On March 6, 2011, I stood up at the Orlando Improv, in front of an audience of around 150 people, absolutely terrified, and did my very first stand-up routine (with the exception of a few open mics before that night). I practiced and practiced for hours before a mirror, working on timing and delivery. It was an amazing night, due in part to the fact that the Improv is one of the best places for a new comic to make his entry into that world – a great environment, a highly receptive audience, and a professional, comfortable venue.
This Tuesday will be my one-year anniversary doing stand-up comedy. And almost a year later to the day, I am at the Orlando Improv again. However, this time, I’m there as the emcee for all six shows this weekend with headliner Bobby Slayton. In the last year, I have developed my material and edited and revised it. I have a fantastic, almost perfect five-minute set, a good ten-minute set, and an okay twenty minutes. I’m constantly working on revising and tweaking my existing material to incorporate new bits. It is a process that will never end, and I love it.
A year is nothing in the world of stand-up, but that won’t stop me from spouting wisdom like I know what I’m talking about.
Nine things I’ve learned about doing stand-up comedy
- Write as much as you can. This is true for blogging and writing books, as well. Sometimes what you need to do is just write. Get it out of your head onto paper. The more you can write, the more material you will see. Learn brainstorming techniques, keep a notebook with you, and record your thoughts anytime anything strikes you. Then edit the hell out of it, delete most of it, and keep only the best of the best.
- Expose yourself to the world. I don’t mean literally, as I’m known for. Read books and magazines, surf the Internet, watch the news and other television shows, go to the movies, get out of the house. What can you write if you limit your exposure to the world?
- Be honest and personal. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stretch the truth and exaggerate and extrapolate and hypothesize, but the best material will always come from a place of honesty. And the more humor you can find in the pain and suffering you’ve experienced in your life, the more your audience will relate to it, and, subsequently, you.
- Advice should be taken with a grain of salt. There is no singular way to achieve success in this business. Every person who gives you advice may have the best intentions, but they are learning as they go, as well. Listen to the advice, file it away, and use it, but don’t rely on it. Similarly, you can learn from every comic out there, from the newest person to the most cynical veteran. Even if you learn what not to do, it’s a lesson worth learning, especially if it helps you to forge your own path.
- Jealousy and pettiness don’t belong. The world of stand-up comedy is not a fair one. Someone can put in time and effort and still be treading water while another comic comes along and experiences instant success. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a bad comedian or that you should quit (although sometimes it does – try to be aware when comedy maybe isn’t for you) – it just means that someone else is doing well. Support your fellow comics, encourage them, and be happy for them.
- Have faith in your material, and the audience will recognize and reward it. The comic who apologizes for his or her material is the comic who loses the respect of the audience, and that translates to a tepid response. Be proud of what you’ve written, own your words, and never compromise. On the other hand, never blame or berate your audience. If they didn’t laugh, it’s nobody’s fault but your own. It does not matter how funny you think you are if the audience doesn’t agree.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. And I don’t mean failing in that sad, pathetic, self-destructive way that so many comedians seem to do more than many other professions. Failing means that you learned which bits won’t work, and that’s part of the process. Actually, that is the process.
- Treat comedy like a job. This is important for several reasons. First of all, if it’s just a hobby, and you never put any effort into improving, showing up weekly to open mics with the same drivel, just quit. It’s time to go. Secondly, too many comedians get sloppy while doing the jobs that they are paid to do. Be responsible, be respectful, be on time, and recognize that the audience is filled with your customers or clients. Make them happy and you’ll succeed.
- If you don’t like to be criticized or judged, stay away from comedy. The field of stand-up is unique in the way that you will get immediate feedback on the quality of the work you’re doing, in the form of applause, laughter, silence, or even hostility. You will never be able to please everyone. Even more importantly, other comics will judge and critique you to your face or behind your back, sometimes constructively, but usually not. And some comedians are just assholes – that’s their personality and they will do whatever they can to tear down the others around them in order to feel better about how much they’re treading water in their career. The only way to survive with your self-esteem intact is to be your harshest critic and your own worst enemy.
Humor has been my passion for decades. From my ongoing subscription to MAD Magazine starting at age 10 to performing stand-up in my 11th grade talent show to launching Avitable.com in 1998, I have always respected anyone who can make people laugh, and taken great pride in my ability to do the same. This last year has been eye-opening and amazing, and I cannot wait for the years of stand-up to come. Unless the world ends in December 2012, in which case I’ll be really fucking annoyed.