Sen. Marco Rubio didn't win (or even place) in New Hampshire on Tuesday, and he admitted that his poor performance at Saturday night's GOP debate — where he repeated the same line over and over — had something to do with it.
"I know many people are disappointed; I'm disappointed with tonight," Rubio told supporters after his fifth-place finish in the primary. "But I want you to understand something: Our disappointment tonight is not on you. It's on me. I did not do well on Saturday night, so listen to this: That will never happen again. "
Sounds like Rubio could use some tips.
Now, anyone who has spent time on the campaign trail knows politicians re-up their stump speech lines, often verbatim. Doing it repeatedly, with little sense of awareness, comes off as robotic rather than impromptu. That kind of delivery can suck all of the emotion out of any sentence, leaving it feeling contrived and empty.
Anyone who has spent time on the campaign trail knows politicians re-up their stump speech lines, often verbatim. Doing it repeatedly, with little sense of awareness, comes off as robotic rather than impromptu. That kind of delivery can suck all of the emotion out of any sentence, leaving it feeling contrived and empty.
But it's worth emphasizing here that the mere act of repetition doesn't inherently kill the magic in a good line.
Just look at comedy: Stand-ups tell the same jokes every single night. Coming off as overly scripted can ruin an otherwise good joke. It has to feel effortless and fresh every time — a feat when the material has been written and agonized over.
"There's something in the illusion of comedy that the people doing it are making it up as they go along," Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer of "Saturday Night Live," told Marc Maron.
"That's true! Even smart people think that," Maron said.
Great comedy requires working out joke structure and memorizing words, pace and tone. It doesn't feel right when it sounds like a stage actor repeating lines from a play. Great performances by great stand-ups feel authentic and new, as if the words being spoken have never been said before — as if this great idea just popped into the comedians' heads and look, here you are, able to experience it with them!
Doing that requires a lot of mental juggling.
"My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next," Steve Martin wrote in "Born Standing Up."
Martin writes that "stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances," as comedy's enemy — distraction — threatens to derail any performance.
But such challenges prepare a performer for the inevitable interruptions. Comedy and politics both have their own hecklers.
"I suppose the worries keep the mind sharp and the sense active," Martin writes. " I can remember instantly retiming a punch line to fit around the crash of a dropped glass of wine, or raising my voice to cover a patron's ill-timed sneeze, seemingly microseconds before the interruption happened."
Exuding a sense of total control is important. Brian Regan — considered one of the best stand-ups working today — has likened performing comedy to playing an instrument.
"The audience is a thing. I try to play it like an instrument. I try to make this thing laugh," he told Vanity Fair. "I don’t think of it as a group of individuals. I think of it as this big blob of humanity and I want to get it laughing."
Maintaining such control and sense of self is even more important when before a less-than-warm audience.
"You have to play that psychological game where I'm going to have fun regardless," Regan told Pete Holmes, adding: "You have to let them know you're comfortable, like, 'I believe I should be up here, and if you want to come along for the ride, you're welcome to. But you're not going to shut me down.' "
Regan continued: "But a lot of that is psychological, whereas the real you is going, 'You know you're scared!' You're pretending. It's a combination of confidence and faking confidence, straddling the line. I can't let them know I feel I shouldn't be up here at this moment."
Politicians aren't too worried about getting people to laugh, but they do want to evoke other feelings: anger, motivation, hope, etc.
Speaking authentically is one of the best ways to do that.
Oh, and one other thing Rubio could learn from stand-ups? Don't repeat the same bit four times in one show.
This post, originally published Feb. 9, has been updated.