When Emily Heller performs stand-up, she commands even the most beer-addled audience’s attention. While it’s a quality that she was likely born with, her presence and sense of humor developed over time from any number of influences. A lot of elements of her act, though, were informed by lessons learned in an unlikely place: her high school debate team.
“I was really argumentative and hard-headed,” Heller says. “Also, I was just starting to butt heads with my parents as a teenager. Debate team was helpful with that. I was actually able to talk my parents into letting me drink with my friends at the house. And once I started doing it, I was like: I love this.”
After not making it in the school play and being frequently told by others that she might excel at debate team, Heller caved in and joined up. What she ended up getting out of the experience was more than just the ability to adjust her parents’ permissiveness with regards to alcohol but a framework for creative thinking and performance that’s stuck with her until today.
The kind of thinking on your feet that debate calls for is evident on the improv section of her weekly podcast with the artist Lisa Hanawalt. Also, the kind of poise and confidence that comes with annihilating your debate opponent are fully on display when Heller makes TV appearances, like her recent spot on Conan. However, there are quite a few more specific takeaways the comedian picked up in debate team that would benefit anyone working in a creative field.
One of the things I learned in debate that helped me not just with comedy but with everything is learning how to make analogies. One of the most common ways of making a point is also a really common device for making a joke. If you’re doing observational stuff, you’re kind of making a point. And the harder you can make that point hit, the funnier it can be–and I learned that from debate for sure. Making analogies to make something sound ridiculous works for both winning a debate round and making people laugh.
If people can’t understand the words you’re saying they might have no response to what you’re saying. Usually, when you’re saying something that you’ve said before, which is what you do in debates and in comedy, you’re trying to make it sound, not necessarily like it’s the first time you’re saying it, but at least make it sound like you’re not just trudging through the words. We used to do exercises where you’d put a pencil in your mouth sideways and bite down on it. Then we tried to speak as clearly as we could. You’d give your entire speech with a pencil clamped in your mouth. Then when you’d take the pencil out and give the speech super clearly. It was kind of like running with weights.
Debate really helps you understand logic and what other people are thinking. It really makes you more empathetic. You have to understand what your opponent is saying if you want to argue against it. Which is why I just don’t participate in any online debate, because nobody knows how to do that. It’s just feels as though it’s not even up to my standards for how to have a conversation.
You have to listen actively to what people are saying so that you’re not just hearing it and not just reacting emotionally, but you’re understanding the idea behind what they’re saying and also the values that underlie it. I was sort of forced to give myself some perspective on how the world works. They tell you what to argue for, so you have to argue for both sides of a topic, multiple times in one day. That sort of stepping outside and understanding why, like, privacy is important in a political election–you have to sort of step back and ask yourself, “What do we value in an election?” You end up asking yourself much larger questions in order to answer the question posed by the topic, even if it’s more specific. That applies just as well to when you’re on stage and it’s, “What’s the deal with prescription drug commercials.”
Just having the ability to pick up on what people’s needs are can help you with making appeals to them. Addressing someone’s needs while you’re asking for something is the best way to get it out of them. If you can ask for something in a convincing, logical way, if you can find a way to talk about something you’re passionate about in a way that sounds reasonable, people will listen. That’s like the thing that people listen to the most.
If your judge for the debate round is an experienced ex-debater who’s been coaching top-level high school, you can use the most complicated argument you have. If your judge is a parent judging their first tournament ever, you have to be a lot more persuasive. That comes into play in comedy too, you have to know what room you’re in. Like, I have a long joke involving Frasier that I close with sometimes, and I recently learned I can never do my Frasier material for college students, because they don’t know who Frasier is. College students do not know or care about Frasier . What are we teaching them?
I definitely think there are some similarities between doing your closer and making a closing argument. When you’re closing in stand-up, you just have to do the joke that’s funniest. You have to do your biggest, best joke. In a debate round, depending on the type of debate that you do, you really just have to focus on the argument that you feel wins it for you–the argument you think is the most important and the argument you think you won, even if there are a lot of threads going. I think there’s a similar kind of boiling down of who you are and what you stand for. The best closers are usually ones that leave the strongest impression of who you are on the audience. But in a debate round, it depends on who you’re debating.
Guys who were good at debating, no matter what they looked like, they would always get laid. It’s a type of celebrity. When you see someone in front of you, exceling at something, there’s something really attractive about that. But it was definitely a weird thing that these beautiful girls from debate would get with these guys, and it was just, “Are you kidding me?” And I feel that way about a lot of male comedians. Especially since so many male comedians go up on stage to talk about what messes they are. So there’s really no reason they should be getting laid as much as they do.