So you have decided you want to spend the next decade of your life feeling over-worked, under-appreciated, and beside yourself. You have such a burning desire to do comedy that you can think of little else, and are willing to risk your emotional, financial, and physical well-being to do so. You are truly excited by the idea that maybe if you work really hard, every night for the next few years, someone may offer you the opportunity to drive six hours to earn $50 performing at a bar where no one is listening.
No? Then you do not actually want to be a comedian.
But if you answered yes to all of that, then you do. And you’re already talking to yourself, so that’s a great start.
The first thing you need to learn is where you are going to perform your first set. Every comedy club has a new talent process – so call your local club and find out what theirs is. Don’t have a local club? That’s because you’re probably a liar. There are very few places in the English speaking world that aren’t within a half hour of SOME comedy. Google “comedy” and your city’s name and you’ll find your options.
There are three main types of new talent nights:
1) Open mics. This is the most common. This is when ANYONE (and I mean anyone) can get on a show and perform. Each one has different rules: some draw names out of a hat, some have you sign up weeks in advance, some cost $5, some less popular ones just allow you to walk in. But make sure you know the rules ahead of time. Typically the better the open mic, the harder it is to get on. BadSlava.com is a great resource to find local open mics.
2) Bringers. This is a vile practice that I do not recommend to anyone. These shows force you to bring friends in order to get a spot on a lineup filled with other aspiring comedians. Your friends pay $10-$15 to see you on a bad show and then they never want to come see you again. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
3) Barking. This is how I started, but it’s usually limited to cities with walking traffic (NYC, Boston, London, etc). You spend a few hours outside the venue passing out flyers and trying to get people to come to the show in exchange for a few minutes of stage time. I liked this method because it allowed me to work for my stage time and get on shows with real crowds, but not every city has this option. The easiest way to find out if a club uses barkers is to see someone barking. Ask them how you can help.
Now that you know where you’ll be performing, it’s time to think about WHAT you’ll be performing. Your first set will likely be three to five minutes, but you should write at least three times that amount of material. And then use your best material. Most of what you write will not be very funny because that is true about every comedian who has ever existed. Don’t sweat it – just write a bunch and use the best stuff you have.
Memorize your jokes, but you don’t need to know them word for word. You need to know the key points. Why is this funny? What are the pieces I have to hit? What comes after this? I’ll write a separate post about memorization tricks in the future, but I recommend thinking of your jokes in chunks.
Okay! Now it’s time to tell all your friends, right? NO! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NO! It’s great to feel supported, but would you have your friends come and sit in the back on your first day of grad school? No, you’d be an adult and just go do it. It’s good to share your dreams with your inner circle, but bragging on social media that you are going to try stand-up is a silly, silly thing to do. Save the promotion good will for when you need it.
No one is good at stand-up when they first start. No one ever. Do not think you will be the exception to that rule. I had a decent first set, and then an eh second set and then a third set that shall not be named. Your job that first time is not actually to be funny – it’s to get comfortable enough on stage that maybe one day in the distant future, you will be funny. If you get any laughs, hey, bonus. You’re just learning how to drive. You will learn how to race much later.
I recommend you film your first set. Not to show anyone – please, not to show anyone. But to have for yourself. The more you film your sets, the more you can see what to improve upon, and the more you can look back at your progress.
Congratulations! You’ve now done your first set. Now, do a thousand more and you may have a chance of becoming a professional comedian. Good luck out there, and welcome to addiction.