Stage Presence

The most useful feedback I got after sharing this blog last Friday was “be funny.” That’s probably good advice in all walks of life. Laughter is one of the keys to happiness. Even when faced with a terrible situation, laughing about it can actually help alleviate stress and make you feel better about yourself. Making people laugh is a good goal; now I just have to figure out how.

There’s a saying that you are the product of the people around you. If you find yourself around optimists, with their perpetual cheer and sunshine, you’ll actually start feeling better about yourself and your own circumstances. If you hang around negative people, they’ll drain you of your energy. Since I’m trying to be funny, I decided that I should spend some time with funny people.

Of course, that’s a challenge when most of your time is spent alone in an apartment. Fortunately, the Internet offers a solution to my problem. YouTube is a virtual treasure trove of funny videos and stand-up comedy. James Altucher watches stand-up comedy before speaking in public. He says it helps him relax and loosens his mood. Maybe I’ll pick up some funny ideas through osmosis. If you think this is just an excuse for me to link to a bunch of videos I like, well, we’re each entitled to our own opinion, no matter how right it may be.

(Fair warning: there’s a good deal of NSFW langauge in the links below)

First, I watched this video. Then I watched that video a half-dozen more times.

Next, I watched clips of stand-up. My current favorite comedian is Louis CK. I love watching his routines. The jokes are amazing, but that’s not all I enjoy. I pay attention to everything Louis does on stage. Hand gestures, facial expressions, movement patterns, clothing, even the way he holds the microphone. Louis CK isn’t as much of a physical comedian as, say Dane Cook, but I still get the same sense that everything on stage is calculated, right down to the tiniest detail.

My mind sometimes works like Alice in Wonderland, tumbling down rabbit holes and leaving me to explore weird places. The rabbit hole I found today was this concept of stage presence, and the idea that some people just “have it.”

Mick Jagger certainly has it. Jagger talks of knowing from a young age that he wanted to be a singer. His performances with the Rolling Stones are credited with influencing an entire generation of rock ‘n’ roll frontmen to craft a unique stage persona. When compared to Elvis–the original rock showman–it’s noted that Presley, “while he made girls scream, did not have Jagger’s ability to make men feel uncomfortable.” A rare gift, indeed.

Check out this performance from 2006. Jagger, in his 60s, is still a force of nature. Hips shaking, body gyrating, he is the focal point. Even when the camera turns to another band member, you catch them glancing at Jagger. That, my friends, is stage presence.

What about David Byrne? The frontman for Talking Heads took a different path than Jagger. Byrne was rejected from the junior high school choir for being “off-key and withdrawn.” He’s described as seeming aloof and absent in public–though with a reputation for later recalling things in vivid detail. If Jagger is the Platonic ideal of an extrovert, Byrne is the opposite, an introvert’s introvert.

Yet, on stage, he’s magnetic in his own way. When I watched Stop Making Sense for the first time, I could not take my eyes off Byrne. Part of that is the lighting, of course, but it’s fascinating that Byrne would willingly draw so much attention to himself. His movements looked so forced, and yet so natural. In another song, he takes the stage wearing a comically oversized suit. Byrne puts the art in “performance art.”

Byrne’s stage presence reminds me of another unlikely performer: Napoleon Dynamite. If you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know what to tell you other than, “Gosh, idiot!” The geeky, awkward Napoleon takes the stage in support of his friend Pedro’s campaign for school president, and delivers one of the all-time great dance routines in movie history. If you’re lucky enough to have witnessed someone recreate this dance in a live setting, know that I’m jealous of you.

What lessons can we draw from all this? For starters, realize and accept that performance is everywhere in our daily lives. We, all of us, get up and perform every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. We do it at the coffee shop when we talk to the cute barista, we do it at our jobs to impress our boss, and we definitely do it when we go out at night. Sometimes, we literally put on masks–the word mascara in Spanish means mask, ladies–in an effort to put our best foot forward in the world.

A common theme among the performers I looked at is the subversion of expectations. Mick Jagger redefined what it meant to be the lead singer in a rock band. David Byrne turned it into an art form. Napoleon Dynamite is fictional, but the story of the underdog stepping up to the stage, unexpectedly delivering a stirring performance, and winning the crowd is universal. Apparently, there is strength in defying expectations, if done well.

I’d like to leave you with one more example of performance. Sekou Andrews quit his job as a teacher to become a poet. If you’re someone who has read any poetry in the last 5 years, I’m going to assume you’re either a student or a teacher of English (no offense meant to any poetry lovers out there, but you know there aren’t many of you). Yet Andrews reinvented himself and made a career out of public speaking centered around an art form no one supposedly cares about.

Here he is speaking at the University of Michigan for TEDx. Not what you were expecting, was it?

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