In the documentary I Need You To Kill, Pete Lee uses "flash" to refer to the way a stand-up comic captures an audience in the first moment on stage. As Lee explains, winning the audience over with terrific flash means you can coast for several minutes on goodwill alone. Whiff your opening, on the other hand, and it's almost impossible to win them back.
Writers can learn something here.
Mostly, a comedian's flash is what they bring to the stage before they utter a single joke. Posture, energy, dress. The way they greet, or simply acknowledge, the audience.
Even if you don't watch much stand-up, you know how critical this moment can be if you've watched any kind of live debut—think The Voice or America's Got Talent. The audience makes its mind up almost instantly. They may have no idea what you're about to do, but they're happy as long as you do. Do you deserve their trust?
Performance is leadership. A performer leads (or attempts to lead) an entire room of people for several minutes straight or more, deciding what they're going to hear and, to an extent, how they're going to think and feel about what they hear. Will everyone trust their leadership enough to let them run the show?
A disturbed or otherwise unhappy reader can skip a certain passage or put a book down entirely without difficulty or embarrassment. It isn't as easy or private to escape words you'd rather not hear in a crowded comedy basement. From this perspective, heckling is a form of political rebellion. It's a way for members of an audience to re-exert control, to reject leadership that feels inadequate, imposed, or otherwise unwanted.
Flash is Daniel Kahneman's "System 1" at work. You intuitively decide whether you're ready to laugh at an act well before you've had time to consciously process anything. When a comedian nails their flash, people start laughing at pretty much anything they have to say—for a while, at least. The audience paid to laugh, after all, so if they trust you to do the job, the job gets easier. If anything, a stand-up has to go out of their way to lose them after proving their capacity to lead them. As he recounts in Born Standing Up, Steve Martin quit stand-up when he realized that most audience members couldn't even hear his jokes during his enormous stadium acts. They laughed anyway. His flash was so powerful it carried the entire show. So what was the point?
This doesn't mean there's one right flash for every performer, of course.
We lost Louie Anderson this week. If you watch his breakthrough first performance on The Tonight Show, you can see how effectively he sets up the audience's expectations with his outfit and stance: preppy outfit, lowkey demeanor, hands at his chest. And, of course, his size. In the context of his first shot with Johnny Carson, he's remarkably self-possessed. This subverts expectations based on a long history of over-the-top plus-size comedians. When Anderson is sure the audience has had a moment to take in his unusual tranquility, he delivers his first, self-deprecating joke and gets a huge laugh. Again, no big reaction or goofy expression. Just a small, calm smile before continuing. You don't associate words like elegant and peaceful with comedy, but that's what comes to mind when you watch Anderson at work.
Before he tried stand-up, Drew Carey spent several years as a U.S. Marine. In an interview I can't locate right now, he talks about assembling his trademark look deliberately, complementing the military crewcut he already had with goofy glasses and an ill-fitting suit. He wasn't sure exactly why he settled on this exact persona, but intuited correctly that it would disarm people. The Carey look sets him up perfectly for his opening words in his The Tonight Show debut: "Yeah, I know what I look like." As though it wasn't intentional.
Eddie Murphy goes in the opposite direction. For one thing, his elegant, double-breasted suit fits beautifully. For another, he takes the stage with the relaxed swagger and charismatic grin of a Las Vegas crooner, not a 1980s stand-up comedian. Then, depending on how you look at it, he either undercuts or emphasizes his classic poise with his first words: "Shut up." Big laugh. Softening that with his trademark grin, Murphy is off to the races.
Contrast that debut with the nervous, nerdy energy Steven Wright brings to the stage for his own first appearance. Wright looks like an oddball and, like Anderson, he gives people a moment to process that before speaking his first word: a quiet "thanks." Unexpectedly monotone and reserved, thanks alone gets a laugh. Wright's voice does half the work.
Each of these comedians broke through with Carson as countless others failed to do in part because of how thoughtfully they established and then subverted audience expectations right from the get-go. That's flash.
Like performance, writing is leadership. Will the reader trust you enough to join you on a journey? Will they let you put things in their head? Earning trust quickly is essential. As you read, look at the ways different writers earn that trust—or fail to—with their very first words.