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Getting Started in Comedy

You've always been funny. You enjoy making people laugh and you'd love to take comedy to the next level in your life and make it a career. You understand that comedy is more than having a good sense of humor – it requires perseverance, long hours, good writing skills, and curiosity about the world. Well, becoming a stand-up comedian might just be the right path for you.

Comedians have been around for almost as long as society itself – in the "old days," they were called court jesters. Standup comedy is an art form of expression because it is often born out of a single person. Unlike film or television, or even music production, which are all ultimately collaborative mediums, comedians are typically on their own 100% of the time.

On the surface, you may think that a comedian tells jokes. While this is true, what they really do is surprise people. Something is funny precisely because it is so surprising – this is true of most of the best jokes you've heard during your life. The operative word in the term "punchline" is "punch" – at the end of a joke you're being hit in the face with something you didn't see coming, which is where laughter comes from in the first place. 

Comedians are nothing if not masters of language. Putting an emphasis on one word over another or even just pronouncing a word in a unique way can completely change the meaning and impact of a joke, which makes language perhaps the most important weapon in the comedian's arsenal. 

The second most important weapon for all comedians is, by far, honesty. People like comedians because they offer a unique point of view and often, that point of view comes from within. Comedians are totally honest in their material for better or worse, which is another skill that must be crafted. 

As one of the more unique creative professions, comedians are essentially on there own. Outside of an audience and a microphone, there are no real tools that you need to do this job. You simply need to be able to take an idea and convey it in a funny way, which itself requires you to understand WHY something is funny in the first place. You will often work in comedy clubs and other public places in front of large groups of people, which will require you to be very comfortable on stage. In comedy, you're not really collaborating with anyone outside of your own brain so you need to be comfortable working on your own.

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Study, Learn, and Practice

You don't need to attend college or earn your bachelor's degree to become a comedian. But, it doesn't hurt either, and may actually be money and time well-spent. Honing your skills on classmates and gaining critique from professors is invaluable. Critiques challenge you to learn and sharpen your skills, and a network of friends and collaborators can stimulate your creative juices to think beyond what you already know. Improv acting classes offered by some colleges provide students with opportunities to become less rigid and more liberated on stage, and to get over stage fright.

Although there is no specific degree for comedians, non-credit classes can also provide you training in comedic styles and writing jokes. You may even be able to find courses that teach you skills to navigate the audition process and how to book performances.

One of the many ways in which comedy is a unique art profession is because it may be the most subjective of them all. You can tell the same joke to 100 different people and they all may have 100 different opinions about why it is funny, or if they think it is funny at all. The key to success involves learning why people laugh at things, and then use those ideas to your advantage when telling a joke or crafting a story. Thankfully, there are thousands of hours of comedic performances that you can study to better understand aspects of comedy, like comedic style, delivery, timing, and subject matter. Who would have thought that watching a comedy special could be homework for someone studying to be a comic?

As you embark on a carere in comedy, keep in mind the old saying that true comedy is born out of failure. In comedy, you will fail. There is no getting around it and it is something that will happen a lot. If you get up on stage for ten minutes and tell ten jokes, you could in theory fail ten separate times before you get off stage again. Understand that this is part of the job and if you're uncomfortable with this idea, trying to become a comedian is absolutely not something that you should explore. Remember too there may be hecklers in the audience. Learning how to ignore or deal with them in a funny way is paramount to keeping the audience engaged and not getting agitated on stage.

Rest assured that every comedian you have ever admired has failed before and they will fail again. The reason why they're a professional is because they're not afraid to do so. They don't let failure stop them from pursuing a career in comedy, and neither can you if you want to be successful in this unpredictable field.

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Hone Your Craft By Performing

The Only Way to Learn is By Doing

Becoming a comedian in the traditional "stand-up comedy" sense is something of a unique situation in terms of creative professions. By and large, there are no "comedy schools" that you can go to in order to pick up a degree like there are graphic design schools, film schools, and more. While this is true of all of the arts, comedy is something that you absolutely learn by doing.

Luckily, there are comedy clubs in most major cities in America that are desperate for hours of programming seven days a week. Many of these clubs have "open mic nights," often multiple times a week, where amateurs are invited to get up on stage and tell jokes to a paying audience. This is, by far, the best way to learn, hone and cultivate your craft. 

These open mic nights are often unpaid opportunities, but they're also exceptional in terms of not only getting you the experience you need but also building your "portfolio" (the jokes that you tell, also called a "set") and your personal brand. You can hone your on-stage persona in front of a live audience, getting immediate feedback and learning what does and what does not work in real time. You can also make a mental note of which jokes are successful and which ones aren't, throwing out the ones that aren't and building upon the proven material. Little by little, this is how a comedian is born. 

If a comedy club owners likes you, they may offer you paid opportunities. Once you graduate to this status, you will continue to develop your act and hone your persona until eventually you're given the opportunity for higher paying jobs. If word begins to spread about your act, you may also be able to obtain "road gigs" in other cities, requiring a certain degree of travel that will almost always be unpaid. If you have a particularly good set in front of the right room of people, however, there's no telling what doors may unlock – especially if that single right industry connection is in the audience. 

Remember to check out and join a local improv comedy troupe, which will put you in a setting with other like-minded individuals with the same goal in an environment where you're required to think on your feet. Not only will this continue to develop your craft, but it will also make it much easier to come up with material.

Get to Know Our Experts

Adam Ruben

  • Title:
    Stand-up Comedian
  • Company:
    Self-Employed Comedian
  • Where:
    Washington, DC
  • Experience:
    13 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Stand-up Comedian
  • Company:
    Self-Employed Comedian
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Liberty Comedy Corp. and The Ivy League of Comedy
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    21 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Comedian Infographic