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.

  • Why do different people have different responses to jokes?
  • How important is surprise to the art of crafting a joke?
  • Why is it important that I be comfortable working on my own as a comedian?
  • In what ways do comedians do "more" than tell jokes?
  • How important is honesty and language in comedy?
  • Can I use props in my career as a comedian?


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.

  • Why is a certain level of fearlessness necessary to be a comedian?
  • How is comedy different from other art forms in terms of subjectivity?
  • When a comedian is universally hailed as great, why has he or she appealed to so many people?
  • What else can I learn in college that is beneficial to my career?
  • What are resources that you can use to study different styles of comedy?
  • What makes one style of comedy different from the next?


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.

  • What is the difference between comedy and other arts professions?
  • How is a comedy "portfolio" different from something like a graphic design portfolio?
  • How does that portfolio begin and how is it eventually developed?
  • How important are open mic night opportunities?
  • What is an improv comedy troupe?
  • What are road gigs?

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