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.
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.