Lately after shows I’ve had a few people come up to me after doing a set somewhere and they ask me, “how do I start doing standup comedy?” This is stupid, because I am a bad person to ask. I am a comedy nobody. If you looked up “comedy nobody” in the dictionary, there would be a picture of somebody else, and I’d be on a comedy message board somewhere asking, “who books that?”
But, fine. I do standup. I’ve done it a while. I occasionally get paid small amounts of money to do it at cool places. So here’s what little I know for sure about how to do standup comedy.
1. Find an open mic. If you live in a decent-sized city, look for a comedy group on Facebook based in your town. This will be a page that local comedians go to so they can call each other names, accuse each other of being racist and also to post information about shows. Find an open mic at a place that sounds good to you, go there about an hour before the open mic starts, put your name on the list and sit and wait. You will get to hear lots of other open mikers talk about wieners, eating butt, doing drugs and all about how their lives are crazy because they do standup comedy. Only open mikers talk about this. After listening to all this, you may want to walk out before going up and return back to your totally fine life that was going just great before you had this stupid idea. If that is the case, good for you.
2. Write jokes. You’d think this would be first, but for most comedy newbies it comes, like, sixth or seventh, so putting it second is still pretty good. Get a notebook, and when you have great ideas about wieners, eating butt or how late 19th-Century ennui and economic distress led to a political climate in Europe that would eventually explode into two World Wars, write it in the notebook. Try and create a joke structure in which you introduce a premise, then you say funny things about that premise. This seems like you shouldn’t have to say this, but I totally have to say this.
3. Record your set. If you have a smartphone there is most likely already an app that you can use to record audio of your set. After you have done standup the first time you will get offstage feeling an amazing adrenaline burst and will be filled with excitement about your accomplishment and life’s possibilities as a whole. Listening back to your set will get rid of all of that and help you remember that most of life is a crushing disappointment where you say “ummm…” a lot.
4. After you’ve done it once, keep doing it. Find more open mics and keep going to those. Go to as many as you can, night after night. Your friends will stop hanging out with you because all you talk about is comedy. Your performance at work will suffer because all you think about is comedy. After a few months you will finally write a joke that reliably gets laughs every time you do it and you will feel like you’re figuring comedy out. If you have a girlfriend or boyfriend, they will get really tired of your comedy bullshit and pressure you to stop it, then probably break up with you. Your friends will say things like, “when’s your next show?” and then never come, then they will just stop asking. Soon you will realize that you are spending most of your free time hanging out at open mics, then you will start hanging out more at smaller booked showcases where people get to do slightly longer sets but still for free. You will be making no money at comedy whatsoever but love it more than anything you’ve ever done that made you money. Your life will slowly crumble apart as you allow all the other important things to succumb to your never-ending desire to get better, to write better jokes, to grow as a comedian and perform on bigger and better stages. One day somebody after a show will hand you $10 for doing the show and it will be the most satisfying $10 you ever made, until you remember that you spent $13 in gas, $4 in bridge tolls and $6 in Diet Cokes at the show. But in your heart, you are “doing it.” You are living your dream. You are a comedian.
5. Start going to your nearest comedy club and hanging out. Sit in the back and watch other comedians perform. Talk to the comedians and ask where they perform. You may be introduced to the person who handles booking at the club, and if you tell them you are a comedian their eyes will immediately go dead. Chances are, they are a perfectly nice person, they have just met a hundred million people just like you before meeting you, all of them greedy, hungry and desperate to get paid to perform at the club. Avoid getting drunk and don’t even bother saying you want to perform at the club. They know. Believe me, they know. If you’re lucky they’ll let you start hanging out at shows for free. Be polite, learn the names of the staff and stay out of the way. Don’t poop in the green room bathroom. Every time you think it would be good if you said something, don’t. Just wait. No. Stop. Shut up. Wait.
6. Make t-shirts that say something like “FART!” on the front and sell them after shows. People love that crap.
There. That’s all I know about doing standup. Please note: if this helps you become a comedy superstar, please keep me in mind when you need writers for your Comedy Central show, “Buztin’ Nutz” or if you need to bring an opener with you to stadium shows who is mostly there to make you stop doing cocaine just before your heart explodes. I’m big and can probably handle you, even when you’re coked-up. Good luck!
I started recording myself immediately but couldn’t stand to listen for about a year. It turns out I say “Umm…” a lot. It was devastating.
Carrying around a physical notebook is the biggest key to comedy or writing in general. People ask where I get ideas. Your brain isn’t going to alert you to ideas if you have no conscious interest in keeping track of them.