It's not so cool to have notes these days, since everybody wants to look like their words of wisdom and hilarious observations just fly off the top of their head. Reality shows have become popular because people like the illusion that whomever they're watching is showing who they really are, not just reading from a script. And those same viewers have come to expect more spontaneity from speakers and entertainers. But it's really hard to be spontaneous and in the moment -- to really connect with your audience -- if you're constantly glancing at some piece of paper to know what to say next.
When you have your act memorized so well that it's second nature, it frees you to make more eye contact, to read your audience better, and to notice subtleties about what's going on around. That kind of relaxed awareness helps you really connect, because instead of just reading - you're communicating.
A lot of comics have trouble memorizing a longer set, so here's seven tips:
1. Start with an outline. Write out your set list, and practice taking a quick look and then running through each joke (from setup to laugh).
2. Know what comes next. The hardest part in memorizing a long set isn't so much remembering the jokes, as knowing WHICH joke comes after the one you just finished. If you arrange items in a natural flow, and give code words that you can remember easily to each joke or chunk, it helps to navigate from joke to joke.
For example, my set list might be: Swedish Jokes, Political, Jewish, etc. Each code word reminds me of a chunk where I know the joke well. After I've broken it down into ten code words, I just have ten things to memorize, and I can find a natural association between them. (Swedish people can be political but few are Jewish. Two or three sentences like that are a lot easier to memorize than a few pages in a notebook!)
3. Talk it and walk it. Comedians stand up --- literally - partly because studies have shown the brain works faster and more efficiently when you're on your feet. So instead of reading jokes off of a computer screen, I find taking walks and practicing my routine out loud really helps. If you run through your routine out loud 20 times on a walk, you'll know it. (I like to have my Bluetooth headset in one ear so my neighbors don't think I have an imaginary friend.)
4. Have a backup. Even when you have your act memorized forwards and backwards, most of us will always have a little twinge of fear that we could forget what's next under the nervous pressure of being in front of a packed house - especially if a joke falls flat.
Having your list of code words as a trigger on an index card in your pocket, scrawled on your hand, or on the screen of your iPhone can make you relax a little and focus more on your audience. And if you DO have a lapse, think of a clever way to take a peek without tipping everyone off, or getting a laugh out of it when you do. ("Swedish, Political, Jewish, Wash left hand.")
5. Let it go. I always feel that if I forget something, then that just means I wasn't meant do it. Being on stage is a heightened experience, and you intuitively know what will and won't work.
Sometimes forcing things in the order you planned them is not the best flow, and you have to toss out the order you planned and live in the moment by pressing ahead. If you keep forgetting a joke ... it probably wasn't funny enough to be worth remembering.
6. Use your sense memory. Sometimes I plan to perform chunks of material on different portions of the stage. When I move to a different spot, it triggers my memory that this physical place is also the place in my act where I do a certain bit. My body helps my brain remember.
7. Don't sigh - breathe! Finally -- if you go blank, here's something that always works: Take a deep breath in and out without any words. This will relax you -- and your act will come back to you. I've never had this fail, and that extra oxygen might even supercharge your brain to riff out a few NEW jokes even better than what you planned!