Like A Virgin

Performing for the very first time

Madonna performing standup.
I've seen worse open mike performances.

Madonna recently performed standup on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon show. It was a harmless celebrity foray into a world they don't know, kind of like Dancing with the Stars or something like that. Just another facet of a culture that values fame over art.

I've seen more than a few comedians talking about her performance as if it represents something wrong in the world of standup. At best it's an insult to all the comedians who had to work their ass off to get funny enough to appear on a late night talk show, at worst some people think of it as an indication of standup comedy having jumped the shark. Meh. Eddie Murphy did no harm to pop music when he tried to make a singing career, so I don't see how Madonna going the other direction does any damage. Besides, she already tried to kill acting, and that didn't work, so I think standup is safe.

For me, the interesting aspect of Madonna's experiment into standup is what it says about how you suffer as a comedian if you allow the audience to have anything other than an honest evaluation of you. Listen to the audience cheer when she makes statements about dating younger men. Not laugh, cheer. That's not funniness, that's a pep rally. She also keeps telling the audience to laugh when they don't, and pointing out the people in the band who are laughing, forcing the issue of support, a classic rookie mistake. Fallon, being a good sport, practically throws himself out of his chair laughing. At what, exactly, I don't know, but I do know his determination to make manifest the funniness of the situation is driving his actions more than any actual evaluation of Madonna's act.

Is anything she says, actually, funny, though? Who knows. It's impossible to tell in that environment. Her celebrity pulls a certain amount of sycophancy to the stage with her, some fans giddy with excitement because she matters to them, and others responding to the novelty of it all. Personally, I thought some lines she had could be workshopped into something decent, but that's about it.

I have no idea whether Madonna has any serious intention to actually pursue standup, but I can say that her success and her ability are far less correlated than it is for a lot of the rest of us. She has enough celebrity momentum to probably continue the rest of her life doing standup to crowds bigger than more talented people might have access to. I can't really comment on whether or not she has a chance at making a new name for herself performing standup. I wish I knew the world of overwhelming celebrity success and its advantages better than I do, but I don't.

What I can say, though, is that to the degree that her celebrity influences her audience, she will not get funnier. Just before she gets on stage, she asks the audience, "will you laugh even if my jokes aren't funny?" If the answer is anything but "no," then you're not really doing standup.

It may seem that her situation is unique, and it certainly is super rare. I can't think of any other celebrity anywhere near as successful as her trying to transfer into the world of standup. It will be interesting to see what happens, if anything is going to happen. But there is a lesson here for the rest of us.

Fans and friends are different things, but the kind of supportive reaction Madonna is getting is a large scale version of what can happen if you bring your friends to a show. A lot of my friends ask me why I don't mention when I perform, and it's not that I hide my act from them, or even mind that much when they do happen to come to my shows. I just know that my friends laughing at my jokes carries all sorts of dimensions about how they know me which is different than everyone else in the audience. I'm trying to get away from being merely "friend-funny" to being "stage-funny." To be the kind of comedian who has relevance to larger groups than the people you personally know, you need to know when you're getting an honest reaction from the world.

My book about how humor works in the human brain.
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If you really want to get funny, you have to get in front of people who have absolutely no motivation to laugh other than you being funny. There is an opposite extreme, of course, of people who show up to a comedy show in such a sour mood they refuse to be reached, but they're pretty rare and can be discounted. The vast majority of people in the audience in front of a standup comedian want to laugh, but they want the comedian to give them a legitimately funny performance. As a comedian who wants to get better, you should also want to get legitimate laughs.

Madonna has some advantages in performing standup. She has confident and professional stage presence, she almost certainly has the most successful comedians in the world ready to coach her, and she has a life story of easily accessible material to draw upon. As far as getting honestly, genuinely, truly funny though, none of that will matter until she can test herself in front of audiences that just don't care that it's her on stage.