It’s an observable phenomenon every January 1st that many people opt to do stand-up comedy as their New Year’s Resolution. Currently, I am a stand-up comedian residing in Los Angeles, regularly weaving in and out of the multiple threads that strand the LA comedy scene. Every year, I witness this mass migration of “comedy new meat” every January with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed folks delving face first into stand-up only to watch them develop an incomparable disgust for the art and craft of telling jokes into a microphone.
Often times, such folks have a misguided notion of how stand-up comedy, especially in such a comedy saturated city as Los Angeles, is supposed to work. That expectation not being met makes doing stand-up comedy a really hard New Year’s Resolution to keep. However, as a person dedicated to comedy, perhaps dangerously so, I want to help those interested in doing stand-up with a “primer” aimed at not making you want to hate yourself and comedy at the end of January. Some of the funniest people I know have quit because they didn’t know how hard the road they’ve chosen was going to be.
So read and absorb the following as you please, but know that if you really accept and follow it, starting out in stand-up won’t be, as one casual observer I met this year put it, “the saddest art installation I’ve ever seen.”
1. Stand-up isn’t easy. Many in the comedy community often regard stand-up as the hardest form of comedy to do because it is a lone person against many trying to make them laugh on their own, however they do it. Sure, it looks easy on TV, but that, for the most part, takes years of toil of making strangers in a darkened room laugh by yourself.
2. Do not run the light. There’s usually a person that waves a cellphone, or flashes a flashlight, or, if you’re at a club, switches on a strategically placed light that notifies you that you have a minute to wrap it up. It’s really appreciated, and seems like it isn’t your first time doing stand-up, if you follow this rule.
3. Get over your guilt. Many people thinking about starting out in stand-up have this guilt about not being funny, then subjecting whoever’s listening to their unfunny jokes. No one who starts out in stand-up has a really clear idea what they’re doing, and being unfunny when starting to tell jokes is a sort of collective experience. So, get over your guilt issue and start performing regularly. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.
4. Write everyday and perform as much possible. Comedy as a whole is subjective, and some people will always not find you funny, but you can get a better idea of what you want to do on stage and get better at executing it through repetition alone. Also, other comedians respect work ethic, even if they don’t like your act.
5. Go to open mics. That aforementioned comment comparing stand-up to a sad art installation was a comment on an open mic exclusively for comedy. You may have heard similar horror stories about how no one listened or laughed from other friends who have tried stand-up, but that’s what open mics are. They are supposed to be a place where you can try out new jokes and bits and consequently have them fail, so when you’re being counted on to be funny in front of a paying audience, you won’t have to worry about that. Sure, taking classes for stand-up will be more supportive, but you’ll still have to go to open mics frequently if you’re serious about being a comedian, because the audience you’ll be performing for will, more than 90% of the time, not be members of your stand-up class.
6. Be willing to fail. Let me be clear: I don’t mean actively go out and try to fail by alienating audiences with “shock comedy.” But when you free yourself from the expectations and opinions of those watching you (who will mostly be other performers when you start out so it really doesn’t matter), you’re free to find the funny in whatever you’re doing. It’s like that one scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton gets a chemical burn on his hand and then was free to be enlightened, because he didn’t have to worry about hitting bottom anymore.
7. Do what you want to do. One of the most annoying things that I see stand-up comedians do, whether just starting out or working as a road-dog, is conform to an ideal of what they think stand-up is. They have a cadence that sounds like they watched a few comedy specials and copied what they watched, even to the point of talking about the same topics they hear or see at shows or on TV because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. The best stand-up today is done so in earnest and sincerity, whether they talk about masturbation like Louis CK or the hard lives of magicians like Pete Holmes with whatever subjects, cadence, style, timing they feel most comfortable with.
8. Do not ask what people they thought of your act. 95% of the time, especially when you’re starting out, people will either lie to you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or they will tell you something that you don’t want to hear, and you’ll end up not listening to it anyway because it was so upsetting to hear that you weren’t funny. When you’re doing comedy, if you get laughs, you know you did something funny. If you didn’t get laughs, know that it’s only one performance, hopefully, out of many from which you can move on.
9. Everything you do will in stand-up be taken as intentional choice. Whether you’re going through worked-out material, trying a new character, or simply riffing with the crowd, you have a microphone and people will pay attention, if only momentarily, to that alone. Thus, everything you do, no matter how OCD it sounds, factors into a comedian’s performance. The pace at which you speak, how you hold the mic, where you’re looking while on stage, and even laughing at your own words are all things that affect the way you perform and, consequently, how it is received.
10. Keep the mic in the mic stand. The majority of people who start doing stand-up as a New Year’s Resolution have a nervous energy about them. They pace too much, talk too fast, and will, basically, gloss over something that’s funny because they’re so nervous about being on stage. A really great way to combat those nerves until you don’t have them anymore is to keep the mic and stand in one place.
11. While you’re on stage, it’s never the audience’s fault. Yes, there are places that are not at all meant for stand-up comedy that have stand-up comedy, and that’s when you’ll hear crazy stories about comedians getting confrontational only to get the crowd on their side. Such occasions are uncommon and, as such, being directly confrontational as a comedian is a tool that should be used sparingly. Just because Bill Burr successfully insulted a crowd of Philadelphians does not mean you should say “fuck you” whenever a joke bombs or put the audience through silence because your set isn’t going well at a random coffee shop or dive bar.
12. Have fun. Plenty of you smart folks out there were probably expecting such a cliché end to this list, but it’s an inalienable truth of comedy. If you’re not having fun, why would the audience you’re performing for want to have fun?
With all of this in mind, you’ll have as much fun doing stand-up as former Senator Arlen Specter.