CHANGING HATS by Feature Blogger Joan Weisblatt
Former Lawyer Gone Funny!
Frequently, people assume that the skills I developed over 30 years as a lawyer serve me well as a comedian. I would argue that the skills I developed as a lawyer, in certain ways, have impeded my development as a comedian. The one obvious way that my legal experience has helped me is that I’m not afraid to get up in front of people and speak; but speaking to a jury and cracking jokes for an audience could not be more different.
As an attorney, I always excelled at delivering opening and closing statements at trial. I researched, wrote, gathered and synthesized the evidence and presented it with some oratorical skill. This was a performance, and, at first blush, it would appear that the skills needed for that performance would assist me as a stand up comic. The problem is that stand up comedy is not just a performance. Yes, it takes tremendous preparation and the ability to tell a story in an interesting way, but there is so much more to stand up. On the stage, it’s not only about connection; it’s about a living, breathing interaction with the audience.
In court, the lawyer presents and the jury is impassive. Any further interaction between a lawyer and juror at trial could lead to the removal of either or both or maybe even a mistrial. The lawyer’s job is to make the jury understand and feel, but not to overtly react. On the other hand, if a comedian jokes and the audience is impassive, that means the comedian hasn’t reached the audience and the comedian bombs. When done right, there is an energy from the comedian that feeds the audience and a return of energy to the comedian from the audience which feeds the comedian.
A great example of the difference between a legal presentation and a comedy act was televised recently during the Trayvon Martin trial. The defense attorney at this murder trial told the jury a knock-knock joke concerning how difficult it was to get an impartial jury. No one on the jury laughed and the lawyer said, “Nothing?” commenting on the jury’s lack of reaction to the joke. This is a technique that comedians sometimes use to salvage the moment following a joke that didn’t work.
The whole affair was embarrassing and highly inappropriate, not only because the joke itself wasn’t funny, but because the jury was not there to be entertained. One wouldn’t give an opening statement on a comedy stage anymore than a lawyer would crack a joke before the jury and hope for a hearty laugh.
Therein lies the difficulty for me as an attorney-turned-comedian. As an attorney, my object was to seize and maintain control of the jury through a carefully orchestrated performance because shooting from the hip or interacting with the jury could have such grave consequences. The best comedy welcomes and encourages spontaneity, interaction and transfer of energy. It’s hasn’t been easy to take off my lawyer hat after having it on for 30 years, but it’s starting to give way.
Joan Weisblatt left the practice of law after 30 years when the comedian inside her could no longer be contained. She performs at clubs, fundraisers and other events all over New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Joan also a member of the nationally-acclaimed stand up comedy troupe, Comedians at Law. As though this were not enough, Joan delivers keynote speeches about her amazing journey from law to comedy. You may follow Joan on her website at joanweisblattcomedy.com, read her Sunday blogposts on comediansatlaw.com and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.