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Comedy in a Petri Dish

I just read that Virginia Johnson died. She was half of the team of Masters and Johnson, who did pioneering research on human sexuality. I once met them both, and her passing reminded me of that meeting – and of why sex and comedy don’t go together.

They’d seen my show at The Comedy Store, and they invited me to perform at their home in Las Vegas. The gig was for a lot of money, and I was thrilled, but not just because of the pay.
At the time, female comics were rare, and I did something audiences definitely did not expect from a woman comic: I performed magic tricks while talking about raunchy things.

(Now you understand why making the transition to corporate speaking was a bit of an adjustment for me: no magic tricks -- and definitely no raunchy stuff.)

Back then, in the days before “South Park” -- you could definitely get racy – but even in comedy clubs, you still had to be a little careful not to take things too far. So -- a comedy show for sex researchers – and their guests – seemed like the one place where I could perform completely uncensored.

When the weekend of the gig arrived, they paid for my flight to Vegas. The show was to take place in their large home, on their staircase, under a chandelier with 45 therapists watching from the room below. To me, it sounded like a slam-dunk.

I started my show with my first joke -- and no laughs. The second joke – and the third – also got no laughs -- so I broke away from my planned material and started trying to work the crowd.
I’m great at working a crowd, and it almost always loosens things up and gets them rolling.

(Did I say, “almost always?”)

The crowd was silent. There was a little bit of movement in the audience as some of the therapists took out small black binders and started jotting down notes. They’d nod a little at the end of each joke, look at each other with weird Freudian facial expressions, and write. But -- they never laughed.
Afterwards, they told me how interesting my show was, and how much they all enjoyed it. That’s when I realized why I was really there: to be studied and analyzed. I was a well-paid lab rat in an experiment about sexual humor.

How did I feel about that? Not so good.

But like the therapists and researchers, I also learned something from the experiment. Comedy can’t be dissected, analyzed, and philosophically contemplated like a science project -- and still be funny.
In my books, I do have comedy formulas for creating material -- but when that material is performed -- it’s passion and attitude that drives the audience to laugh. It’s also that same passion that fuels us to go onstage and weather possible humiliation for the chance to express ourselves – and if we’re lucky, to really connect with our audience.

Thinking too much about anything – instead of just living it, doing it, or enjoying it -- does the same thing to comedy as it does to sex: it takes away the unexpected, spontaneous, wonderful moments we all hope to experience.

Are you paralyzing yourself by over analyzing what comes next in your career – or are you taking action -- and living in the moment?

If what you’re doing now isn’t working, maybe it’s time to be a little more spontaneous.

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Judy's Blog

Judy Carter blogs on comedy, storytelling and public speaking techniques, using personal stories and her adventures as a stand-up comic turned motivational public speaker. Her weekly blogs are read by fans of her books, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon and Schuster) and “The Message of You” (St. Martin’s Press), which include comics, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She is also known for teaching the value of humor and storytelling to businesses as a leadership and stress reduction tool.