Standup comic Howard Hall was already an in-demand headliner, a major player on the Baton Rouge comedy scene, when I started performing at open mics over a decade ago. Naturally, many hobbyists would’ve been comfortable never achieving more, but Hall is a rare breed of performer. He’s more than innately talented; he’s a hustler. Not only is he still drawing crowds with his standup comedy, but he’s also expanded his repertoire to reach new audiences.
When I caught up with Hall last week, I was thrilled to hear that he’s got several irons in the fire. In addition to the return of in-person comedy shows, Hall’s seized several amazing opportunities to work on national commercials as both a script supervisor and an actor. Even through on the phone, I could hear the glee in his voice as friends texted him to let him know they’d just seen him on TV.
An infectious joy is part of Howard’s style. It’s evident when watching the TED talk he recently recorded at Louisiana State University. I was floored to see that his punchlines, always clever, have somehow gotten better. And his stage presence, magnetic since the first time I saw him on stage, has increased to a level where Netflix needs to go ahead and give this man a special.
“Every seven or eight years, my voice just gets freer,” Hall explained during our call.
The concept intrigued me on a scientific level. (Surely I’m not the only one who’s heard that we’re all comprised of completely new cells every seven years?) I happily speculated that Hall’s cells had regenerated, replacing themselves with funnier ones.
Unfortunately, a little googling informed me that it’s a myth that our bodies are brand new every seven years. BUT that led me to an important truth. The true reason for Hall’s success is so simple that anyone with time and talent can emulate it. The secret: Howard Hall never stops learning his craft.
When I asked Hall if he’d read any good books lately, he enthusiastically shared that he’s been learning a lot from a little gem published in the mid-’60s: Power Steering With Words by Bess Sondel. It’s comforting to think that a decades-old book still contains applicable lessons for today’s wordsmith, but even more so that someone at the top of his game is reading it. I wholeheartedly believe Hall could teach a class on public speaking, and maybe he knows that too (it’s hard to tell as the man is so genuinely humble it’s almost scary), but having mastered that skill doesn’t stop him from wanting to learn more about it. It’s this attitude toward education that has taken Hall from just good to truly amazing.
Hall’s growth mindset is even apparent in the way he performs. As we discussed the differences between prepared jokes and those told with spontaneity, Howard revealed that he’s constantly tweaking his material. A true master of live performance, Hall reads the crowd and adjusts what he wants to say to fit their mood.
This method might have caused a challenge for his TED talk, as the speech had to be submitted for approval in advance. Without revealing too much about this secretive process, the event organizers had seen Howard perform comedy before and knew his track record of being a hilarious and professional public speaker. Because they trusted him to deliver, they allowed for variations between his prepared speech and what the crowd experienced.
Take a few minutes to watch Howard’s TED talk here—whether you’re interested in the craft of comedy or just want to be funnier around your friends and family. He offers some genius tips, such as a perfect explanation of the rule of three as it relates to comedy.
Many of the comics who know Hall refer to him as their mentor, and it’s easy to understand why. He’s generous with his knowledge, completely unpretentious, and willing to share what he’s learned strictly out of kindness. I have firsthand experience with this side of Hall.
One standup skill some comics never quite master is the art of handling the dreaded heckler. It can be truly daunting when someone starts screaming, breaking your concentration, but the first time I saw Howard on stage, he masterfully maneuvered his way out of such a situation.
I cannot recall what this drunk moron was screaming, only that it was distracting. But I clearly remember Howard smiling and asking–politely–if the heckler wanted to be part of the show. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, how Hall shifted the spotlight only slightly and gave everyone in the audience exactly what they wanted. The heckler got the attention he craved, the whole crowd got some good laughs at his expense, and then when Howard finished, he flowed right back into his set.
This impressive performance was solidified in my memory by how Howard responded when I complimented him. Not only did he thank me, but he also did the equivalent of a magician fanning out his trick deck: he explained how he’d done it. It was especially applicable to me as a baby comic. The last heckler I’d attempted to deal with had run into the bathroom crying, not the worst possible result but not what I wanted either. Since that show, I’ve used Hall’s advice multiple times to great effect. It’s so rare to experience a moment like that–when someone attempts to throw a wrench in a show, but everyone in the audience still wins–that I can hardly find words to explain how wonderful it is.
Howard’s entirely altruistic eagerness to share his knowledge has forever cemented me as one of his true fans. And I believe his love of teaching has helped cement the lessons of laughter in his brain to the point where being funny is like a reflex for him. But if you ask Howard how he knows so much about crafting the perfect jokes, he’s quick to tell you how much he loves taking lessons.
“I listen to comics that some people say I shouldn’t because they haven’t been in the game as long as me. But I think everyone has a perspective you can learn from,” Howard says.
A few local comics Hall most enjoys seeing on the stage include Carissa Cropper and O’Mar Finley. (Find out more about these funny people by clicking their names which will take you to their respective social media pages.) Carissa will be opening for Rickey Smiley in November, tickets are on sale now. O’Mar is about to travel to Los Angeles to show them how we do standup down South. I’m excited to chat with him when he returns from his trip.
As for Howard Hall? I have no doubt he will continue to evolve and grow. His current plans include touring and recording a comedy special titled Hall Pass. His long-term goals include starring, writing, and producing his own series. (Netflix, are you reading this? If so, I just found your next superstar. You’re welcome.)
To keep tabs on everything Howard has happening, follow him on Instagram.
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