The Pre-Show Rituals of Comedians Just Before They Go On Stage

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Performing on stage can be a daunting experience for even the most accomplished standup. While stage fright is something one gets better at facing with experience, there’s still a lot to be nervous about as something can always go wrong. While some comedians scoff at the idea of a pre-show ritual altogether, others swear by their routines.

Take Louis C.K., arguably the top standup in the country right now. When asked what he does before a show via Reddit earlier this year, C.K. brushed the question off with a flippant answer:

Question: What do you usually do to get ready for a show?C.K.: I open my f–king stupid mouth and put water in it.

While it’s a funny and quick answer to the question, it seems to falsely paint C.K. as a guy with a very casual attitude towards his comedy, which isn’t really the case. Here’s C.K. in an older interview speaking more honestly about what he does before a show:

Chris [Rock] and I used to talk on the phone for hours about standup, and I learned a lot from watching him… I started to follow rules that he helped me have. Like: Don’t listen to the radio in the car on the way to the show, just sit in silence in the car, just think about what you’re gonna [do]. What a weird idea: think about what you’re gonna do. You’re in a business where 99% [are] not gonna make it, and most people don’t even try really hard. And I started to think, “I really have to try to be a great comic. I can’t just be doing standup anymore.” And I started to approach it that way.

C.K. elaborated in another interview:

I think a lot of comedians, including myself in the past, are kinda lazy and think that you’re supposed to be loose and cool. But it’s such a hard thing to get good at. So why wouldn’t you fucking really try hard? So that’s what I do now.Do you have a ritual? Or do you literally sit backstage in complete silence before a show?Sometimes I do that. I try not to talk to people before I go on stage. Sometimes I’ll sit in the back of the club while the other comedians are on. But I’m not watching him; I’m watching the crowd and feeling the room. I get antsy. I don’t like waiting to go on stage. I get very anxious and it’s just uncomfortable. I learned that it’s important to seize on that instead of running away from it. So I stay in the back and bottle up the energy so that when I go on stage I’m more connected.

While C.K. talks about being anxious before a show, some performers who have been at it for as long as he has claim to not get nervous at all. Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’s The Late Late Show and a stand-up since the early 80s, falls into that category. Explains Ferguson, “I don’t really get that nervous. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I kind of relax out there. I tend to make sure I don’t eat too close to a show, ’cause then I get sleepy, which is not a good look on stage.”

Eddie Izzard, another UK comic who’s been performing for decades, has figured out how to keep himself from worrying too much before a gig, explaining: “What if you go out there and you’re not funny after five minutes and you’re supposed to be on for an hour and a half, two hours? You just can’t think about it. My analogy for not thinking about it is car driving: when you get in a car, you never think - what if I kill a kid after two minutes? You just don’t even think about it. You just make that pact with yourself.”

Susie Essman, a regular on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and veteran standup, on the other hand, has her own unique system when it comes to getting ready for a show, revealing, “Never, in all my years of doing stand-up have I found a way to ease my stage fright. I scream at my husband and tell him everything that’s wrong with him and he’s come to accept that as my pre-show hysteria. He knows I’ll be back to my loving self once it’s over.”

While yelling at a significant other is a unique approach, stretching and drinking water is far more common. Matt Braunger, a fast-rising stand-up who’s part of a crew of Chicago comedians who are dominating the industry right now, says, “I don’t have superstitions. I stretch a little and I drink a lot of water. And that’s about it.” Amy Schumer, a Last Comic Standing alum who’s currently working on her own sketch show for Comedy Central, has a similar ritual: “I stretch my legs right before I go on stage… It sort of energizes me and I’m kind of superstitious.”

While staying hydrated and stretching can help, making sure one doesn’t eat too much right before going onstage can also make a difference. Darling of the NYC standup scene Todd Barry says, “I try not to [eat before a show] but there’s always a balance, ‘cause sometimes you’re just starving before a performance. I try and not eat like a full meal sometimes, just a little something. I mean I’ve heard that it’s good if you go on stage hungry, but I don’t know, you forget a lot of things when you’re on stage. I like to eat after a show.” Barry elaborated in a different interview, showing his beliefs about pre-show behavior align pretty closely with his buddy Louis C.K.’s: “I usually just go to the bathroom like five times. I pace around and try not to talk to a whole lot of people.”

Some comedians like to polish their material right up to the last minute, like James Adomian, who admits, “I’m nervous before every show, but mostly I just pace and write notes all the way up until going on stage.”

Giving oneself a pep talk can also help. Sara Schaefer, stand-up and co-host of the podcast You Had to Be There, shares, “These are silly but also actually kind of true to what goes through my head in terms of talking myself up / down before/ after a show. Also it’s entirely dependent on the situation so these are various scenarios. ‘Get your SHIT together, Schaefer. You are a legend. God I hope they like jokes about female ejaculation.’”

In summation, here are 10 Pre-Show Tips:

  • Relax.
  • Don’t eat too much.
  • Drink some water.
  • Don’t listen to the radio in the car on the way there, just think about what you’re gonna do.
  • Talk yourself up/down, depending on where you need to be.
  • Pace around anxiously.
  • Stretch.
  • Don’t think about how things could go wrong.
  • Don’t talk to a lot of people before you go up.
  • Scream at a loved one on the phone.
  • Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

    This content series is produced in partnership with smartwater. smartwater, good taste travels well. click here to learn more.

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