Imagine it’s 2012 and you’re at the premiere of Marvel’s first Avengers film. Exciting stuff! Several years and several films have all led up to this climax of the Earth’s mightiest heroes battling alien invaders from outer space. You’re thrilled as the Hulk smashes a massive creature in the face… and then the film stops and director JJ Abrams walks onscreen and tells you there is no Hulk, it’s all just computer generated images. Then he tells you to enjoy the rest of the movie and it resumes.

It would be very difficult to enjoy the movie from that point. After all, the whole appeal of film is losing yourself in the story and never giving a thought to the entire industry it takes to tell that story on a big screen. Now, not only had the illusion been ruined for you, it was the director of the movie who had purposefully screwed you out of your fun.

Standup is very similar. We’re selling an illusion to the crowd, that we’re just winging it on stage, just saying whatever comes to mind. We’ve never said it before and will never say it again. For the overwhelming number of comics throughout history, this is utter bullshit. Jokes are written long in advance, are told again and again until we find the best way to word them, and then again and again.

For me, Richard Pryor is the most natural storyteller I’ve ever heard. Watching Live on the Sunset Strip, his funniest but not best album (there’s a difference; his best is Here and Now but that’s a topic for another entry) I absolutely believe he was saying everything for the first time and would never say it again. Except I also know that, not only had he worked out that material over a long period of time, the album itself was recorded in two different clubs, months apart, and cut together to make it seem like one show.

Bill Maher said that standup is a double-edged sword, that the crowd is impressed that we’re just talking up there, but also not that impressed because, after all, we’re just talking up there. That the only difference between comics and civilians is that we’re not afraid of public speaking. I see his point but, at the same time, I don’t think natural storytellers suffer from a lack of respect.

Unfortunately, comics often ruin the illusion of standup for the crowds, consciously or unconsciously, like French New Wave film directors who wanted audiences to be very aware of how much effort it takes to make a movie. Some of the greatest films in history came out of that era, but those directors were also pretentious twats (and way to go French people for dispelling that stereotype). Here are some things you can avoid to not be a pretentious twat.

– Telling the crowd that what you just said was a joke. “That joke was funnier in my head,” is a standard excuse for jokes that don’t work and a cheap way to save it by getting a giggle. It’s fine to use it sparingly, but I’ve seen comics continue to do the same joke that doesn’t work, followed by the same excuse, in set after set. Believe it or not, it’s okay to tell a stinker and just move on to the next punchline, or to dump a joke that doesn’t work. Kill your darlings.

Explaining jokes is another way to shatter the illusion and I’m not above criticism here; I have a joke that’s a few weeks old at this point where the punchline doesn’t get much of a reaction, but explaining the joke gets a laugh and also leads to a new punchline, that I purposefully deliver in over-the-top, THIS IS A PUNCHLINE fashion. I enjoy doing it, probably more than the crowd does, but hey, I should be allowed to have fun sometimes, too. Still, it’s pretty lazy. If I could come up with a better initial punchline, I could cut the whole explaining part out and be better overall.

Yet another example is when comics tell a joke, then tell the crowd a story about what happened when they told that same joke at another club. I’ve been guilty of this myself- back in the day, I used to close with an admittedly sexist joke, but it always worked, except for the time a woman threatened to throw my own beer in my face. I told that story a few times, because I wanted the crowd to be just as interested in the joke as I was. The fact is, no one will ever be as interested in the mechanics of our own jokes as we are.

I once saw a comic deliver a joke and make a woman in the crowd get furious at him, so in future sets he’d tell the joke, followed by the story of it making someone mad. During one of these later sets, another woman got pissed when he told the story of a woman getting pissed at him, so in his following gigs he told the joke, the story of a woman getting pissed at him for telling the joke, then the story of a woman getting pissed at him for telling a story about a woman getting pissed at him. Damn, if that cycle had continued, he could’ve put together a whole hour from one joke.

– Not knowing your own material. If you’ve been performing for less than a year and you’ve got keywords from your set written on your hand, fine. I’ll even give a pass to experienced comics with some version of a cheat sheet if they’re about to do an hour for the first time. But if you’re about to do the same ten-minute set you’ve done a hundred times already, why the hell do you need to look at your hand several times on stage?

More times than I can count, I’ve walked off stage, feeling good about how it went, only to suddenly feel like shit as I realized I’d forgotten to do a joke or two. The reason this happens is always the same- either I didn’t prepare enough before the set, or the joke wasn’t in a place where it would flow naturally from the bit before. I don’t expect everyone to have a mind like a steel trap- I certainly don’t have one myself- but scribbling on your hand is a crutch, a way to ignore the fundamental issue.

You should also know how long your jokes are. Not down to the millisecond, of course, but a general idea. More often than not, we don’t know how long we’ll get on stage until just before the show starts, and even then, things can change. Maybe someone before you did too long and now your time got cut, because comics are assholes. Maybe you suddenly got even more time since someone else is late or didn’t show up at all, because comics are assholes. Or maybe you’re in the middle of your set and suddenly realize that a joke you hadn’t planned to do would work better than what you’d planned. Your jokes are like Lego pieces you can mix and match and move around on the fly, and you can do this to your benefit and also respect the club and other comics by not going over your time! Unfortunately, I’m giving this advice to comics and, as I said, we’re assholes.

– Trying to look cool. Surveys have shown that people are more afraid of public speaking than of death. Standup is a step beyond- not only are we not afraid to get up in front of drunk strangers, we’re trying to make them laugh. That’s pretty cool! Know what’s even cooler? Owning the stage, showing zero fear, total confidence, expertly delivering material.

Why comics, deliberately or otherwise, do things to seem cool, bugs the shit out of me. First of all, the mic stand is not your friend. The way comics cling to it often reminds me of when I played Tag as a kid- the front steps were a safe spot, if you could make it there, you couldn’t get tagged. Sorry, as much as you wish it were true, the mic stand offers no safety. And I know you feel cool when you hang on it casually, like it shows how comfortable you are up there, but trust me, you’ll look much cooler without it. Take the mic out of the stand at the start of your set, move it out of reach and don’t touch it again until you say thanks and good night.

Also, leave your notebook off stage. This applies to knowing your material as well, but I’ve seen comics use it as a prop. They know what they’re about to say but pull out a notebook anyway. Look how cool I am, I don’t even care that you see how unprepared and unprofessional I am! You do you, I suppose, but you’re cooler without it.

And for God’s sake, don’t sit down during your set. It’s called standup for a reason. The only comic I give a pass to is Bill Cosby. He would sit during his shows because he was very old and tired from all that raping.