Museum empowerment and stand-up comedy: connections from museum blogging

A few months ago, I read an innovative post by Dana Mitroff Silvers on her blog, Design Thinking for Museums. I was inspired by Dana’s creativity in connecting the seemingly dissimilar disciplines of museums and improv comedy.

The piece got me wondering about other museum-comedy parallels. I immediately thought of my college friend, Ryan Stanisz: hardworking writer; abrasively funny observer of human behavior; skilled stand-up, improv, and sketch comedian. I asked Ryan to reflect on the possible tenets of comedy; I would then consider their connections to what I have learned and explored while blogging and reading other blogs over the past couple of months.

Museums and comedy are surprisingly congruent. They share similar fundamental goals of engaging and connecting with people and ideas, empathizing with diverse and shared experiences, and reflecting on what is culturally meaningful. They both aim to provide enjoyment and happiness. Perhaps they also share a common experience of struggle.

Ryan chose to focus on stand-up comedy. And since his comments spoke to ideas of empowerment, adaptation, tenacity, and self-leadership, I decided they were relevant to the blog’s mission. Typically, I write about how museums might empower visitors, but in this post, I consider how they might inspire and uplift themselves as institutions…

Ryan’s tenets and related comments are italicized.

I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for five years. But the truth is, I’ve only really been DOING IT for two years. The other three years just involved me occasionally going to an open mic or a show, and the other half the time, just talking about it. I was in love with the idea of being a comedian before I was one – and while I’m not a star by any stretch of the imagination, I love it now, I do it often, and I’m passionate about the work. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m being dishonest when I tell someone I do stand-up. This is the first time I’ve been asked to lay out some general tenets I apply to stand-up comedy, but it’s by no means complete, and I’m sure it varies for everyone. Anyhow, this is the type of stuff that keeps me motivated and keeps me honest.  

1. Be realistic with one’s self. Along the way, there are some pretty simple questions you have to keep asking yourself.

Are you being funny? If the jokes aren’t hitting – maybe you need a new approach, maybe you need to abandon the joke all together. Some comics might give you advice, but hold off on adopting someone else’s notes. You need to develop your own internal locus of what is and isn’t funny. Just like my ideas presented in this blog, don’t necessarily take them as Bible truth, always be questioning.

Is there something getting in the way of you working on material, and getting out in front of people? Everyone’s got to work and everyone’s got to eat – but if you’re not getting up at shows, you’re not getting better – and you’re definitely not meeting other people in the comedy world …

Museum connections

Ask yourself the tough questions; reflect. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe the process of reflection. Stephanie Downey discussed ‘reflection’ in an Intentional Museum post, explaining that it can be easy to overlook this important process in the continual cycle of action. Museum professionals, however, must be willing to ask tough questions, examine the meaning of data, and provide a critical ‘insider perspective’ (Stephanie Downey, Intentional Museum). Your instincts matter—when it comes to making people laugh, or sharing our collective culture.

Reflect, but also act. Stand-up comedians learn by doing and don’t wait until they’re ‘perfect.’ How might this apply to museums? Paul Orselli’s post about museum responsiveness and recent #museumsrespondtoferguson conversations on Twitter have highlighted, for me, the importance of balancing fear with timely action (see my post, ‘On Fear, and Imperfection’).

2. Be your authentic self, and don’t be afraid to evolve.

Even if you’re awkward or depraved – be genuine and be yourself. This is such a stupidly simple concept, and it was the hardest thing for me to learn. Learn who you are and do just that, otherwise, you’ll be playing a character forever and you won’t be able to grow or discover with an audience. It’s fascinating to listen to Louis CK or Patton Oswalt over the years – because their careers and their families have changed so dramatically. They’re still themselves, but they don’t necessarily speak to things in the same way. Comics who play a shtick, a lot of times, lose out on that opportunity to develop a relationship with the crowd and they put themselves into a corner (their shows feel more muted, more choreographed, and less fun). There are a number of exceptions – Stephen Colbert for instance was aggressive in his attempt to stay current and relevant– Colbert commented on issues of the day, and as the Republican Party evolved over nine years, so did Colbert.

Museum connection

Understand what you have to offer and stand by it. Through my visit to Glenstone and my resulting post, I learned the value of a museum with a strong vision and a compellingly firm self-concept.

Be yourself. As a frequent museum visitor, I also learned, as Ryan suggests, that when the creator is genuine, the audience’s experience is enormously enhanced. My most powerful visitor experiences undoubtedly took place in institutions that were connected to their authentic selves, aware of their unique assets, and open to developing real relationships with their visitors (such as the Torpedo Factory Art Center, pictured below).

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3. Work hard, especially when no one’s watching.

No one cares that you do stand-up – your family might find it fun, but you have to want to do it. And when you decide you want it, you have to work on it constantly. Success is slow – people all around you will get on shows as your schedule starts to slow down, but keep working! Life is tiring, and it’s tempting to want to go home right after work, but your jokes have no way of developing otherwise. Also, don’t forget to record and listen to yourself. Sometimes the laugh you thought you got for your bit was more about the intonation than the wording, or a response to someone’s weird laugh – be mindful and honest about what was actually funny. And as you work, be mindful of the future. Are you building other skills to leverage the abilities you already have? You can write a good joke – but it’d be awesome if you also knew how to tell a story.

Museum connections

Keep moving forward; the future is already here. Ryan’s comments about consistent progress and mindfulness about the future reminded me of Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, ‘Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back.’ Colleen argued that museums who use ‘future’ language to describe present needs and trends are likely to get left behind or adopt the false belief that they are innovative. Remembering that the future is already here and striving to build new resources to leverage current ones seem relevant to both stand-up and museums.

Be intentional. Ryan’s comment about being honest about why something is successful struck me as deeply relevant to museums. I recalled a recent post by Randi Korn on Intentional Museum, which argued that intentionality is essential for museums hoping to ‘make a difference in the quality of people’s lives’ (Randi’s definition of ‘impact’). So knowing why you are doing something and why it works is not just good for you, but great for your audience.

4. Keep a positive sense of self.

This is probably one of the most over-looked tenets among a lot of comics in my opinion and it’s probably because keeping positive doesn’t necessarily translate into career success…. Take steps to improve your self-image – eat healthy, exercise, keep to a consistent sleep schedule, and when necessary, talk to someone. Working on your baggage isn’t going to make you any less compelling or funny.  

You need to believe that you’re funny in order to do this.

Museum connection

Believe that you can be essential to your community, and make it so. In my second post, I discussed an inspirational visit to the Art Museum of the America’s F Street Gallery where my guide’s warmth and enthusiasm and sincere passion for the museum’s work quickly convinced me of the museum’s value and importance. I suggest museums should not only maintain a positive sense of self, but also ensure that this positive image becomes a core institutional value that is consistently conveyed to visitors through all aspects of the museum operation.

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This sign in the National Building Museum denotes the adjacent classroom, but also reinforces and celebrates (at least, for me) the museum’s core business of education.

5. Appreciate the flops as much as the successes.

Learn from failures – if a bit doesn’t work after a month of workshopping it, abandon it. If a joke works great – hold on to it for dear life.

Museum connection

Be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Be willing to let go of something that isn’t working—even if you love it. In museum evaluation terms, Ryan seems to describe Randi Korn’s concept of ‘alignment,’ which involves aligning actions with desired outcomes despite our sometimes emotional resistance to letting go of unsuccessful programs (Randi Korn, Intentional Museum).

6. Learn to accept feedback with grace.

Everyone’s a critic – don’t respond back to someone’s critique in a state of rage or panic. You might just burn a bridge or two (ruining future show or partnership opportunities) – and at the end of the day it comes down to your own locus of what’s funny or not. If you told a joke that you liked, and it was well received– you’re not obligated to defend yourself if someone was offended or didn’t laugh. It’s likely, someone will disagree – and that’s just part of life. In a similar vein, take compliments with stride – and don’t let an audience member decide for you when a bit is finished.

Museum connection

Don’t be defensive. My personal belief is that museums should welcome the opportunity to engage with criticism. And likewise, I believe that critiquing a museum’s programs or exhibitions is a valid way to engage. That said, you can’t please everyone; as a visitor, I like it when a museum is confident and unapologetic about their approach.

All connections are potential opportunities. The more I read and blog, the more I realize that a museum’s potential partners and collaborators are everywhere. They may be parents (see Jeanne Vergeront’s post about involving parents), or children (see my post about multi-age programs), or the museum’s most avid visitors (see my post about museum ‘fans’).

7. Never let a heckler ruin your show.

Sometimes a drunk person is just going to ruin a show, and there’s nothing you can do about it – so just finish your set with some grace…

Museum connection

Fortunately, museums do not face hecklers in the traditional sense. However, as museums become increasingly involved in digital endeavors, I wonder whether they will need to develop strategies for dealing with people who engage in inappropriate or disparaging ways. Perhaps those that have experience working in museums and new media might like to weigh in here.


FullSizeRenderRyan is a comedian and writer living in New York City. As a stand up, Ryan has performed at various venues around town, from New York Comedy Club to The Creek and the Cave. He is also a longtime member of the indie improv troupe, Tickle Party. He writes and performs sketch comedy for ‘Latino Dance Troupe,’ and hosts a monthly sketch show called ‘Express Lane’ – a show written and produced in ten days.  Follow him on Twitter @RyeBreadHere


Blog posts quoted

Dilenschneider, C. (2014, August 13). Why Talking about the Future of Museums may be Holding Museums Back. [Blog post]. Know Your Own Bone.

Downey, S. (2014, November 24). Reflection 22: On Reflection. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2015, January 14). 2015 Intentional Practice Series. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

Korn, R. (2014, October 30). Reflection 20: Alignment and the Complexities of Intentional Practice. [Blog post]. Intentional Museum.

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