So you want to know what it takes to become a comedian? You’d like to try your hand at stand-up and perform your material at comedy clubs across the country? I’m about to reveal the secret that has been passed down from generation to generation, from early vaudeville performers to present-day stand-ups.
I am entrusting you with this knowledge because I sense a Frodo Baggins quality about you that convinces me you will carefully carry this precious secret with you, protecting it from every ne’er-do-well that you meet along your journey. So if you’re ready for this responsibility, prepared to hear the secret of stand-up comedy, protect the precious, here it is:
Be funny. Get people to laugh.
Well, I guess my job here is done. I’m kidding. It’s a joke. Not a particularly hilarious one, but an attempt, nonetheless. And as you’ll see, making an attempt – an effort – is part of what’s required in stand-up comedy.
Being funny and getting laughs is indeed a central component as well. There are several things to keep in mind as you set out on a career in comedy, or just information to know if you’re interested in the craft. Below are a few of those things.
So, in no particular order, here’s 10 thoughts on how to become the best stand-up comedian you can be:
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#1 Write Every Day
As we’ve said in previous posts before, in order to tell jokes, you have to write jokes. If you want to create new material and keep your act fresh, it’s a good idea to write every day. You may not have the time to sit down for hours at a time, but there’s almost always a free minute here or there.
Even if you don’t sit down to write, it’s better to capture an idea any way you can rather than to let it fade into a foggy memory of something that was definitely probably maybe pretty funny, you think, if you remember correctly.
Almost nothing is as frustrating as letting a good idea go by. Take advantage of the notepad or voice memo feature on your phone. While not everyone carries around a pad of paper and pencil, most of us have virtual assistants in our pocket. So summon Siri, or Google Voice, or the overlooked Jan Brady of virtual assistants, Cortana. Use technology to help you record all your genius jokes, and then schedule a time to go through them and ask yourself if there’s something there.
#2 Edit, Refine & Write Some More
Writing down funny ideas and phrases, or even complete jokes is the first step, but your work is far from done. You should always see if you can make it even better. Is the set up of your joke a little long-winded? Try tightening the phrasing. Brevity is the soul of wit, after all.
Here are a few comedy writing tips that you can think about as you work on your material:
- Use specifics: Make sure to use specifics when you can. Saying “having some dental work” might not pack the same punch as “having a molar forcibly removed from my mouth.” Comedians are storytellers, so make sure the audience whether live or virtual is entertained all the way through
- Misdirection: Misdirection is a classic comedic device. The set-up creates a certain expectation, and the punchline contains an unexpected payoff. I’ll use a Neil Degrasse Tyson tweet as an example: “If you removed all the arteries, veins, & capillaries from a person’s body, and tied them end-to-end…the person will die.” He’s getting people to think there’s an impressive medical or mathematical fact he’s about to reveal, but then he subverts that expectation for a laugh. Comedians use misdirection to surprise an audience, because the element of surprise is one of the best ways to generate laughter.
- Rule of Three: From the Three Little Pigs to the Three Amigos, people seem to love things in threes. When comedians tell jokes, they can play with this pattern. Generally, the first two things in the list are expected and not necessarily funny, and then the third thing brings the surprise and completes the joke. We’ll use a Wendy Liebman joke to illustrate: “I got my first bikini. It’s a three piece: It’s a top, a bottom, and a blindfold for you.” This joke also includes a little self-deprecation, which brings us to another one of our tips.
Here’s Jerry Seinfeld on the long (and somewhat secretive) process of joke writing and how he spends an inordinate amount of time on undeserving subjects. Watch how he also talks about the connective tissue that ties a bit together, kind of like a puzzle:
#3 Punch Up, not Down
You may be wondering, why do we need to punch at all? This is comedy, not kickboxing. Even though we do not advocate violence, you’ve got to admit every joke needs a punchline, so somebody’s bound to be the butt of a joke now and then.
Comedy has always been used to make us think about people in power, question our assumptions, and make an audience laugh. So before you get on stage that first time and start performing your material, you may want to take comedy tradition into account and try to punch up, now down.
Now, what exactly does that mean? Even though people should a sense of humor about themselves, you never want to get your audience angry or offended because you feel the need to insult someone based on their race, sex, ability, or other attributes, out of their control. Even if it’s “just a joke,” there’s generally a better way at getting to the funny.
This doesn’t mean you can never poke fun at people, it’s just that you’ll need a take that’s original and says something insightful or ironic. Also, you can always “punch” yourself, like the self-deprecating humor mentioned above.
Maybe you’re thinking, but wait, you made that joke about Jan Brady earlier, and what did she ever do to you? That’s a good point, but she’s a fictional character and a pretty common pop culture reference that has become something of a symbol for sibling jealousy and whininess. However, there are successful comedians who don’t like to do any mean-spirited material, and you may prefer going in that direction with the jokes in your set.
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#4 Fighting Stage Fright
The thought of going on stage and doing stand-up comedy may be right up there with swimming in a shark tank, if you want to get real about people’s fears. So kudos to you for getting the courage to face an audience with your own material. Luckily there are tips for comedians, or people who perform for an audience and aren’t quite yet a master of ceremonies.
You can try different tips and you’ll learn which ones work best to help you relax and feel confident when performing. If you’re relaxed and take your time, it’s easier to make people laugh. Breathing exercises and visualization help many comedians get grounded before they go up on stage at comedy clubs and start their comedy set.
To become a comedian, you’ll need to get on stage and grab that mic like you mean it. Getting stage time will help you get over stage fright. It’s somewhat circular logic, but after the first time you stand on that stage and perform your material – even if it’s just an open mic where your audience consists of other comedians – you’ll be done performing your first set on stage. You’ll always know you can do it and not die.
Take that knowledge to your next open mic and tell yourself, I can do this one, just like the last one. To get good at stand-up comedy you’ll have to work at it.
You’ll be going to open mic after open mic until you find yourself on stage at a comedy club. And then you’ll do some more writing and head straight back to an open mic to work on the new material you’ll be performing at the comedy club. It’s the circle of stand-up comedy.
#5 Failure is your Friend
Like life in general you occasionally need to take risks. There are no guarantees in comedy, but if you have a good sense of humor, you’ll probably have an inkling when something will strike people as funny.
At an open mic you can test out something you’re not sure will get a laugh. The audience will laugh, or not, and you’ll start to adjust your set or joke writing accordingly.
We learn more from making mistakes than performing the funny jokes that kill (though stand-up comedians may prefer the latter). Not every comedy show can be a success, but every time you perform jokes in front of an audience, it’s an opportunity to improve your material. Failure is one of the best ways to learn how to get better.
#6 Hit the (Comedy) Books
Comedians can continue to learn about writing and performing. There’s always a new way to see or think about something, and it can only help one’s career. Whether you read books about comedy or watch comedy performed live or virtual, you will get ideas about how to write and perform jokes. It goes without saying that you should never steal jokes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t observe how comedians skillfully set up their jokes or open up a set.
Being a student of comedy is like being a student of human nature. Comedians observe people and write what they find curious or funny about what they see. You’ll start to find humor in almost every situation as you learn to think like a comedian and watch what goes on around you. Your connection with the audience may become better as well.
The time you spend on comedy writing and performing will show. So crack open a book, or watch your favorite comedian’s last performance. In comedy, as in all things, learning never ends.
#7 Wait for it
To make people laugh at your jokes, you need to give them time to laugh at your jokes. In other words, don’t talk over the laughter if you can avoid it. Pause after a punchline. Let a joke land. Take a breath. Stand-up comedy and comedy, in general, is always about timing.
Be sure to leave time for an audience to catch up. You’ve told these jokes several times, but they are new to the audience, so give the people a minute to get it.
#8 Open with your Best
When you perform stand-up comedy, open with a strong joke. Why save your best material for the middle, when the audience may have already dismissed you or made a snap judgment? As soon as people laugh, they are more likely to keep at it. Hit the audience with your best shot. Fire away. Pat Benetar begs you.
Build trust with the audience by assuring them you’re funny. They came to see comedy and want to laugh and have a good time. You own that stage, you know your material, and you’re going to work to make that happen. Set up your first joke quickly and get to the punchline.
The audience is more likely to remember the first and last jokes you make in your performance, so end on a good joke, too. And while you’re at it, sprinkle a lot of funny jokes throughout your whole set!
#9 Structure your Comedy Set
The jokes you’re writing (and testing out on an open mic audience), become part of your 5-minute or half-hour or however-long set. As mentioned above, you’ll want to start and end your set with a strong joke. You may also want to work in a callback – a reference to an earlier joke. This is a great way to strengthen the connection with an audience and get a little more mileage out of a joke.
Don’t worry about non-sequiturs. Comedians often use one-liners to transition between jokes. The surprise of a new, unrelated joke can sometimes function as a sort of surprise, which we know is a good thing in comedy.
By no means does your comedy set need to have a single subject or even a theme, but it should fit the stand-up comedy persona you want to project. Basically your persona is you+ or a slightly exaggerated version of yourself. If you’re energetic and a little neurotic, be extra. If you’re dry and sarcastic like Steven Wright, lean in.
#10 Have Fun!
If there were commandments in comedy, one would likely be thou shalt laugh and have fun. If you want to become a comedian, it’s probably because you like to watch other comedians tell jokes, and think telling jokes is fun. If the whole process seems like torture, you may want to seriously reconsider your career choice.
An open mic night might get you a little nervous, of course, but every comedian must make their way through the challenges and usually has a pretty fun time of it. Whether you prefer to write or perform comedy, you should always try to find the fun!
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Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular virtual comedian, magician, and virtual speaker.