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How to Do Stand up Comedy
Be Funny for Money!
A Little Background
I grew up as a geeky kid, out of place, small and the only way I avoided getting beaten up was by being funny; it usually worked. I wanted to be like the guys I saw on TV - easy going, always funny, admired by everyone - girls wanted to take them home - men wanted to hang out with them- Popular3! The only problem was, I was shy, painfully shy, almost afraid to look in the mirror shy. But, after graduating high school, I went into the service and all of those new faces and personalities didn't want to beat me up, they thought was funny...! Hot Damn - I'm FUNNY! So I went to the Improv comedy club in NYC. It was a slow night and I wanted to find out how to be a comedian more than anything. There was one old comic named "Uncle Dirty" that all the other comics came to for advice -Joe Piscapo, Rick Overton and a writer from Saturday Night Live. Getting up the nerve - and it took a lot of nerve- I went up to this big guy with a wide brimmed hat and in a stammering voice asked him "S'cuse me...how do you become a stand up comedian?" He looked at me as if I was from Mars, but he said, "Kid, It's a great life", pointing to an album cover of his on the wall of the club, next to his picture he continued, "See that kid? Those were the days of Fast Cars, Loose Women and Cocaine!" I stuttered out a "Wow" and he went on. "The way you do it is, you take five minutes of material that you think is funny, then you get on stage and find out it isn't funny and then you work it until it is; and then you add to it!" That one 'run-on' sentence changed my life! I later found out that he meant that even though you, or I, have been funny around our friends and families, this was different because the audience doesn't know your aunt Mimie or your buddy who can swallow cigarettes when he's drunk. You have to come up with some common ground with a room full of strangers, get inside their heads and make them laugh. You have to invent a world that the audience can buy into. The audience, by the way, that paid good money to be sitting there when you hit the stage. the audience wants to laugh, they need to laugh, just give them half a reason and they'll give you more love and appreciation than you could ever imagine.
Get On The Stage
Like most beginners, I had read a lot of books, seen tons of comedy shows, made up episodes of me being on the "Tonight Show" and killing the audience. Real life was a little different. I followed Uncle Dirty's zen like advice and put together my first five minute bit. Then, I went and signed up at "The Comic Strip." I had to sign up on Wednesday morning for a five minute slot on Saturday night. From the moment I left the sign up, I felt weak, nauseous, terrified. I couldn't eat, I walked around in a fog and I was even more afraid then when I went skydiving two years before (that will be another hub). I got to the club, almost threw up. Some radio promoter in the crowd thought I was a headliner and she wanted me to introduce the Disco legend DJ "Paco", so I fumbled something or other about him when I got up on stage. I forgot half of the stuff I was going to talk about, I came up with a line or two. The night came, the night went, I don't remember what I said that night, but Uncle Dirty was right; I wasn't funny! I did get a couple of sympathy laughs and just like with sympathy sex, I enjoyed what was given. Actually, I really got bitten by the bug. I signed up again and again at club after club until my five minutes was F-U-N-N-Y! After the first months of flop sweat, fear and trembling, I did it enough to where it didn't hurt to be up there anymore. I could do my act in my sleep. Perform for two people or 50, it didn't matter, I got my part down; now it was up to the audience to do their part. I took the first five minutes and followed Dirty's advice. I built on it. That's what you'll need to do as well. Get up there so many times that you're not afraid of it and be sure, be ABSOLUTELY SURE to record everything that you do! Video's better than just audio, most clubs have hookups you can plug into. Some will burn you a copy, etc. But, Keep it all in the early days. Not everything is going to work, but it's good to be able to look at and listen to yourself so much that you get over yourself and start working on the important stuff - entertaining. One acting coach I had (Larry Menkin, author of the Magic ABC's of Acting) told me (us) to go out on stage before the audience got there; walk around and see how far the mike cord goes, is there anywhere to trip? Any props you can use? How far away are the seats? He called it "building disdain for the stage." This way, when you get out there, even if it's only for three to five minutes, you know where you're at. Now you just have to concentrate on entertaining the audience. Video is also important for self critique.
Work It Until It's Funny
There are tons of books, articles, hubs on techniques, strategies and theories. Watch out for theories and theoretical teachers, they can kill a budding career! It's just like skydiving; study and read all you want, eventually you have to get out of the plane! Luckily, in a plane, "No!" sounds just like "Go!" so usually everyone gets to go skydiving. Constantly review your act and after a year or two (or more) you should be bringing more of "You" into the performance. Sometimes it will be the same jokes and lines, but with so much more soul or edge or a slightly different perspective that you'll get so much more out of almost the same exact words. Feedback from friends and family is good too, and others can see things that you might be missing. Getting a support group is a two edged sword. Some guys will help you, give you tips and tricks of the trade and others will try to bring you down, steal your stuff and climb over you to the top. I hooked up with some other guys who were about on my level and we started getting gigs for ourselves. We rented our own clubs, did comedy in bowling alleys, did emcee work for civic groups, handed out flyers to stores and put them on cars - ANYTHING to stay in front of the audience. One of the guys, Sam Guttman, was playing a gig in someone's house! He said he was there leaning on the mantle of the fireplace doing his bit for about seven people. He was headlining in Vegas last I heard. Since then I've opened for Pat Paulsen, Robin Williams and Ellen DeGeneres, been on TV and got a radio career using that same strategy. I may seem over-simplified, but it's the truth and there's no other way. Think of it this way. If you want to be a lion tamer, you can read all of the books and watch all of the videos you want, but eventually, you have to open the cage and get in with the freaking lion.
Comedy Character "Types"
I use the terms comedians and comics interchangeably, even though someone said that "Comedians say funny things, comics say things funny."There are many kinds of comedians: Jewish (Jon Stewart), Prop Comics (Gallagher or Carrot top) Vulgar comics (Andrew Dice Clay or Katt Stevens), Down home (Foxworthy or George Wallace) and edgy (Ron White or Carlos Mencia). Then there's ventriloquists (Jeff Dunham is outrageous), story tellers (Bill Cosby), angry white guy (Lewis Black), Really angry white guy (Sam Kinison) Angry black man (Chris Rock-awesome), crazy S.O.B. (Bobcat Goldthwait), outright lunatics (Andy Kaufman) and dozens of other fringe types; many comics meld different styles together. After a few years when you've established that you're funny enough, and crazy enough to continue, you'll come to the point where you start working on your "Voice" It makes it easier on the audience if they can describe you with a short sentence about you ("He does everybody's voices), or catch phrase (Gitter Done). if you think of the comedians above, you should be able to come up with your own short synopsis of how you see them. Many young comics don't want to limit themselves in this way, saying "I can do any kind of comedy, I don't want to pigeon hole myself!" or words to that effect . The thing is that a readily identifiable character gives the audience something to grab on to and gives you a structure to work from. It's actually a freeing thing. It comes down to finding your voice. Do you want to do Dennis Miller style rants? Drunk ramblings like Foster Brooks, or can you imitate the entire cast of the Simpsons? Once you're got a good solid base to work from, you can only get better with age.
A Little History
All modern comics owe their livings to Pioneers like Lenny Bruce, Pat Paulsen, Professor Irwin Cory, Lord Buckley and even writers like Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson. Since the 1950's or so, comedy has gone from baggy pants comics telling "jokes" to human beings giving you their particular view of the world and hopefully making you piss your pants laughing in the mean time. That's not to say that joke tellers can't be successful (Larry the Cable Guy) but most of the great comics today show you who they are, they share intimate (sometimes too intimate) insights into their lives and it's a phenomenal way for humans to connect. Laughter relieves stress, helps us live longer and also helps us not take ourselves too damn seriously.
Steve Martin wrote a book called "Born Standing Up" I highly recommend you read it. Even if you only see it in a book store, peruse the first pages. He talks about his first 18 years in the business. It works out to four years learning, four years refining and four years of wild success. Your actual mileage may vary.
Let's be real, not everyone can be a successful, or even funny, stand up comedian. I've seen dozens and dozens of self-deluded hacks who go out on stage and annoy the audience. If you're funny, it's OK to be a "hobby comic" who hangs out at the night club rather than the Elks lodge, but, if you truly, actually, really aren't funny, just go to watch and laugh!
So, here's what to do kid...follow Uncle Dirty's advice and get on the stage -It'll be the ride of your life.....Eddie