There is a long-standing connection between the legal profession and stand-up comedy, whether it be a lawyer who does stand-up, a stand-up who does lawyer jokes, or a lawyer who is a fan of the art. Lawyers who stop practicing to pursue the comedic arts are considered to be great outsiders, the exception to the rule, rebels, upstarts, etc. Upon closer inspection, there are more similarities between the two practices than meet the eye.
1Use of Language. The clearest connection between stand up and the law is the precise use of language. Lawyers and stand ups both must use language to achieve their goals—whether it be making someone laugh or using the law to convince someone of their position. In drafting a motion, contract, or a joke, the precise choice and order of the words can yield wildly different results. Language precision can mean the difference between telling someone a story and telling someone a joke, or it can mean the difference between being paid upfront or paid upon completion—sometimes based on the placement of a comma.
2Performance as the Self. Stand-up comedy and trial practice involve a similar kind of performance, in that the performer must prepare his written material and then “play himself” by speaking in front of a group. The closest analogy is a teacher or a politician who must speak before a group as himself. Compare that type of performance to one in which the artist utilizes a craft such as acting, singing, or dancing. With those arts, the vulnerability comes from the expression of emotion through art. With stand-up and trial work, the vulnerability comes from being oneself while trying to produce a result from a group of people.
3It Pays to be a Nerd. Stand-up comics and lawyers both have an underlying nerdiness that informs their process. Lawyers go through an intense graduate school education, which is followed by years of reading cases, writing articles, and talking to other lawyers about the current state of the law. Comics spend years watching stand-up comedy and learning from the greats. Once they become comics themselves, they listen to podcasts, watch comics live or on TV, and read blogs or articles about what is going on in the scene. Lawyers must know about new changes so they can follow the law; comics must know about other comics’ routines to avoid copying someone’s jokes. In either case, it pays to have an active nerd mentality.
4Analogies. In stand-up comedy and the practice of law, practitioners try to connect two unlike things. For comics, the two unlike things may be caring for a baby and hanging out with a drunken buddy. For lawyers, the task before them is to analogize the facts to a case with good precedent, while distinguishing their case from bad precedent. In both cases, the key is to find similar facts or to weave the story in such a way that it appears to fall lockstep with the object of the analogy.
5Making a Difference. Some stand-up comics and some lawyers can have a positive impact on the world. Political commentary can be far-reaching, vicious, and revolutionary when it comes from the voice of a comic. Commentary can reach more ears and affect the status quo more profoundly when it comes from a comic. Some lawyers have made incredible strides for social justice, including desegregation of public schools, reproductive health rights for women, and the fight for marriage equality.
At the same time, there are comics and lawyers alike who do not affect sweeping social change. Just as there are lawyers who use their skills to benefit big business and no one else, there are comics who use catch phrases and vulgar language to make money for themselves without making anyone think. Both practices have a potential to affect greater change—but it is not utilized by all who practice.
6Paying Your Dues. Putting in time on the lower levels of an industry is necessary in most professions. In the law, this means editing citations for journals while in law school, spending hours doing document review or working late nights as a young associate at a law firm, or allowing your work to be signed with the boss’s name before your name appears on the masthead. In comedy, this means putting in hours on the open mic circuit, working as a door guy for a club, and allowing your work to get second billing to someone more famous before you can headline yourself. You begin as an apprentice, and you must put in the time before you can rake in the benefits of being a headliner or partner.
7Attire. Perhaps a minor point, but lawyers and comics dress differently for different things. Comics tend to wear jeans and a hoodie on a day to day basis, in the same way that lawyers will wear khakis and a button up at the office when no clients are coming in. When it comes to show time, however, whether it be a day in court or the filming of a special, lawyers and stand-up comics will wear the same thing—a suit and tie.
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