So You Want To Be A Stand-Up Comedian…

September 18, 2011

Humor

"When you can grab the microphone from my hand, you will be ready."

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.

"We're running an 'Aspiring Comedian' special, so come on down!"

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.

Makes people laugh.

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.

Funny.

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.

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Blog in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

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14 Comments on “So You Want To Be A Stand-Up Comedian…”

  1. brainrants Says:

    Sounds like good advice. Not sure I’d ever be a stand-up comic, but I’m sure this all translates.

    Reply

  2. H.E. ELLIS Says:

    Don’t forget to add: Be watchful of groupies. For some reason when I was a teen I followed comics around like most kids did the Grateful Dead (This was the late 90’s and in New York so I met A LOT of them). But always remember, just because we’re in bars doesn’t mean we’re 18. Just sayin’. (By the way, I’m not hinting at you, so let your wife know).

    Reply

    • Byron MacLymont Says:

      So, if I read you correctly, you’re definitely saying you’re a fanatic Byronic Groupie, and I shouldn’t tell my wife about your smoldering passion. Got it.

      You must have been very popular. Musicians are used to being flirted with. Comics are generally a bottomless pit of need for attention already, and attention from young women? It’s like waving a cheeseburger in front of a dog.

      Reply

  3. gojulesgo Says:

    Awesome. I’ve been dying to hear more about your experiences with stand-up! That is the most terrifying profession I can imagine. I mean, I think I’d rather eat swords. The on fire kind. (Going to comedy clubs, on the other hand, is a favorite past time.)

    Reply

  4. madtante Says:

    Really liked this post and did NOT know you were a performer…shall go read your about me in a sec.

    I’m happy to report I don’t know who the trucker is and DO know Newhart, though!

    Reply

    • Byron MacLymont Says:

      Newhart is like a case-study in understated class. The other guy is probably the most popular comic in America. I’m not making fun of you for not knowing who he is, there, I’m making fun of America.

      Reply

      • madtante Says:

        You can’t make fun of somebody who doesn’t care…I really haven’t watched TV in about 4 years (except on dvd). I grew up not watching TV, too. There was a point during uni where I kept my 9″ b&w set on all the time (of course I was working my way through school, so I wasn’t there that much BUT if I was there, it was on). I continued watching til about age 35 and stopped again. I like politics, so if I’m watching something live, it’s that but being out for work over 70 hours a week, I’m not there to even do that!

        While *you* don’t know me, anybody who knows me knows that I don’t listen to radio, either (but for a tiny bit of NPR for news). So, any references to celebrities be it Top 40 of “what’s on” passes right by me.

        Reply

  5. natasiarose Says:

    I want to be a stand up comic, but everyone tells me I’m not funny. So there goes that dream. Great post!

    Reply

  6. midsummerdreamsandwintertales Says:

    So the thing is, I like your blog. And think it’s pretty Versatile. So I’m giving you an award. But there are rules. Check my blog for the details or feel free to ignore. It turns out the rules mean a lot of work!

    http://midsummerdreamsandwintertales.wordpress.com/

    And, if you don’t mind, Im adding you to my blog roll.

    Reply

    • Byron MacLymont Says:

      First off, I’d be incredibly pleased and flattered to be included in your blog roll, thanks!

      And as for the award, oh, gosh, I just… it’s such a shock, I, I really didn’t expect this! *Unfolds speech*. (ahem) “How can I thank all the people who made this happen? I believe it was Cicero who once said…”

      But really, thanks for thinking of me. I will start working on my adherence to the rules. But I might break one, arbitrarily, to demonstrate what a rebel I am.

      Reply

  7. JB Maddawg Says:

    Hate to beat a dead horse here, but I also nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Obviously, you probably don’t need more than one, but I’ll show you the page anyhow. http://thethrowdown.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/the-versatile-blogger-award/

    Reply

    • Byron MacLymont Says:

      Wow, thanks. I really appreciate that. At this point I think it’s safe to say that I view the Versatile Blogger award as the most important award on Earth, far surpassing that Nobel nonsense.

      Reply

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