A great joke can do some amazing things. It can get a whole room of strangers to laugh together.
It can land you some new friends. And it can even earn you the title of resident stand up comedian amongst your friend group.
But one good joke isn’t all that makes up a stand up comedy set. And as an art form, stand-up comedy tends to be fairly underestimated in its difficulty and precision.
It’s also fun though! So don’t think this is a doom-and-gloom article by any means.
Odds are, if you’ve landed on this page, you’re interested in getting into the stand-up comedy scene. Or maybe you’re already in the entertainment industry, looking to expand your horizons and skill sets.
Either way, we’re glad you’re here. So, without further ado, let us welcome you into the magical wonderland that is the comedy world.
What is standup comedy?
No, it’s not telling jokes while standing up (cue groan from a terrible dad joke). But you probably already knew that.
Instead, stand-up comedy is a solo performance made up entirely of original material. This means that a standup comedian must not only possess an extraordinary amount of joke writing skills.
But those comedians must also be able to deliver jokes to a live audience (or virtual audience if you’ve opted to become a virtual MC), hopefully getting that audience to react. Seems easy enough in theory, right?
Well, actually getting up in front of an audience is a whole other beast to tackle. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
After all, you’re looking to get into the stand-up comedy scene. So below are baby’s first steps into the comedy club.
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First steps to starting your stand up comedy career
To stand-up comedians, an audience laugh is as good as gold. But it takes a lot of preparation and patience to get there.
#1. Watch other successful comedians
A great way to start leaning in the right direction of comedy is to look at other comics perform. Watch the comedians on Saturday Night Live.
Or even better, devour up solo specials from Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock. Whoever your favorite comedian is.
And start to observe all aspects of their stand-up routine. When comedians perform, the audience really only sees one thing.
Whether that comedian is funny or not. But many comedians will study a successful act and take away far more than just the perfect joke.
There’s the physical presence, the narrative arc, the building upon when an audience reacts. You get it. There’s a lot to take in.
So start looking at things through a comedian’s eye. And find out all that goes into making something funny.
#2. Take a stand up comedy class
Great comedy doesn’t just happen overnight. If it did, then there’d be a lot more good comedy in the world, right?
But a successful stand-up set takes time to build. And if you’re really lost, trying to gather material or perfect your comedy skills, then there’s nothing wrong with taking up a comedy class to start.
Sometimes, other comedians think that a stand-up comic should just be thrown into the deep end. You know, get up to the mic stand and just start swimming.
But maybe you’re not ready for that. After all, it takes a lot of guts to get up on a stage.
So if you’re looking to gain confidence first, then a comedy class is a great place to start. Even if you think you gain nothing out of it, odds are you’ll walk out of that class as a part of a new comedy community you didn’t have before.
Besides, you never know what you’ll learn. So there’s no harm in taking the time to get to know the craft you’re looking to get into.
#3. Study up on joke writing
If you’ve ever been impressed by a successful comedian and their jab lines, just know that those lines didn’t happen without writing as many jokes as they could. Because writing jokes isn’t just writing jokes.
It’s rewriting. Then, some more rewriting. And then some more rewriting.
That’s why a comedian has to gather as much material as they possibly can. That material might come from their own life.
But either way, the perfect joke will always end with a plot twist. That’s what makes a joke funny: the unexpected.
Once you break down a bit into its components, it’s far easier to figure out how best to write something funny. It might seem silly at first.
But the best way to know what you’re up against is to study it. So get your thinking cap on!
#4. Perform at plenty of open mic nights
Open mics are pretty much a given at most comedy clubs. And they’re the perfect way to dip your toes into a comedy show while knowing that your heart attack onstage will only last about five minutes.
It’s important to know that open mics are not a featured act or opening act. They’re a chance for up-and-coming comedians to test out whether their jokes are funny or not.
But an open mic isn’t just about determining what your funny jokes are and aren’t. It’s also a chance for you to meet other comedians.
Watch their funny moments onstage. And learn from their performance just as you would watching a Netflix special of a famous comedian.
#5. Find your comedic persona
One open mic is never enough. Even ten open mics is pretty scarce.
Think of an open mic as your field research. Audience members at an open mic will always change and shift.
So this is your chance to also develop and determine your comedic persona. Are you the deadpan cynic? The fireball impersonator? Maybe the clean comedian whose versatile and can do corporate events?
Whatever your persona, an open mic will be the place to figure it out. You can write as many funny jokes as you like. But until you figure out how you best deliver those jokes, those jokes are as good as duds.
Milk duds. (What can we say? The dad joke opportunity was there!)
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A few things to remember during stage time
Of course, you’ve got a lot swimming in your head while you’re up on stage. But here are a couple more things to keep in mind – just to add even more pressure!
Don’t be afraid to fail
Failure is going to happen. To anyone and everyone in any profession and every profession.
So comedy is no different. It’s just that when jokes fall flat, it happens in front of an audience.
But as soon as you let go of the fear of failure, you’re free to fly. So write jokes and let them bomb.
There’s no other way for you to test whether they’re funny or not. Because what’s funny is subjective.
One audience member might think that one joke about your grandma was hilarious! But another will think it’s poor form to make fun of your grandma like that.
You can’t please everyone. The only thing you can do is put your jokes out there and see what sticks.
Stick to your time
In the comedy world, this is an absolute must. Whether you’re at an open mic event or performing as a corporate entertainer at an industry gig.
No matter what, stick to that time constraint. Or end before your time is up.
Point is, if you go longer than you’re given time, you’re taking up another comic’s opportunity to perform. And that will quickly land a target on your back.
In its simplest terms, sticking to your time is a sign of respect. After all, if you need more time to get that one joke to land just right, maybe consider scratching that joke altogether.
You want to get the joke across quickly. Not hammer it home until nobody’s left in their seats.
Make nice with the audience
This might seem obvious but you want the audience to root for you. No, really.
You might think that an audience is already prepped to laugh as soon as you step on the stage. But from the moment your foot hits that platform, the audience is waiting.
Expecting to laugh. Expecting to be impressed.
So make a good first impression. Make nice. Ask how they’re doing. Small talk.
You might know of some comedians who tease the audience as a part of their set. Or maybe they outright insult them and the audience goes wild.
Well, when it works, it works. But don’t let the first thing out of your mouth be something insulting. At least, not at this point in your comedy career.
Test out new material
A stand-up comedian might do their set over and over and over again. But they never stop writing.
So whenever you have the chance to test out new material, do. Try out that one bit you did for friends that they didn’t think was so funny.
But you’re still too attached to it to let it go. See how an audience responds. And let that be the final judge.
Sure, it’s great to get into a rhythm with your set when you perform the same lines over and over again. And, by all means, keep the good stuff!
But challenge yourself to insert new material. Just to keep yourself engaged on stage.
The last thing you want is to be on autopilot during your set. So change it up, just as much for your audience as for you.
But stick with your best material too
Your best material is going to be something that lands every time. Various audiences have always laughed at that one bit.
It always gets a good response. Keep it. There’s no need to let a good thing go.
In fact, keeping the good stuff ensures that you’ve got enough material to go with. If it comes down to trying to add something new and getting rid of something good, you can always test out those waters.
But as soon as the audience doesn’t connect, reinsert that good material right back in. The last thing you want to do is alienate your audience from your performance.
And good material is the best way to keep them engaged. And rooting for you.
Listen to the audience
If you’re a first-time comedian, being onstage in front of a large audience might not be something you’re used to. Or even something you’ve ever done.
If that’s the case, then it’ll be easy for you to rush through your set purely because of nerves. Fight the urge to do that.
Stand-up comedy has a certain rhythm to it. And that rhythm comes from the give and take between you and the audience.
The audience, of course, needs time to laugh at your jokes. So if you barrel through them, not only does the audience not get a chance to laugh.
They also don’t get to be fully engaged for the rest of your material. Timing is an art that stand-up comedy requires its users to master.
But for your first couple of shows, just remind yourself to breathe. Your audience is actually the best judge of your work – whether something is working or not working.
So listening to your audience is crucial in determining whether you have a good set or not. Just put yourself in the audience’s shoes.
You’d want to laugh at something funny too, wouldn’t you? So give them the opportunity to do so.
The only way to learn is to do
Getting into stand-up comedy is no easy feat. So if you’re already here, congrats for taking the time to dedicate yourself to this craft!
With practice and time, stand-up is one of those amazing art forms that will have you learning and laughing all along the way. And you might find yourself a lot happier in life when you take the time to laugh as much as comedians do.
So start figuring out where you fit into the comedy world. And have a blast taking opportunities as they come to find your voice as an up-and-coming comedian!
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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 corporate entertainer, magician, and virtual speaker.