I’ve often heard people say I could do stand-up comedy. I’m funny. All you have to do is just get up on stage and riff, right? Wrong, actually. As with so many art forms, stand-up comedy may seem a lot easier than it really is. Having a great sense of humor and being funny are certainly prerequisites for becoming a stand-up comedian. However, even if you make people laugh every time you open your mouth, there are a few things to learn before heading out on stage for the first time.
Telling jokes requires that you write jokes, and writing jokes takes time, skill, and practice. If you want to have a comedy career, or even just check off stand-up on your bucket list, consider the following tips as you begin your journey.
But first, let’s back up a bit and learn a little about how this whole thing got started.
The Backstory on Stand-up Comedy
Prior to the prominence of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, or Chris Rock, there was Bob Newhart, and another Bob before that – Bob Hope. But even before both those Bobs, some earlier performers helped shape what comedy is today. Will Rogers and Frank Fay are two wonderful examples of humorists that emerged from the vaudeville tradition.
Court jesters and clowns and generally comical performers have been around for centuries, but most people see stand-up as rooted in vaudeville. Around the time of the turn of the century (the late 1800s and early 1900s), these performers would entertain a live audience with slapstick antics, juggling, dancing, jokes, and more.
Over the years, many joke tellers dropped the props and some of the oversized shtick and continued to make people laugh. People can still learn a lot from the early days of comedy, whether it’s knowing your audience, crafting the perfect joke, or getting the timing just right.
Becoming a Stand-up Comedian
There’s no one single way or straight path to stand-up comedy. It’s not like becoming a property assessor or accountant, where a series of classes will lead you directly to your destination. Making jokes is no joke. It takes talent and drive and a lot of luck to actually make it in the entertainment industry, so if you want to extend your audience beyond the friends and family you have trapped at your Thanksgiving gathering, it’s time to get to work. But also, remember to have some fun with your funny – let’s not forget that’s at the root of it all. Below are some suggestions for how you can find the funny before you go on stage.
#1 Watch, Listen, and Learn
Comedians focus on writing and delivering the best material they can, so if you want to join the ranks and be a comic yourself, then it’s time to think and act like one. The best way to do this is to watch as much stand-up comedy as humanly possible. Even if you can’t make it to a comedy club, there are countless ways to see great comedy.
Many Comedians have a stand-up special on Netflix, HBO, or Dry Bar Comedy (where you can count on finding clean comedians). YouTube is another bottomless source of standup material. If you have a favorite comic, see if you can catch their earliest comedy show and see how it compares to a later set. You’ll see how almost every comedian and their set list continues to evolve over time. This is because they, too, are watching, observing, and learning.
#2 Take a Class
I know, I know, I just told you it’s not like you can attend a class and instantly become a comedian – and you can’t – but it’s still a great way to get started. A lot of us make New Year’s resolutions or tell ourselves, this time it’s going to be different and this is the year I really WILL write that novel, or lose that weight. However, one of the most helpful things when setting out to do something new is to have another person or group hold you accountable. That’s what a comedy class can do.
Another reason to take a class is that there’s actually a lot to learn about stand-up comedy from those who have been doing it a while. They’ve made certain mistakes so you don’t have to. Don’t worry – there will still be plenty of mistakes for you to make (and that’s necessary in the learning process), but a class might cut down on the sheer number of mistakes a newbie’s bound to make.
You’ll be surrounded by other funny folks, so you can bounce ideas off each other and have an audience to practice your set. A “set” is simply your stand-up routine, from your opener to your last line, which could include a call back to something earlier. The first goal in many stand-up comedy classes is to have a “tight five” or a solid 5 minutes of material.
Here’s a tight five from Jerry Seinfeld…no pressure:
Now that a lot of life is online you can take a stand-up comedy class from anywhere! There’s Greg Dean’s Stand-Up Comedy Class or Jerry Corley’s Comedy Clinic, and you can find plenty of other options for comedy classes. While stand-up comedy may be a male-dominated field, you can even find classes that are geared to help women get started in comedy surround by other funny females. Comedian Lisa Sundstedt started teaching stand-up comedy classes in 2006, after using her Pretty Funny Women shows to bring fresh talent to the stage. With a comedy class, you can take notes from the greats.
#3 Write. Now.
There’s no time like the present, and the present is now. Okay, now it’s now, not then. That’s the thing about the present…it becomes the past so quickly, that if you don’t start writing now, you won’t have written later. So put that pen to paper and start writing. If you’re taking a class, you may have some guidance or a specific assignment to get to. If not, a good place to start is with your own experience or observations.
What annoys or puzzles you? Start writing about it, and soon enough you’ll see a joke emerge. If you can be self-aware and see your own inconsistencies, that is where you’ll get the jokes. Do you judge other people for something you do, but find a way to justify it? There’s probably a joke in there. When you eventually get some stage time, the audience will be right looking at you. Is there something funny or unique about your appearance? Say it. Whether it’s self-deprecating and accurate or ridiculously ironic, it will get people on your side so your jokes are more likely to land with audience members.
If you want to write a joke about a current event, have the set-up be a sentence summarizing what’s happened, and let your commentary be the punchline. As you’re writing jokes, try brainstorming 10-20 potential punchlines for any news headline. This is what they do on segments like Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. If you prefer to tell jokes about other subjects and avoid politics altogether, no problem. There’s endless material for joke writing.
Try to remember anything you say that makes someone laugh. (Maybe don’t pull out your iPhone or pad of paper in the middle of a conversation, but take note afterward what you said, and see if it’s the seed of something more). Jokes are everywhere, and every single encounter is an opportunity for writing more material.
#4 Take your New Material to an Open Mic
Nike is right. Just do it. The biggest obstacle for most would-be comics isn’t writing jokes or organizing a set list; it’s overcoming the fear of going up on stage. An open mic is an opportunity to try out some of your jokes without the pressure of pleasing a paying audience. Once you kick fear in the face and get your first time over with, pretty much every time after that will be easier. Sure, you’ll still feel some butterflies while performing – even professional comics performing virtually confess they still get nervous – but you’ll show yourself you can indeed be funny in front of an audience.
Your favorite comedy club may have open mics where you just need to pay five bucks or buy a drink to get some stage time. You can search the internet for an open mic near you. And during these days of distancing, there are virtual open mics that you can do to sharper your emcee skills from anywhere. Telling jokes to an online audience may not seem ideal, but it will still provide you with the chance to see if your jokes are funny or your writing requires adjustments.
Work on your set list. That just means write your jokes, and then organize them in a list, so you can refer to them if need be. If you get super familiar with your material every joke will sound natural. You want to create the illusion that these jokes are off the cuff, so the audience can relax and laugh.
The audience members are mostly other comedians. Every standup understands what it takes to get up on stage and tell jokes to strangers. Open mics are a good place to test your new material, tell one or two or ten jokes, and see what makes people laugh. Try to have fun, even though you may be nervous. Before you start, remove the mic from the mic stand, and place the stand behind you so there’s nothing between you and the audience. Get used to performing in front of people, and soon you’ll be ready for a real comedy show with a real live audience. (The audience at a comedy club could be more likely to laugh than other comedians at open mic nights, who are busy going over jokes in their own set list).
#5 Read a Book and Reflect
In addition to watching stand-up comedy and writing jokes, make sure you’re taking a moment to reflect on and refine your joke-telling skills. Maybe you’ll realize your set list can use some switching up, or you’ll come across something to help you improve your entire set. Whether it’s a tip about writing one-liners, practicing your material before you perform on stage, or how to take cues from the audience, comedians who have come before you know what it takes to make a comedy show successful.
You’ll also find out first-hand how comedians write and re-write their material, where they find their inspirations for jokes, and how they keep going after suffering a setback. One bad show or not-so-funny set does not spell the end of your comedy career.
One book you may want to start with to hone your joke writing skills is And Here’s The Kicker by Mike Sacks. In it, he shares his interviews with some of the best comedy writers and comedians around, from Allison Silverman to Jack Handey and Larry Wilmore. These people will make you laugh out loud with anecdotes and jokes, as you learn about various comedians’ writing processes. There’s also the sequel, Poking a Dead Frog, that contains interviews with other funny comedians and comedy writers.
Other books approach comedy from an almost spiritual standpoint. The Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause by comedian Bobbie Oliver – who also owns a comedy studio in Los Angeles and teaches stand-up comedy classes – is a book that encourages comedians to put their whole self into the art of writing jokes and performing in front of an audience. It’s a good reminder for any aspiring comedian or virtual entertainer to enjoy the process and “embrace the pause.”
Whatever steps you think will get your stand-up comedy journey off to a good start, the important part is that you start. Try writing jokes every day. Watch comedy. Read books by stand-up comedians. Just start, and you’ll see how funny you really are.
We’ll leave you with a few more thoughts for that first time you go up on stage and perform those killer jokes you’ve been crafting.
Tips for your first time going up
- Start with your best material. Open with a joke you know will make the audience laugh.
- If there’s something notable about how you look, turn it into a joke. A Black comedian, Carol McGrath, started her show by giving the audience time to assess her appearance, and then said, “As you can tell by looking at me, I’m Canadian.” You can use misdirection like this to surprise your audience and get a big laugh.
- While audience work may come much later in a comedy career, you should still be able to connect with an audience and adjust your set list or joke accordingly.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously, but take the joke writing and preparation seriously.
- Don’t forget to thank the host, the comedy club, and your audience. People like to be appreciated, and it’s a good way to show your professionalism.
Now, go forth and kill (in a good way)!
Keep Reading: 6 Funniest Female Comedians To Watch 2021
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.