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Bill Hicks’s Principles of Comedy

I get the “How does one go about being a comic” question a lot, so I thought it would be groovy to address that in post-form for the damaged masses of n00b joke-slingers. Before I get to the Bill Hicks of it all, here’s my tuppence on the matter: There’s no special trick to it. In fact, the answer is mind-numbingly simple: you just do it. Get on stage wherever you are as much as possible. This will not only make you better through repetition, but will also help you handle your bombings better. If you only perform once a month, and that show sucks a shitpile, you’re going to mentally record your stand-up as 100% failure that month. If you go up 30 times, some will be good and some will be bad but you will at least have a tangible success rate.

About those bombings–it will happen. And it will hurt you will question your existence. The true test of whether or not you have the comic gene is whether or not you keep doing it in spite of that. I’m not even sure it’s much of a choice. When I started I could eat it in a room with a “crowd” of four people and yet somehow I still wanted to go up again as soon as possible–it might be a behavioral defect or an uncontrollable need for attention. Either way, if you have the same compulsion,  it will ensure that you stay on the talkie side of a mic in front of other humans.

Once you start getting really comfortable in your own community (probably around 100 shows) go perform other places. I can’t tell you exactly how to do this but if you want it bad enough, you’ll figure it out. It’s important for your creative engine to go up in front of foreign tribes. It will help you get a better sense for what works globally and break you of the trap of coasting by on your own local references, not to mention that a different backdrop means new experiences and new data which will express itself as new jokes.

Don’t be overly concerned about finding your voice right away. Just get up and do your comedy. I once asked Lewis Black how long it took him to find his comedy voice. He replied without hesitation, “Twelve years.” I’m not saying it will take you that long, but it’ll take a while. The point is embrace the journey and not the destination. Comedy is a never-ending process and you will shed many skins during its lifetime. Above all, go easy on yourself (if you can). I’m not being Pollyanna when I say it should be fun, because it should.

So that’s my big ol’ pitch for the “hows” and “whys” of getting your smarmy butt on a stage. The “whats” of what you should do once you are actually up there were so eloquently laid out by Bill Hicks, who was like an angry salmon fighting against the vanilla current that was the prevalent comedy of his day, that it would be pointless for me to try to top them. These were printed out and posted on the wall at the Laughing Skull in Atlanta and after reading them I felt compelled to post them for anyone who asks the question, “How do I become a comic?”

BILL HICKS’S PRINCIPLES OF COMEDY

1. If you can be yourself on stage nobody else can be you and you have the law of supply and demand covered.

2. The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.

3. Only do what you think is funny, never just what you think they will like, even though it’s not that funny to you.

4. Never ask them is this funny – you tell them this is funny.

5. You are not married to any of this shit – if something happens, taking you off on a tangent, NEVER go back and finish a bit, just move on.

6. NEVER ask the audience “How You Doing?” People who do that can’t think of an opening line. They came to see you to tell them how they’re doing, asking that stupid question up front just digs a hole. This is The Most Common Mistake made by performers. I want to leave as soon as they say that.

7. Write what entertains you. If you can’t be funny be interesting. You haven’t lost the crowd. Have something to say and then do it in a funny way.

8. I close my eyes and walk out there and that’s where I start, Honest.

9. Listen to what you are saying, ask yourself, “Why am I saying it and is it Necessary?” (This will filter all your material and cut the unnecessary words, economy of words)

10. Play to the top of the intelligence of the room. There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices.

11. Remember this is the hardest thing there is to do. If you can do this you can do anything.

12. I love my cracker roots. Get to know your family, be friends with them.

billhicks

Bill Hicks can be easily located on iTunes. Rant in E Minor, Flying Saucer Tour and Dangerous are great comedy homework. And remember that what he was doing was being done when most comedy was about “ladies going to the bathroom in groups.” Don’t try to copy him, but rather use the principles to develop your own style. As a side effect, you may actually get to know yourself better while doing it.

Now quit fucking around.

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Comments

  1. Seth Knorr says:

    This is a great info. For new comedians I wrote a blog on common mistakes for open mikers.http://www.mecomedy.com/mistakes_comedians_make.php

  2. Tom Ryan says:

    I don’t think this came from Bill Hicks.  This thing seemed to circulate about five to ten years ago and somehow got attached to Bill Hicks.  In fact, in one version that I saw, he walked into the Laughing Skull comedy club, and posted it (angrily and edgily and truthfully of course) on their wall (a la Martin Luther).  I honestly believe that this list is urban legend.    

    • Tom Ryan says:

      Oh, and forgot to mention, the Laughing Skull Comedy Club didn’t open until many years after Bill left all of us behind. 

  3. PDXCHawk says:

    For GOD’s sake ignore what the being allegedly known as Alex Mac said about how bombing can be just as good as a good set. Anyone who says ANYthing like that, has never had a good set. Silence befits he and his kind.

  4. dave stuck says:

    Not discounting the advice, those of us who knew Bill might not agree that these are truly his words. I’m just sayin…

  5. John says:

    Thanks for posting this. I just did my 1st open mic last night and this just adds to my motivation to do it again.

  6. Amanda Brumfield says:

    Bill Hicks was my favorite comedian of all time (besides Hedberg). I miss him a lot. Thanks for posting this.

  7. Doug Davis says:

    Thanks for this and passing on St Bill’s words of wisdom. I knew what my next step was. Now I have to take it.

  8. I just stumbled on this and I have to say a few things:

    1) This was nicely written and I appreciate your putting out here for us.
    2) The same list applies for humorists and comedy writers.

    “Just get out there and do it” is very similar to “just write it.” Both are acts of faith in yourself. There may or may not be praying as well.

  9. Noah says:

    THANK YOU. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting into comedy and I’ve officially stored this information in the safest and most secure place I could think of. (Granted, it’s the “Links” section of my Facebook page, but nonetheless, this is an amazing and very helpful advice article.)

  10. Ryan says:

    Great post. Thanks.

  11. Dave says:

    Just did my first open mic I did what sir hicks said and honestly helps alot thx for the post

  12. people also forget TO DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. EVERY IDEA, EVERY SCRAP OF SOMETHING AND DOCUMENT IT. write it down… on a corner of a napkin – toilet paper, whatever you have handy – keep a mini-notebook with you and a pen.
    Document everything.

    It’s your intellectual property. Document it.
    steve

  13. Patrick Benjamin says:

    What sucks is this is actually encouraging. “Embrace the journey…”, that’s where I went wrong.

  14. pagabuddha says:

    um…did you forget the liberal doses of hallucinogenic drugs? i think you might have- it got a little wordy and i, well, my fear of the linguistic prison made me skip to the comments…

    ~paganbuddha

  15. Todd Berger says:

    I was just writing about Bill Hicks a couple of days ago. To me he was and still is the gold standard by which comedians are measured.

    Thanks for posting this. Oh, and although I don’t know where YOU are, I am most certainly not “there.”

    T

  16. Lorie Doty says:

    …foreign tribes. You’re a lyrical gangster and I, for one, adore you.

  17. Hans says:

    That’s what’s so great about written comedy and story telling (Eg. your blog). There’s no crowd to look into and wonder if they’re getting it. If viewers come back the Nerdist, they appreciate your humor. And from what I can tell, we do. Keep it rolling…

  18. Larry Weaver says:

    Nice article, Chris. I recently wrote an article on the subject and echo your sentiments about performing as often as possible and sticking with it. I’d also add: carry a notebook, videotape your sets, and hang with like-minded comedians – but only ones that are better than you. Here’s my take on the subject: Getting Started in Stand-up Comedy.

  19. Deltus says:

    I can’t really make a go of it professionally, but as soon as I stop being a fucking pussy, I’m going to try amateur night at a nearby Yuk Yuks.

  20. Ella Elliott says:

    THANKS! I’m just going to fucking DO IT!

  21. CarolineEAnd says:

    You’re wonderful Chris! I’m trying my darndest to make it out to see your show in Austin.

    I’ve been doing stand-up for a couple of months and fortunately I haven’t bombed yet…which makes every set harder because I wonder “Is this the one where nobody will laugh.”

    My favorite thing about the new wave of comedy is how supportive everyone is of everyone. I doubt that 20 years ago ANY comedian would go to this much detail to help their fellow man.

    Once again, you’re wonderful. This is getting bookmarked (as well as your managing-anxiety blog).

  22. Kevon lewis says:

    My last improv show was bombing from the start and well we didn’t cut any corners and took the last half into a laughfest.

  23. Dan says:

    Bill Hicks is my hero

  24. Thanks Chris. As a noob joke-slinger myself I troll the web for anything stand up and this post was like a huge cloud of nutritious krill. Hadn’t seen Hicks’ principles before. Great stuff!

  25. After tanking at the Improv one night, a “name” comedian overheard me telling some friends at the bar how badly I ate it during my set. He told me that I had good material, but didn’t really project the idea that I like myself. Because he was pretty loaded, I chose not to explain that I like me just fine, but had some trouble hiding my contempt for the audience.

    IMHOP, the key is to be honest with yourself and know when it’s a crappy house vs. when you’ve done a crappy set.

  26. I love Hick’s principals, but the comics I started with in Texas, who’d follow them religiously, were the most annoying breed of comic I can think of. They were trying to be make a point or ‘be edgy’ before simply trying to be funny. I think that should be Bill’s first rule; “So far, in your life, make sure that people at least have smiled as you’ve talked to them”.

  27. Chase Roper says:

    It’s amazing how much all comics agree on these simple points. I’ve talked with more than a handful of headliners and everyone agrees it is the journey that is the ultimate goal. To be honest to who YOU are. And to get up on stage as much as possible, time and time again.

    Loved this post, Chris, thanks!

  28. Kevin Long says:

    Great advice there! I try to go about playing music in the same way- Hit as many open mics as I can, learn from sets that don’t work, move on…

  29. Ali Packard says:

    Chris, this was fantastically written. I really appreciate it.

  30. T.J. says:

    Wish I could have read this before the weekend, when I did 5 shows at the Ice House and dumbed myself down to entertain the Saturday crowd of birthdays and bachelorette parties. It didn’t feel good.

  31. Chance says:

    Caught your show last night at the Laughing Skull, funny as hell! Can’t wait to catch the show next time you come to Atlanta.

  32. Alex Mac says:

    Oddly, bombing can be just as exciting as give a good set sometimes. At least I think so. Anytime you are on stage is amazing. Moreso than everyday life at least.

    Glad to have read this and glad to have seen the love for Bill Hicks. Great job, Chris!

  33. Jay says:

    I’m curious, what was your first and/or worst bombing?

  34. Nice. Thanks for this.