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 want to help!
My name is Brian Crall, manager and founder of the Sacramento Comedy Spot, as well as the Sacramento Stand-Up Competition, and Sacramento Comedy Festival. I have created and performed in countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows since 2001, including Fresh 5, The Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, The Friday Show, and Anti-Cooperation League. I also teach improv and sketch comedy classes.
I created this list of seven steps to get you started on your journey to becoming a stand-up 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.
Getting good at telling jokes is difficult. It takes a lot of work and you don’t make a lot (any) money at first. If you think you are going to get on stage the first time, get noticed by an agent, and be famous over night- well, that’s not the way it works. You have to love comedy and the process of trying to be a better comedian if you are going to have any success.
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 (Or Don’t)
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 an in-person Stand-Up 101 class every month, as well as an online Stand-Up 101 class. 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. And again, you don’t have to take a class, you can figure this out on your own. Some people need to ease their way. Some people just dive in. Either way is perfect.
Step Three: WATCH an Open Mic
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,” go back to Google and search for a comedy open mic in your city. Some cities have more open mics than others, but I am sure you will be able to find one. Start by going to WATCH an open mic. I would suggest that you don’t perform the first time you go to an open mic and don’t invite your friends- unless you want your friends to watch you each shit. Watch other performers first. After the show go home and write down your thoughts. In your opinion, what worked? What didn’t? What did you like? What didn’t you like?
Sacramento Comedy Spot has an open mic two nights a week, on Sundays at 7:00PM and Mondays at 8:00PM.
DO NOT TAKE NOTES DURING THE SHOW WHILE IN THE AUDIENCE. THAT’S WEIRD.
While you are at the open mic, ask other comedians or the host how you sign-up to perform and how much time you are allowed. Write that information down in your notebook for future reference.
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 OR SEXIST.
BE SMART. BE HONEST.
Step Four: Begin Writing and Rehearsing
This is the hardest part. Writing, re-writing, and performing 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.
Watch a wide variety of comedians. Become a student of comedy.
People laugh at something 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 jokes, it is time to rehearse. Go someplace private, pretend you have a mic, and tell your jokes to your “audience.” Yeah, I get it, this is stupid, but part of being successful on stage is confidence. A little practice holding a mic and saying your jokes out loud can help you be more comfortable and confident on stage. Keep adding material, 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.
DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE.
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 or someone will be in charge of signing people up to perform
- Each venue decides who performs in different ways; sometimes its a lottery, other times its first come first serve.
- 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. Ask the person in charge where the light is located.
- You don’t have to use all your time. If you only have 3 minutes and the time limit is 5 minutes, just do 3 minutes. Just end your set by saying something like, “That’s my time, thank you, have a good night.”
- Don’t go over your time, it is disrespectful to the host, venue, and other comedians. You don’t want to get a bad reputation.
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. 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.
AVOID RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER COMEDIANS. (You won’t listen.)
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 not honestly 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 because you did not connect with the audience. There are bad audiences, like people who talk during your entire set, but if your first inclination is to always blame the audience for a bad performance then you are not taking taking responsibility for your material. Keep working on your jokes. Have a friend shoot a video so that you can watch your performance later. Each performance will give you a better idea if a joke is working. 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. I told him the joke was crude for the sake of being crude, and not funny. He never dropped or changed that joke. I never booked him for a show.
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 performing. 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.
Make sure you have some balance in your life. I see a lot of new comedians attend every single open mic, every night of the week, at every venue possible. I applaud your dedication, but you need some down time. Take a break. Hang out with real people sometimes instead of all your comedy buddies. You will progress faster if you give your brain some down time.
These are the first seven steps, out of hundreds, if you want to become a comedian. They will get you moving in the right direction and hopefully save you some time and money. Okay…Break a leg, stop reading this article, google open mic, buy yourself a notebook and Jump in!