As some of my readers know, for several years I was a professional stand-up comic (there’s a little more detail on the Author Page). Well, yesterday, a young, aspiring comic climbed the distant mountain where I sit, contemplating the higher dimensions of humor, to ask my advice. I kind of laughed (in a sagely, slightly intimidating way) and flicked my long, white beard aside, thinking that I didn’t really have any. Then I thought for a moment and said I had maybe a couple thoughts. Then… the following spewed out of me.
1. Perform as much as possible. This is the obvious one that everyone says, but it’s obvious and everyone says it for a reason. Build on bits that work, practice practice practice. Get used to all types of audiences, and to large group of people hating you. It toughens you up and makes you more confident. Nobody wants to like the opener. We’re trained to hate the opener so even if you make them laugh one minute, you still have to fight for it the next. It’s good for you. Puts hair on your chest.
2. Go to open mics and always always always hang out afterwards. This is where the business happens. You won’t know it’s happening, but it is.
3. Get a car. Almost every comic I know (me included) got some of their first paid gigs because a headliner needed 2 things: an opener and a ride. Being funny is good, having reliable transportation is better for starting out.
4. Find comics you like and study them. Study their style, their timing, their word choice, everything. Yes, you’ll start imitating them for a while, but it’ll help. Don’t just listen, study. That easy banter and “oh, this is just off the top of my head” took years to hone.
5. No, you’re not better than the headliner. Yes, he’s up there doing Jack Nicholson impressions and churning out the same Lorena Bobbitt jokes he’s been telling for 15 years, but he’s also holding their attention and creating a moving wave of humor – a show. Don’t become the burned out hack, but don’t flatter yourself that just because you’re material’s newer, and you can really knock ‘em out for 3 minutes at open mic night that you’re ready to take over. “wise men learn from fools” and all that.
6. Revise. If you think you have 30 minutes of material, then you have 10. I know you’re trying to fill the time, and that’s the nature of it early on, but also be trimming the fat. Getting rid of what’s unfunny and unnecessary. Add tags to your punchlines – they’re free jokes.
7. There are 2 types of comics: those who do their act and the audience loves them or hates them, and those who try to be what the audience wants. One is not better than the other (I’m lying – the first kind is better, but I’m a purist; the second kind gets a hell of a lot more work though), but you need to decide which one you want to be, or you’ll become the second kind without knowing it, out of an unconscious desire to be liked by the audience. This is called “appealing to the lowest common denominator”.
8. Building from that, it’s never to soon to start working on what “kind” of comedian you are (political, clean, observational, story-telling, etc.). People want to put you in a niche. Give them one, even though it will only be partially true. Some of those people want to hire you.
9. There are people who can make people laugh, and then there are people who are funny. Know the difference.
10. The easiest way to be funny is to hate things – belittle them. This will consume you if you let it. Some of the comics you meet will be the darkest, most hate-filled people you’ll ever know. This is not a healthy long-term option.
11. Don’t watch the audience. Watch the other comics and the waitresses (if you’re playing a room more than one night). Are they laughing? Then you’re on to something. Of course the audience matters, and you want to be able to draw in an audience no matter who they are, but unless your aspirations are to play the “Sit ‘N Chug” in rural wherever for your whole life, you need to think about what’s funny, not what’s going to keep the attention of a group of people who are drunk, angry, and tired.
12. Figure out who your friends are, and who aren’t. Be fiercely loyal to friends, and develop a relationship of caution, a lack of trust, and mutual exploitation with those who aren’t.
13. Don’t be a prop comic. Just don’t.
And there you go, young grasshopper.