So, you want to become a comedian? Your friends have told you that you are funny. You watch a ton of stand-up comedians on television. You finally made your decision to start doing stand-up comedy, but you have no idea how to get started. I am here to help!
My name is Brian Crall, founder of the Sacramento Comedy Spot, as well as the Sac Improv Marathon, Stand-Up Competition, and Sacramento Comedy Festival. I have created and performed in several improv, sketch and stand-up shows since 2001, including Fresh 5, The Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, The Friday Show, and Anti-Cooperation League. I teach multiple improv and sketch comedy classes, and am President of the Sacramento Comedy Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit corporation. The foundation’s goal is to attract people to Sacramento and to bring happiness to everyone, from kids to adults, through comedy education, shows, and special events.
I created a checklist of seven steps to get you started on your journey to becoming a paid comedian. This article will set you in the right direction, helping you avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes that new comedians experience when getting started.
JUST BECAUSE YOUR FRIENDS SAY YOU ARE FUNNY, IT DOESN’T MEAN YOU ARE A STAND-UP COMEDIAN.
Before we get started, you have to know that this, like anything else you want to be good at, is going to take time and practice.
Step One: Get a Notebook
Buy yourself a notebook. Start to write down everything that makes you laugh and why. You can also use this notebook to write down observations from watching other comedians and comedy shows. Learn from YOUR mistakes as well as the mistakes of other comedians.
Step Two: Take a Class (Optional)
This step is totally optional. Everything taught in a class can be learned by getting on stage numerous times and figuring it out for yourself. But, if you take a class, you will progress faster, learn from the instructor’s mistakes, and get valuable feedback. At this stage, it is always good to have some guidance on what is or is not working. The Comedy Spot offers a Stand-up 101 Class every month. This class will teach you how to write, edit, and perform the minimum 4-7 minutes of material needed to function at the open mic level.
Step Three: WATCH Open Mics
An open mic is a stand-up comedy show for beginners and veteran comedians to work on material. You probably found this article by Googling “How do I become a comedian,” so let’s go back to Google to find you an open mic to attend. Type “comedy open mic [your city]” and scroll away. Some cities have more open mics than others, and you may have to travel a little to get to them, but I am sure you will be able to find one. Go WATCH a couple open mics. If your city has them at a couple different locations, then I would make the rounds.
Sacramento Comedy Spot has an open mic two nights a week, on Sundays and Mondays at 8:00PM. Comedian sign-ups are at 7:30PM.
The title of this step is “WATCH Open Mics”. Don’t perform at these open mics—just go and watch other comedians. After the show, write down your thoughts. What worked? What didn’t?
DO NOT TAKE NOTES DURING THE SHOW WHILE IN THE AUDIENCE.
While you are at the open mic, ask how comedians sign up to perform, who is in charge, and how much time you are allowed. Write that information down in your notebook for future reference.
Make sure you watch a COMEDY open mic, not an open mic that combines stand-up with poetry and music. This is not what you need. You want to be at a place that supports comedy, and most of the people you want to meet in the comedy community are not at these combined open mics.
At the end of the open mic, walk over to the host and introduce yourself. Keep it short and sincere. “Hi, my name is Brian. I am interested in doing stand-up. so I came tonight just to check things out and introduce myself. Thank you for the show.” And then leave! Be nice and professional from the beginning. Don’t linger.
NEVER STEAL SOMEONE’S JOKE. IF YOUR JOKE IS TOO SIMILAR, STOP DOING THAT JOKE.
DON’T BE RACIST, SEXIST, OR TRY TO SHOCK PEOPLE. BE FUNNY. BE SMART.
Step Four: Begin Writing and Rehearsing (Required)
This is the hardest part. Writing, re-writing, and rehearsing take a lot of work and discipline.
Start off by writing down everything that makes you laugh. Watch and study all types of successful comedians and examine how they are able to make people laugh. Every comedian has their own style and voice. Over time, you will develop yours. Some comedians are storytellers, some are “set-up-and-punch” comedians, some use props, some are loud, some are soft-spoken, some are smooth, and some are in your face.
Watch a wide variety of comedians. Will you be a “set-up-and-punch” comedian, like Rodney Dangerfield? “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” Or, will you be a storyteller and comment on the human experience, like Dave Chappelle?
People laugh when they hear or see something that is out of the ordinary, unusual, or out of place. People also laugh when they hear a unique perspective for the first time. Comedians get laughs by establishing a reality (setup) and then saying or doing something that breaks from that reality (punchline / the funny).
After you write your joke, it is time to rehearse. Go someplace private, pretend you have a mic, and tell your joke to your “audience.” Is it easy to tell the joke? Does it still seem funny out loud?
Keep repeating this process and add one joke at a time. Once you have 3-4 minutes of jokes (your set), it is time to move on to the next step.
ALWAYS BE KIND AND COURTEOUS TO EVERYONE, INCLUDING HOSTS, OWNERS, STAFF, AND OTHER COMEDIANS.
Step Five: Perform at an Open Mic
You might have to go to a couple open mics before you decide on a venue that seems welcoming and supportive. Every open mic has rules. Follow the rules. Even though there are different rules at each venue, there are a couple things you can always count on:
- There will be a host
- Someone will be in charge of signing people up to perform (each venue decides who performs in different ways)
- You will be allowed a set amount of time to perform (usually 3-5 minutes)
- You will be signaled, usually with a light, when your time is about to expire
The Comedy Spot’s Open Mic page is a good example of a venue outlining what comedians and audience members should expect when they are performing in, or attending, an open mic.
After the show, thank the host for giving you time. Be nice to the bartender and the other staff. Buy them a beer, or water, or something. Be respectful to the other comedians. Someone always performs first and someone always performs last. Be grateful for whatever time you get.
EVALUATE YOURSELF AFTER EACH SHOW. BE HONEST.
YOU ARE GOING TO FAIL.
EVERY TIME YOU FAIL, YOU LEARN.
NEVER BLAME THE AUDIENCE.
DON’T SLEEP WITH OTHER COMEDIANS. VIEW THEM AS CO-WORKERS.
Step Six: Evaluate Your Performance. Be Honest.
Your are going to bomb (suck/fail). It is part of doing comedy. Even after you have been performing for a while, you are going to bomb. You have to recognize when you bomb, so you can learn from it. If you can’t self-evaluate, you are never going to make it in comedy. You have to be honest when you suck. Why did you suck? What can you do next time to avoid sucking? Write it down. Learn.
When people laugh, a joke is funny. If they aren’t laughing, it’s not because “the audience doesn’t get it.” It’s because you are sucking. You need to work on that joke. And don’t get me wrong; one night a joke will kill (is hilarious), and the next time it will bomb. You have to keep telling your jokes so you will have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. If a joke continually doesn’t work, it is time to get rid of that joke. I knew a guy that did the same terrible joke for three years. It never got a laugh, just uncomfortable groans. He never dropped or changed that joke. I never booked him for a show. I did tell him the joke was crude, for the sake of being crude, and not funny.
Step Seven: Repeat Steps Five and Six
To get to the point where you can get some paid gigs, you need to have about 15 minutes of solid material. To get to 15 minutes, you will have to attend a lot of open mics and do a lot of writing and rehearsing. I see many new comedians attend every open mic, every week, at every venue. It is good to make connections in the community, but if you are doing more socializing than learning, it will take you longer to get to 15 minutes. Spend more time writing and rehearsing at home. Try new material and refine old material for each open mic. You will start to get invited to do showcases when you have a solid 5-10 minutes. There are a lot of “new talent” and “fresh faces of comedy” showcases in cities with larger comedy communities. You won’t get paid for these shows, but you will have a chance to put your best material together into one set. Never try new material at a showcase.
These are the first seven steps, out of hundreds, to enact, if you want to become a paid comedian. They will get you moving in the right direction and hopefully save you some time and money. Future articles will discuss aspects of the business side, and they will be linked here.
Okay…Break a leg! Stop reading this article, and go buy yourself a notebook!