What I Learned About Presenting from Doing Stand-Up.

Back in 1981 and ‘82, I had a short career in doing stand-up. My days on stage started off pretty well but ended in disaster, in a blizzard that happened on Christmas Day.

Doing stand-up was actually one of the best things I ever did for my advertising career. In fact, I understand Miami Ad School now makes stand-up part of the training; a very cool idea, but we’ll discuss the ad stuff in the next posting. For today, let’s just get to the disaster. Or as it came to be known, “The Incident At Dudley Riggs.”

I was a junior copywriter at the time, recently hired by Tom McElligott and Ron Anderson at Bozell & Jacobs’ Minneapolis office. Stand-up exploded in the ‘80s and every exposed brick wall in America suddenly had a comic in front of it.

I was amazed by the insanity of people like Sam Kenison, Andy Kaufman, and Steven Wright. And so fools (like me) rushed in. Over 6 months on various stages around Minneapolis, I honed my act, and while I was never a headliner, my 5 minutes of open mike grew to about 20 as an opener.

Of my 20 minutes of material, most of it of was prop-based and more like the horrible Carrot Top than the cerebral comics I admired. But what it lacked in highbrow it made up for in shock – particularly the last part of my act where I showed audiences how to make a rat sandwich using a real rat.*

With some trepidation, I include here the video of my third time on stage and as you watch, please be kind. Remember I was young, stupid, clueless and brave.

Now to the disaster.

Christmas Day, 1982. There’s a blizzard in Minneapolis and nobody’s going anywhere. I get a call from the guy at the city’s premiere club, Dudley Riggs. He says the headliner blew them off and can I fill in?

I said sure, I’ll headline. But here’s where I screwed up.

My vast 6 months of experience on stage had in fact grown my confidence considerably. But unchecked, confidence can become arrogance. I began to think I was naturally funny and that pretty much anything I said or did would make people laugh. So I threw out all my tested material (such as the Rat Sandwich) and on my knee in the cab, wrote a bunch of “shocking” Jesus and Christmas bits and walked into Dudley Riggs. (“Eww look at ‘im, he’s so edgy.”)

The fact that all 400 seats were filled on Christmas day, that wasn’t what was weird. It was that they were all FARMERS. Pretty much every single person in the audience seemed to be wearing Osh Gosh overalls, was over 60, and I may have even seen a few Amish hats. To this day, no one can explain why 400 farmers came out through a Minnesota blizzard to see comedy …  on Christmas-fucking-Day. But there they were.

Here is where we cut to me on stage. Here is where we cringe as we listen to every single one of my “shocking” Jesus jokes and anti-religious zingers die a death so horrible I should’ve made the cover of Flop Sweat magazine.

From my last time on stage, the only laughter I remember was from the two other comics behind the curtain, laughing their asses off as I augered in.

In our next posting, we’ll try to learn from my mistakes and talk about some presentation do’s and don’ts.

Today’s lesson: KNOW your material. And KNOW your audience.

[pro-player type=”mp4″ height=”400″ weight=”500″]https://heywhipple.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/EditEnd1.mp4[/pro-player]

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*PETA enthusiasts please note that the rat was a beloved pet of mine. He seemed temperamentally suited for the stage and lived like a king. He got a wash and dry after every set. Another time, remind me to tell you what it feels like to be caught blow-drying a rat in a public restroom.


  1. Funnily enough, your story reminds me of my last day as an alter boy.

    The act is funny, i can’t believe you put it in your mouth though!

  2. Great stuff, Mr. Sullivan. Thought you might appreciate the irony that I’m now doing stand-up in my old age. It’s fun, it gets me out of the house, and in it’s own sick way, it’s a community of arrested-development types here in the lower east side. All good things to you and yours in 2011. Should you ever run into McElligott, please burn him for me. — xo J

    • Hey John: Great to hear from you! Where are you these days? And no, I’m not surpirsed you are doing stand-up. Well do I remember your dry wit, dude. Are you out there on Facebook?

      • Oh, I see you wrote lower east side. Cool Doin’ stand-up in the bigs. that’s so cool.

        • Hey Johnny M: Posted a new one today, about stand-up.

  3. For me, it was acting in plays and being elected head of student council in high school. I always loved public speaking.

  4. Thanks Luke! I needed that today. It makes me think that no matter how poor I am I can still have a good meal under 200 calories.


  5. I love rat sandwich! Thanks for the recipe and the clip.
    Seriously, you had a nice comfort on stage. You should have continued. Maybe it’s not too late to go back.

  6. hey,
    refreshing read indeed…
    i guess a lot of writers do have this secret thing about being an stand up comedians…
    count me in…but i guess, im wondering whether just being young, stupid, clueless and brave is good enough or should i add a few more adjectives to it…
    will let u know, if i ever do it though…

  7. Luke,
    hey, could you repost the video? It doesn’t seem to be working. Thanks.

  8. thats a realy cool place jeff! i cant get enough off it !! are you sure you have a vid off that first car ??? never seen that beofre. i would really like to see that!! can you send me that vid iff you can find it ?? thanks allrady buddy !



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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.