How To Memorize Your Stand-up Material [or anything]

Last night I did stand-up at Gotham Comedy Club. Before the show, a few comics were hanging around chatting. One comic said she was working on her next hour. Another comic asked her, “how do you memorize a full hour of material?”

I stopped listening at that point because I was too busy writing this article in my head. She may have had a life-changing answer that I completely missed. It was probably a mistake to ignore her now that I think about it…

But since I spent the time thinking about it while they were all talking, I’ll give you my thoughts.

Some people say that memorization comes down to repetition. I think that’s short sighted. Also wrong. While repetition helps, it doesn’t ensure you remember every word of every joke when it comes performance time. Especially if you get nervous. Even if you don’t get nervous, maybe you’ll be thrown off by the guy sitting in the front row and oh my god why is his beard so big? Does he have to take it for a walk? Oh crap, I stopped mid joke to ponder these questions and now I can’t remember where I’m at.

We’ve all been there. 😐

First, you’ve already got a leg up on memorizing your material because you wrote it. So it’s already in your head somewhere. I’m not going to say it’s easy to retrieve it, but it’s easier than memorizing something you didn’t create.

Use Images

Second, use images. I wrote two new minutes of material yesterday and wanted to perform it that night. To get me from joke to joke, I created mental images which are much easier to remember and recall than every word of every joke.

Here’s how it worked for me.

The bit is about my wife and her career. The first joke is “My wife writes romance novels, or as I like to call them, wish list.” So I imagined a shopping list on fancy parchment. That gets me into the joke.

Then I imagine that list as a book I’m reading. Which gets me to the next setup: “It’s hard for me to read her books.” I already know why it’s hard for me to read her books because I wrote it [and it’s true]:

“Number one, because I can’t read.
But number two, it’s like she’s writing about the life I haven’t given her. Her last book was called Marriage on Madison Avenue. We live on 42th & 10th.
Is this a cry for help?”

[I didn’t say these were GOOD jokes…]

Then I imagine a glass of white wine on one of the book pages, which gets me to the next joke:

Whenever I tell someone she writes romance, they always say the same thing.
“Oh you mean smut? Hahahaha.” [I perform this act out as a WASPy middle-aged white woman sipping wine.]
“Leave the jokes to the professionals.”
Calling romance novels smut is like calling When Harry Met Sally porn. It’s not true, no matter how much you want it to be.

With the wine in my hand, I imagine my wife hollering from another room. Which gets me to:

Sometimes she’ll ask for input, but it feels like she has an ulterior motive…
“What’s the fanciest restaurant in NYC?”
Le Bernadin.
“Most romantic vacation spot?”
Paris. Are these for your next book?
“No…just where I want to go.”

Finally, I imagine her pointing at my [nonexistent] six-pack abs.

People ask if I’m the inspiration for all her books.
Her characters are 6’4’’ and have 6 pack abs. I’m [air quotes] six foot and slammed a Philly cheesesteak for lunch. You do the math.

A female friend asked me “are you ever having sex and she gets up to write it down?”

If anything it’s the opposite.
I’ll read her books and pick up a new move.
She’s like “where’d you learn that?”
“Page 46.”

The most important part is to use the images while you memorize the material. After I wrote this stuff, I read through it slowly and created images for each setup. The more detailed the images, the better. The idea—which I’m paraphrasing from the books below—is that the brain remembers unique things. When it sees something new, weird, dangerous, or sexy, it creates a flashbulb memory of that thing. And the more interesting, detailed, unique, scary, or sexy the image, the better it’ll stick in your mind. You can make the images as scary or as depraved as you want—it’s not like anyone else has to know!

The next step is to connect the images to one another in order. That’s why I start reading the wish list like a book. And that book has a picture of a glass of white wine scribbled inside. And if I’m having wine, I’ll always pour one for my wife, who I notice is pointing at my [nonexistent] six-pack.

When it comes time for performance, all I have to remember is the wish list, and it sets me off on a path of connected images. And before I know it, my set is over and the crowd is standing in ovation [booing].

Side note!

Once you memorize the material, it’s important to trust that it’s “in there” somewhere. I fret all the time that I’ll forget something, but it’s the fretting that makes me stiff on stage, and that’s when I forget stuff. When I relax and trust that I’ve programmed my brain to retrieve the images and the jokes automatically, that’s when things come easy. Check out Inner Game (listed below) for a great explanation of why this works.

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