Back in the day I had a zippy, trenchant brain.
It was fast, relatively unpolluted and plump with potential. You could bounce a quarter off of it. Phone numbers, great lines from movies, names of Russian literary characters, nothing got by me. At least that's how I remember it.
Now I liken my brain to an old couch. It's functional, but kind of saggy in the middle. I forget a lot, including the names of people I should know and cool things I did in my youth. I'm the irritating person who says, "You remember that actress. She was in that movie about the guy. The one with the hair." My friends will tell you I forget conversations I had yesterday. I chalk it up to an overwhelming abundance of wisdom taking up a lot of space up there, but that may be denial.
As a young comic, I never wrote anything down. I have old notebooks of material that are just essentially set lists, with columns of words that read, "Smoking. Mom. Bank robbery. Dog ignores me. Ketchup." At the time I did what comics call "writing on stage." I performed often enough that I could work out a bit as I was talking. The next night I would do it again with a new edit, and new material I had conjured falling asleep the night before. I worked it all out in my head, which in my youthful folly I believed would remain there, easily accessible, forever.
I don't perform as often now, and I struggle with my old habits. I've found myself on show day, stressed as I try to memorize an hour of material, in the right order. I can't use notes (which looks unprofessional anyway) because it would mean wearing reading glasses, which I would then have to take on and off as I squinted at my index cards. Or I would have to write with a thick sharpie in giant letters, flipping through pages that read, "Parenting is...(flip)...hard because...(flip)...teenagers suck..." Again, unprofessional.
When I began teaching workshops, I found that my students freaked out at the thought of memorizing eight minutes of material. Their biggest fear was forgetting everything on stage, frozen in the spotlight, while the audience shifted in their seats and cleared their throats uncomfortably. I will address this important aspect of performing at the end of this article, but meanwhile, here's a few tips I've assembled over time that have proven effective for most people. It will stuff that material into any saggy brain in proper order. I ask my students to choose two methods, #1 and any other method that seems fun.
1. Write out your whole set (or speech, or presentation) long hand,
Yes, six. I don't know why, but that seems to be the magic number. It sucks. Your hand will get tired, but writing longhand has cognitive value that typing doesn't. As you write, you recall the associated emotion behind it as well as connect with the concepts you are communicating. According to research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer writing by hand may serve as "more effective memory cues by recreating the context."
2. Read your material out loud.
Nothing wrong with some good old fashioned rote memorization. Print out your set or presentation and read it aloud, repeatedly. Use exaggerated pauses between jokes or concepts, and after laugh lines. If you talk fast (like me) you need to pause occasionally to let the audience catch up. It's more important to pause, especially if you're using unusual or dense verbiage, so the audience can process what they've just heard. It's not a great idea to teach yourself to speak slowly if you don't already, because it will sound unnatural on stage. Talk the way you normally do, just allow room to breathe.
3. Record your set.
Think of it as a comedic Rosetta Stone. Read your material into a recording device, like your phone. Read slowly, with long pauses. As you listen to the recording, repeat the lines during the pauses. "The pen of my aunt lies on the table." So you're listening, repeating, listening, repeating.
4. Mirror work.
Read in front of the mirror. Speed it up, slow it down. Gesticulate wildly.
5. Walk and talk.
There's something about adding movement that boosts absorption, especially if you're a kinetic learner. It's especially helpful your first time, because if you go big, you open your posture and energize your delivery. Gesticulate, gesture, sing, swing your arms, be completely ridiculous. Grab a hairbrush or other cylindrical object and talk into it. Yes, you look like an idiot.
When we're nervous on stage, we tend to contract. If you use exaggerated movement and gestures when you memorize, it will open your posture and help you be more expansive on stage. Have you heard of the Wonder Woman or Power Pose? It really works! I highly recommend you use this as you practice, and read about Amy Cuddy's work here.
6. Make a set list.
Make a list of your topics, or keywords that help your remember your jokes in the correct order. Carry the set list with you, and pull it out whenever you can.
7. Get your opener and closer down flat.
Repeat your opening and closing lines as often as possible. When you have your first and last jokes rock solid, the rest will flow naturally. If you forget a joke on stage, you'll know exactly how to get off stage. And this is exceptionally important.
8. Flash Cards.
Yes, we're back in first grade, learning the multiplication tables. Write a joke (or segment, if you're doing something other than comedy) on each card. Or, write your segues on one side, the jokes on the other side. Use symbols or pictures if that works better for you. Mix 'em up. Put them back in order. Take them everywhere with you.
And here's my most important tip: after you've memorized, let it all go. Whatever happens on stage is perfect, including forgetting. The audience doesn't know if you've screwed up the order or forgotten a call-back. No one wants you to be perfect. In fact, we'd rather you weren't. We want you to be a work-in-progress just like the rest of us. It makes you so much easier to like.
Do you have tried and true methods for memorizing? I'm always looking for new and creative approaches, so let me know in the comments.