A key session in my London stand-up comedy course is where we explore your persona (and in the video above you can hear me talking about persona in the class, where I discuss it from the comedy booker's point of view). Finding this persona is key. It’s your on-stage character; a simplified, exaggerated version of yourself. Understanding your persona helps you find the angle you’ll take on any given topic and the kind of jokes and material you’ll write for yourself. In effect you have a character you’re writing for. A character based on your actual self.
In this blog I talk about how we investigate the persona of the course participants and how you can find your own persona. If you're doing this independently, as in the class, the key to it is to get others to feedback to you in the way I describe. It's much easier for others to identify your persona!
I always leave this until late on in the eight week course so that we have seen you on stage a lot in front of the group – and so you have had a chance to try a lot of different things. (My course is highly practical and you are typically up twice per session in front of everyone – I also run it a couple of times a year where I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire by the way).
The way it works is that after you have done your performance for that session, and received feedback on your material, the whole group then feeds back to you on how we perceive your persona. As I say, it’s much easier for outside eyes to see than it is for you to see it yourself. Also where there are a range of views, you get insights into how you’re coming across to different people. Even where there are a number of views we are always able to ultimately arrive at a consensus.
In the class we discuss your persona in these terms:
Let’s go through these in turn. And then finally I'll touch on how contrary attitudes can be a key into material that suits your persona.
First of all we feedback to you on your funniest status. In my model of stand-up status you can be:
or 'audience's mate'.
In high status you look down on the problems of the world and your life (or simply on the audience) from a lofty position of insight and wit (eg Chris Rock). In low status you are put upon by the problems of the world and your life (or by the audience and the performance situation) and are struggling with them (eg Lee Evans and Brian Regan). In audience's mate status you share the problems of the world and of life with the audience, and you laugh at them together. (eg Sarah Millican).
This approach can be finessed by considering a primary and secondary status. Stewart Lee is a high-status comic but, as he says, he is always undermining his status in order to not become objectionable! So he might be looked on as high-status (primary), low-status (secondary). I like to say that the low status comic doesn’t realise what an idiot they are – they are playing dumb. But through their insights into their own failings the high status comic knows what an idiot they are!
I identify Brian Regan as low-status above, and certainly when he acts out himself in various situations he plays the fool, but he is a great friend of his audience so perhaps he could more accurately be described as mate-status (primary) and low-status (secondary). And returning to Sarah Millican, there is certainly a strength and at times fierceness to what she does, so I’d see her as s mate-status (primary), high-status (secondary).
So in the class we give you the two statuses we see you as embodying. This often comes as a surprise – in the last class I did, one of the group was doing a very surreal act and thought primarily that she was low status because she was being so odd. But in fact we reflected back to her that she came across as high-status because of the uncompromising way she did these weird things. She was then able to dress and act accordingly, really embodying the status of her act.
In my book The Director’s Guide to the Art of Stand-up, I discuss how the twelve Jungian archetypes can be keys to your persona. Again, rather than you trying to figure out which archetypes you embody on stage, in the class we all feedback to you.
The Innocent: A simple persona, maybe naïve, could be sweet, perhaps playing with unawareness.
The Regular Person: A relatable character, a normal everyday kind of persona.
The Crusader: Opinionated, wanting to change the world.
The Caregiver: Has concern for the audience and people in their lives and the world.
The Explorer: This could be exploring the world, but also exploring things intellectually, being inquisitive.
The Rebel: Breaks all the rules – could include the rules of stand-up!
The Sensualist: Enjoys the pleasures of the flesh and food and drink.
The Creator: In stand-up terms I think of this as the kind of comic who brings in other elements like art and music.
The Jester: Often this is the one-liner comic, but can also be a persona that is mischievous or a practical joker.
The Sage: The wise persona.
The Magician: In stand-up terms I think of this as a comic who creates impossible images and situations in their comedy (could obviously also be a comedy magician!)
The Ruler: The alpha-comic.
As I discuss in my book and as we explore in the class, this all really comes to life when you start to combine them. For example: sensualist and sage. Bringing them together you get Russell Brand! Finding the two archetypes that you embody – or at a push, three! - can really help define who you are on stage and when we do this in the class we can always in the end agree on two or three archetypes for each act.
Finally, you can make yourself dislikeable in your comedy! But typically for the audience to laugh they have to like you – even acts that are deliberately nasty are still in fact liked by those who laugh with them. So in the class we also ask what is likeable about each act. And there is always something! And what’s more what the audience are liking sometimes comes as a surprise to the person themselves. (For example, “we really like how scatty you are!”) Once you know what the audience like about you, you can lean into it and do it more. The more like you, the more they will laugh. Contrary attitudes
In the video at the top of this blog, I talk in the class about taking contrary attitudes to a topic and how that can be revealing of your persona. The recording cuts off before I describe the exercise the group do, but it's a simple and revealing one. Here it is if you want to have a go at it:
- Pick something that authority figures / society tells you is BAD. Now tell us why you think that it's is GOOD. 2 minutes. Really commit to your contrary belief and convince us why you are right.
And then, the flip side - working with a different starting point:
- Pick something that by authority figures / society tells you is GOOD. Now tell us why you think that thing is BAD. 2 minutes. Again, really commit to your contrary belief and convince us why you are right.
Taking a surprising attitude to a topic - a contrary attitude - is a great way into comedy. And if you're doing it with a clear status, archetypes and likeability in your approach, you'll have a strong, clearly defined persona.
Find our you stand-up persona and work with loads more great creative exercises in my London stand-up course.
And write for your persona on my online stand-up writing course.
I can also work with you one-to-one on your persona. Please get in touch: