How to Become a Stand-up Comedian

You’ve always been funny. You enjoy making people laugh, and you’d love to take humor to the next level in your life and make it a career. Well, becoming a stand-up comedian might just be the right path for you. It’s a creative choice, which requires you to be in the spotlight and always ready to crack great jokes.

However, it’s not about just standing up and having the audience laugh. If you choose to be a comic, you’ll need to create your repertoire, learn how to have great stage presence, and be prepared for a tough road to the top, just like most artists.

There is a variety of comedians out there, for example, comedy actors in both theatre and television, clowns, improv comedians, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on stand-up comedians. So what do you need to become one? Well, first of all a sense of humor, but there is much more to it than just that. You’ll also need perseverance, talent, willingness to put in some long hours, good observation skills, and lots of curiosity for the world around you.

Making jokes with friends might be easy, but writing them and performing in front of a crowd that you do not know might just need a little more work. Having said this, if you feel that you have the right skill-set and a natural talent for the job, it could be a great career path.

Here is an infographic to give you a glimpse into the industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Adam Ruben

Stand-up Comedian

Quick Look Bio

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  • Adam Ruben
  • Washington, DC
  • 13
  • Self-employed Comedian
  • @adam_ruben

I should mention right away that, like many stand-up comics, I have a day job. For me, comedy was never something I wanted to do full-time, but something I enjoy doing at night and on weekends. So my educational background is inconsistent with that of a typical stand-up comic, but here it is: I have my Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology from Princeton with minors in Creative Writing, Engineering Biology, and Theatre & Dance. I received my PhD in Biology from Johns Hopkins University. My day job, where I’ve been working for the past 6+ years, is at a small biotechnology company, where I’m helping to manufacture and test a promising vaccine for malaria.

I know comics who work as actors, who work standard office jobs, everything–even other scientists. Some are hoping for their big break to quit the day job, and some, like me, are perfectly happy doing both. In terms of my professional background for comedy, I started the same way everyone starts: I did open mic nights. Those are free-for-all comedy shows where anyone can perform, and for a new comic, they’re really the only place you can perform. I did those for a few years, then gradually started being hired to perform, while still going to open mic nights for the experience and the practice. My first ever “hired” gig was in the spring of 2002. I was asked to emcee at a tiny comedy club in Baltimore, which went out of business shortly thereafter. They paid me nothing, but they gave me free drinks, which I didn’t take because I had driven there anyway.

Since I live in the city, most local shows are only a 15-minute drive away, so I might have dinner at home, then get to a show by 7:30 or 8:00 PM, and I’ll finish and head home by 10:30 or 11:00 PM. If I’m traveling somewhere out of the city to perform, all of that goes out the window. There’s nothing average about traveling. I once worked a half-day, then performed in Baltimore, then got on a plane to perform in Massachusetts that night, then stayed overnight in Boston before taking a plane the next day to perform in Indiana. I usually try to have my travel gigs take as little time out of my regular work as possible, which means doing things like flying at strange hours.

I like making people laugh, but even more than that, I like when comedy legitimately helps people. I perform a lot of shows at graduate schools, and every now and then I’ve had someone tell me that I’ve helped them see that they’re not alone in suffering through the slog of post-baccalaureate education. That’s really gratifying. The part I dislike the most is being away from my family.

I wish I would have known how much it can help your career to have a website. I resisted having one for a long time because it feels weird to pay a lot of money for something intangible. Then, a few years ago, I finally broke down and paid for one to be professionally made, and I’m certain I’ve gotten gigs solely because people have searched for “science comedian” or “grad school comedian” and come across my website.

Advice

It’s more than stand-up
Remember that the “stand-up comedian” part doesn’t have to be 100% of your career. And I don’t just mean that you should look for a fulfilling day job, though that’s of course a good idea. I mean that there are tons of other comedy-like gigs out there in addition to the traditional microphone-at-a-comedy-club thing. Here are some options: comedy writing, comedy teaching, storytelling, humorous public speaking, humor writing, humor blogging, character acting. There are comedy-like gigs that you’ll never even dream of. For example, a few times a year, I dress up as a fake Orthodox rabbi and make fun of people’s relatives at bar mitzvahs and weddings. Someone actually pays me to do this. So while you’re looking for comedy gigs, don’t dismiss similar things that you may end up enjoying just as well.

Get a little education
Stand-up comedians have PhDs, and stand-up comedians have dropped out of high school. There’s a wide range. But as a stand-up teacher (I’ve taught an undergraduate stand-up comedy class at Johns Hopkins for ten years now.), I highly advise taking a stand-up comedy class. Mine was strange in that it was actually offered for credit by a university, but many are offered by comedy clubs. Not only will you learn a lot and have great practice and feedback, but you’ll have a lot of fun, too.

Get stage time
The best teacher of stand-up comedy is stage time. Perform in as many shows as you can, and when you’re not performing, watch the other open mic comedians perform. See what works and what doesn’t. The five minutes you’ll spend on stage that night will teach you so much more than the hours you spent honing your material alone in your room. Even better, open mic nights will allow you to meet other comedians, which is the first step toward finding out about other shows.

Dan Nainan

Stand-up Comedian

Quick Look Bio

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  • Dan Nainan
  • New York, NY
  • 10
  • Self-employed Comedian
  • @comediandan

I majored in business at the University of Maryland, co-oping at IBM for three semesters. The IBM experience helped me get a job as a senior engineer at Intel. My job was to travel the world with Intel’s senior executives doing technical demonstrations at events, and I was incredibly nervous about speaking on stage. I took a comedy class to get over the fear, and the comedy kind of took off. I’ve performed for President Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Steve Wozniak, and many other celebrities. I have performed in 21 countries and at a TED conference.

There are two types of days in my job –-days on the road performing, and days off the road. On travel days, I arrive at the airport and am whisked through security in the elite line, spend time in the airport lounge and board the flight before everyone else, and fly first-class to my destination. There, I’ll pick up a car and then go to the hotel where I check in, take a nap, iron my clothes, and get ready for the show. At my shows, I perform, hopefully, having a great show, and stay around to sell my CDs and DVDs, as well as hand out my business cards and network. I try to get to sleep no later than midnight.

When I’m off the road, my day consists of a ton of writing –both my jokes as well as chapters for my forthcoming book, as well as dealing with email, marketing myself to try to get more work, editing video, posting to social media, and making travel arrangements. I also exercise a ton, which is very important.

I love the first-class/five-star world travel, making people laugh, meeting new people and making new friends, using my creativity to make a living and of course, the money. I wish I had known that I had this talent and ability earlier in life. If I had to do it over again, I would have majored in theater and music instead of business, and I would have started comedy much, much earlier.

Advice

You probably have the time even though you think you don’t
I would say the following to anyone who’s interested in pursuing a career as a comedian, or anything in entertainment. There are many people who feel they have a creative talent and yet have to work 9-to-5 in a job that they don’t necessarily find fulfilling. They feel that they don’t have enough time to pursue a career in entertainment. I disagree. It does not have to be either/or, it can be both/and. The average American complains that s/he doesn’t have enough time for work, kids, exercise, creativity, etc., and yet the average American watches over 32 hours of television a week.

Take a class
I took a stand-up comedy class to get started. This is much better than floundering around trying to do open mics. Comedy classes are offered at most comedy clubs around the country. Of course, the best teachers in the country are Judy Carter in Los Angeles and Steve Rosenfield at the American Comedy Institute in New York; I’ve taken classes with both, and they are amazing.

Observe the comedy around you
Comedy gold is all around us. When you have conversations with your friends, or you’re out to dinner with a large group and people are laughing uproariously, or you walk down the street and observe something funny, or think of something funny, write it down right away. Write it down, write it down, write it down. It may not be incredibly funny, but it can certainly be handcrafted into something funny. Only one out of every 10 or 20 jokes we think of ever make it into our comedy routines. I met a comedian and asked him how he did it, and he told me to write everything down. I wrote for two years before I took my first comedy class, so that enabled me to hit the ground running.

Shaun Eli

Owner of Liberty Comedy Corp. and The Ivy League of Comedy

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I graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with majors in marketing and economics. Worked in finance for almost two decades, the last five years of which overlapped with stand-up. Escaped from the day job over five years ago.

Daytime for me is usually marketing, looking for and dealing with clients, negotiating contracts, booking other comedians for some of my shows, reading the news, writing jokes. Then, at night, I tell jokes, often at a theatre, a country club, a charity fund-raising event.

The absolute best part of the job is thinking of a joke on the way to a show and testing it out cold with very little thought and getting a huge laugh. But any time on stage is the best part, along with writing new jokes. Standing on stage, almost eager for the laughter to die down, so I can get onto the next joke, and of course realizing the laughter is why I’m there.

The business side is not always so much fun. Some potential clients think that because they saw a movie once they’re show-biz experts and know more than I do about putting a show together, or what it should entail. Also people wanting to tell me jokes, saying “I have this joke you can use.” Every comic hates that –we write our own jokes, we don’t tell old jokes that you heard somewhere that we not only heard 20 years ago, we don’t think it’s that funny.

Advice

Words of wisdom
You have to get better to realize how good you’re not. When you start out, you think you’re funny, but as you improve you realize you’re funnier than you were but not nearly as good as you thought you were. And to work on your weaknesses, not your strengths. If you’re a good writer work on stage performance. If you’re good at performing, work on writing.

Classes are a good idea
Comics will say “You can’t teach funny,” but what you can teach (or learn) are techniques for writing jokes, how to get better on stage, and a bunch of mistakes not to make. Always better to learn by hearing rather than making the mistake yourself. Especially if it’s how not to hit yourself in the face when you pull a stuck mic from the stand. Plus, in a class there are other students that can form a cohesive group to work together and support each other.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Stand-up Comedian?


Once more we come across an art career that does not have a definitive education path. To become a stand-up comedian you really don’t need any particular type of education. You could even not go to college at all and become very successful in the career.

This being said, most comedians and industry specialists will recommend taking at least a comedy class. Comedy clubs and colleges both offer classes in a variety of comedy-related topics, such as improv, writing jokes, stage presence, and generic acting classes. Participating in one of these could help you develop skills and build on talent you already have, meet other comics to start networking, and of course, give you more confidence.

You also have the option of studying whatever you want, be it business, sciences, history, or art. This has two benefits. First of all, breaking into the business of stand-up comedy doesn’t usually happen overnight, so you’ll be able to get a day job for the first few years and have a steady income. On the the other hand, learning something, anything, will give you a better insight into the world and you may get more material for your jokes.

Finally, you can study acting. This is a great alternative, since it’ll give you the skills you’ll need on stage and in writing, introduce you to the arts world within your community, and help you build a network. Meanwhile, you’ll get the college experience, if that’s something that you’d like to do, and you’ll have a degree upon graduation, which can come in handy in case your career doesn’t take off as quickly as you’d like.

SOME TOP OPTIONS FOR ACTING DEGREES IN THE US

The following are some of the best recognized acting schools in the U.S., but remember that there are many more options, such as community colleges and in-state universities, especially if you are not looking to specifically pursue acting as a career.

  • Yale School of Drama
    This prestigious school is focused on graduate level studies in a variety of drama-related specializations. While they only offer master’s and doctorate level studies, you also have the option of completing a 3-year program for a Certificate of Drama, without having previous undergraduate studies completed. Current tuition is $27,250 per year.
  • The Juilliard School
    Another immensely recognized performing arts school, Juilliard, offers BFA, MFA, and diploma level studies in acting. The school has an interesting approach, by mixing undergrads and post-graduate students within their drama classes, while also teaching social context and writing. Tuition is $38,190 per year.
  • Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama
    Located in Pittsburgh, CMU offers BFAs in acting and musical theatre. Both programs are four years and have the option of obtaining interdisciplinary education with other courses offered at the university. Theatre students learn speech, movement, stage presence, and writing as part of the curriculum. Tuition is $48,030 per year.
  • Tisch School of the Arts
    Part of the New York University, the Tisch School of the Arts offers drama and performance studies programs for undergraduate students. Besides the obvious advantage in location, Tisch also has open non-credit courses, which could be beneficial for those not looking to complete a degree. Tuition here stands at $24,136 per year.
  • University of North Carolina School of the Arts
    UNCSA, located in Winston-Salem, offers classical training to its drama students, focusing on technical aspects of acting more than anything. For in-state students tuition is much lower than at the other schools, currently standing at $8,363, while out-of-state undergrads pay $23,847 per year.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

There is a lot of advice out there on how to begin your career as a stand-up comedian. What everyone agrees on, however, is that it’s not usually an overnight transformation but takes lots of stage time and perseverance.

First of all, you need to create your repertoire and have a script with jokes ready for a performance. The next step is to begin performing. It might be scary at first, you may be afraid of not getting many laughs (or worse, not get any), but this is the learning experience that you will need, whether you’ve taken courses in comedy and acting or not.

Most experts say that getting that stage time is the single most important thing you can do to become the best version of a comedian you can be. You will be able to test your jokes and network simultaneously. One of the best ways to start out is through open mics. Not only will you get the practice, you will also have the chance to see other comedians and learn from them.

How quickly you’ll be able to land paid gigs really depends on how good you are as a comic, but more than that, it depends on your networking skills and a little bit on luck. You need to meet people at any open mic or comedian gathering you go to. This is the circle that is already interested in comedy, and there might be people who can give you work.

Another recommendation that our experts have made is having a website once you have some experience and testimonials to show. If you come up in a Google search, it is possible that you can get gigs that way as well.

Before you even begin though, decide whether you are pursuing comedy as a full-time job or if you’d like to practice it on the side. Either one could be a great choice, but you need to know which one is right for you and aspire towards that.