Stage Fright – How To Overcome Stage Fright As a Comedian

Overcoming stage fright is a subject near-and-dear to me. Years ago I suffered from extreme stage fright. I would studying my stand-up comedy performances so much that I’d spend over 75 hours rehearsing a single 5-7 minute set. However, all my work only ended up giving me even more stage fright. As I was learning how to be a comedian I believed that stage fright was only a matter of feeling prepared or not… I was wrong.


How I Got Stage Fright And Why It’s Completely Gone

As an improvisational comedian I’d never once experienced stage fright. Starting in 6th grade, I’d racked up considerable stage time before I’d even graduated high school. But when I wanted to learn how to be a comedian, things suddenly changed. All of a sudden I was stricken with the worst case of stage fright.

Why did I never experience stage fright until learning how to be a comedian? Because now I had a script that I could mess up on. As an improvisational comedian there was no script. I couldn’t possibly worry about what might happen on stage because I simply didn’t know. There was something very comforting about that. If I scene didn’t go as well as planned, it wasn’t my fault. I shared responsibility with everyone on my team, so I allowed myself not to worry one bit. This was true even though I was the youngest (and probably most driven) improvisational comedian in the troupe.

Overcoming Stage Fright Means Releasing Your Need For Control

When I had no control over the audience’s reaction, there was never any pressure to be perfect on stage. But when I learned how to be a comedian, I got intense stage fright because I DID want to be perfect on stage. I wanted every joke to go perfectly. When I was learning how to be a comedian, I wanted every word in its perfect place with perfect pauses throughout the set. I put WAY TOO MUCH pressure on myself to have perfection on the stage, and it cost me by giving me intense stage fright.

Stage fright is always the result of your own illusion of control. You BELIEVE that you have control on stage, when that’s actually not really the case. You can’t possibly dictate the audience’s reaction to you. The more control you try to have on stage, the less control you’ll feel (and the more stage fright you’ll get as a result).

Ironically, it wasn’t until I gave up control on stage that I began feeling 100% in control. The control is still an illusion, yes, but it’s much deeper than simply “word games” or “semantics.” Giving up control in order to gain control allows you to relax on stage. There’s no worry about what might happen when you’re 100% present in the moment with the audience (as I was when I was performing improvisational comedy but not stand-up comedy early on). When this happened the benefits I received were extraordinary. I didn’t just learn how to be a comedian that was comfortable on stage; I begin developing more original material as well as a more creative performance style. There wasn’t a need for control, so I enjoyed a much wider variety of tools I could use on stage, tools that most comedians might be afraid to use because they don’t have as much control over them.

Why No Amount of Practicing Will Ever Help You in Overcoming Stage Fright

Giving up control isn’t just a tactic you can use for learning how to be a comedian, it works in many types of situation and in any type of public speaking. There’s actually a neurological reason for stage fright, and it lies in the imbalance between the left and right hemispheres of your brain. The left hemisphere wants to know all the details while the right want to know the “big picture.” When you’re practicing for a stage performance, there’s no possible way you can satisfy both sides of your brain simultaneously.

If you’ve ever spent hours rehearsing material you’ve probably felt this before. You can study on the individual lines (details) of your set and feel confident in them… but you’re not 100% positive you know which bits go where and that you won’t freeze up on stage because you don’t know how to start the next bit. Simply put, you don’t feel you have a grasp on the big picture.

So you switch over and study the big picture, but you instantly feel that you might not have every single detail down… and on and on it goes.

No amount of rehearsal will ever get you overcoming stage fright for this very reason. You’ll never be able to satisfy both sides of your brain because they want completely opposite things. This means if you want to learn how to be a comedian that doesn’t have stage fight you can’t simply over-practice, because no amount of over-practicing overcomes the problem.

So How Do We Begin Overcoming Stage Fright?

Giving away control is the number one strategy for overcoming stage fright when your learning how to be a comedian. We’ve already discussed how control is really an illusion…. But one that gives  you a serious number of benefits. When you give up your need to control every single part of your performance it eliminates the root-cause of stage fright.

Most people get concerned about this. Am I telling you not to rehearse? Absolutely not. Rehearsal is invaluable. What I’m saying here is to give up the need for control on stage and allow it to unfold.

How long have you spent on stage in your life? How much of your life have you spend learning how to be a comedian? Once you get the answer ask yourself the follow up question “how long have you spent in your life talking?” When you’re talking with your best friend you don’t worry about what might happen and if you’ll be prepared for it. You have many situations in your life where a friend brought up something that you couldn’t possibly have been prepared for and handled it well. Why is that the case? Because you didn’t freak out when it happened. You didn’t feel the need for control.

When you feel the need for control it creates a fight-or-flight response any time that control is threatened. Your brain basically goes “Crap! This might harm me!” The brain responds by shutting down non-essential brain functions whenever it is under a threat, whether that threat is real, imaginary, a threat to your life, identity, or feelings. It’s the same response.

When you give up the need for control your brain doesn’t respond this way and you’re able to think quickly on your feet, just as you did with your friend in the earlier example. On stage however, we feel the need to stay 100% in control of everything, which means any little thing can send us spiraling out of control. This is why you see so many people who are just learning how to be a comedian sticking to their script word-for-word. They refuse to try anything new because that would harm their perceived sense of control.

Jared Volle