base for musicians and plenty of adoration. (At the time of writing this article I am sitting overlooking a few shops in a Cretan high street where at least 4 different Justin Bieber T Shirts on sale.) An understanding of the nature of the audience and of their motivation for coming to see you is useful in planning the setlist, the build and structure of songs, the dynamic of the whole evening and the role of the support band. There seemed to be some tension for Wil about the audience and the material he was planning to deliver. He was still adamant that comedy should be your own thoughts and feelings and the audience don’t need to be pandered too and yet he viewed them with equal amounts of respect and disdain. So much of what makes an audience arrive to your gig may NOT be what you originally thought. One lady came to all of my charity jazz gigs. I asked her what she liked about Jazz, she said, “Oh I don’t, I only come for the stories you tell in-between”

What mistakes can a stand-up comedian make?

When asked this question, the answers were many and forthcoming.Using a wrong word when another one was intended. The choice of words is very important in the delivery of comedy. The revealing of a clue before the punchline, an unintentional spoonerism, misjudging the mood of a room. There are many mistakes one can make as a comedian but the one main one is succumbing to the fear of an on stage death. I can only liken this to forgetting your music/notes onstage, grinding to a halt and having to leave the stage. I think for the same reasons comedy should be

“Working through Laughter rather than working for Laughter.”

Tackling subjects, which you believe in and about which you have something to say is the best way forward. I would adapt the saying for music,

“Working for the music rather than working for music”

This will probably result in more accurate and passionate results and will ultimately have the potential to stimulate an audience. I think it is a delicate balance of a number of unstable elements, and a topic that I am keen to discuss further with Wil.

Promotion and the death of the promoter?

The area where there was the most similarity between music and comedy was the role of the Internet and promoters. Wil described how some promoters will put together a collection of comedians on a bill who have absolutely nothing in common with each other. He said that this sort of thing doesn’t really happen in music, a death metal band would rarely be on the same bill as a country and western act. Wil thinks that the days are numbered for promoters because of the widespread use of social media to self-promote. Even whilst in interview, Wil was communicating to his fans and his prospective audience feeding them information on up and coming shows and generally tending to the fan base garden. Through social media, he is able to target and attract the most receptive audience to his material. This is certainly something we are seeing in the musical world more and more. Facebook is a powerful tool, but its pervasive impact does mean a serious disadvantage for acts/individuals who have not come to terms with it, or learned to harness and use it to promote their work. Interesting times we live in.

So, in Short:

  • Remember what to do if it all goes wrong – Capsize drill in a Canoe
  • It is reassuring that there are no real onstage deaths in music. It is ok to start again or stop on occasion.
  • Choose your material from your heart – your audience will thank you for it in the end.
  • Self-belief is really important and will bring you through even the most painful of mistakes.
  • Never blame an audience – well only occasionally!
  • Remember that a long and healthy career is a balance of self-belief and self-awareness.
  • Understand that an audience generally wants you to do well.
  • Also remember that an audience has Gladiatorial instincts but less so for musicians!
  • Adrenalin and energy is important for every performance
  • Understanding your audience is a good thing
  • Mistakes be mindful of the things you need to get across with a piece of music or performance.

Special thanks to Wil Hodgson for giving up his time to give such a full interview. Also thanks to Mary Murphy for proof reading and making some excellent suggestions. 🙂

About clivemusic

I have taught music, enabling musicians to be confident about performing for over 20 years. I also train teachers and trainers to be confident in the classroom. Keyboard, piano and composing, arranging and singing are my musical loves. I love performing and play Jazz with a Quartet and also sing and direct my own Barbershop Quartet called The Sherlock Combs. I used to be an incredibly nervous performer, suffering from stage fright and through teaching music and learning many mind training techniques, come with me on a journey to confident performing.
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1 Response to What can we learn from comedians about being a confident performer?

  1. mary murphy says:

    Hi Clive, excellent post, it looks great, well done to both you and Will for putting this together…


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