I hope you are well on your way to having that first great showcase set. You may have already “graduated” and are just hanging around your old school like Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused.” I hope the Comedy Refinement Process is becoming second nature to you. I hope you have moved at least one of your Performance Goals from being something you have to tell yourself to do to something automatic.
This is it. The last Class. And basically, it’s going to be my graduation speech. It’s a bunch of stuff that isn’t of much use to a beginner slogging it out in the Open Mics, but is still worth thinking about as you continue on in standup comedy.
These lessons will be random and disjointed, and that’s okay. They are not meant to make a single point, rather they are just a collection of things to think about as you go forth.
One of your next moves as a beginning comic, in order to get opportunities to perform, may be to start your own room. You may want to run your own open mic, where you and maybe a friend or two will host, so you can get a guaranteed good spot every week, and more than just five minutes. You may want to run your own showcase room, and get the chance to perform for actual humans who do not have their own set list in front of them and a head full of impatience and worry about their turn on the stage. Good idea! Let me help you make that as successful as I can.
The first thing is: pick the right room. Some people seem to think that wherever two walls meet in a right angle, you can put a microphone and a person telling jokes. These people are wrong. A good comedy room needs certain elements to be functional and a few more elements to be truly excellent.
Try and find a place with a stage. A real stage, raised above the audience. A permanent, dedicated stage is the best, but a hand built riser will do if the rest of the room suggests success. You also want a real lighting rig, house lights that can be dimmed, and a decent sound system. You can go with an amplifier that you provide, as long as the other elements are present. Lighting, sound, and a stage are necessary to put on a show that will capitivate a crowd, and the fewer of these elements that you have to bang together on your own, the more successful your comedy night will be.
Try and find a place with a dedicated showroom. A bar with a separate showroom is ideal. You ideally want no one in your showroom that is not engaged in either watching, performing on, or serving drinks and food to the audience of, the show. If you must settle for a bar setting in which the stage is in the bar room, try and have a small cover (between one and five bucks) that serves to dissuade people who are not interested in the show from coming in. This cover should be split amongst your performers.
If this is also impossible, make as many announcements as you can that you have a show that night. Try and get anyone who is not there for the show out of there. If the owner of your space is not willing to help you do this, or to tell people who are disruptive to your show to leave, you are in the wrong venue. The active support of the owner is necessary for your room to succeed. The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn is an excellent room that has neither a permanent stage nor a cover nor a dedicated showroom, but the support of the staff and their willingness to shut up talkers makes it work. But the absence of anyone in your showroom that is not there to see the show is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.
Look for a room with a low ceiling. Sound bounces off a low ceiling, reverberates in the room, and is louder than in a room with a high ceiling. People who hear loud laughter lose their inhibitions and laugh more. This creates further laughs that the ceiling then amplifies and sends right back at them, creating a room that “rocks.” There are reasons rooms like the Comedy Cellar, the Comic Strip, and Meltdown have their reputations as killer rooms. One big one is that they have low ceilings that reflect laughter.
You will probably be given a night like Monday or Tuesday where the bar is otherwise empty. This is fine. But if possible, pick a night when there is not an already established comedy night in some other part of town. No need to split the already small audience for standup.
Once you have your night and you are promoting it, you will be faced with the task of filling your show with comics. The only reason to book a comic on your show is because you feel that he or she will entertain your audience. Book only the funniest people. This is crucial. It may seem obvious. But you would be surprised how many shows ignore this rule.
There is a temptation to book your show in a calculated fashion to further your budding comedy career. Doing this actually brings the exact opposite results you wish to achieve. Some people wish to book people who book other shows on their show so that they may “return the favor.” It isn’t important that they may not be the funniest comics, but they possess something (stage time on another show) that you desire, so you feel it is worth the trade off. It isn’t. The only thing that will keep people coming back to your show; the only thing that will make your show a success, with good attendance week after week, is if NO ONE SEES BAD COMEDY AT YOUR SHOW EVER. Even two bad sets a week is like a roach in the salad of a restaurant patron. Why should they come back? It wasn’t excellent. And excellent is your goal, not adequate.
I know that never having a bad set on your show is impossible, but booking your show in such a way that it is unlikely is crucial. And that means only letting people on the show that you strongly believe are likely to make your audience laugh HARD. Even if you are doing this for career advancement reasons, there is no good reason to put on a show except to put on a good show. Take care of that, and the career advancement you wish for will take care of itself. People will start coming to your show because it is always good. Comics from every level of the industry will want to do your show because they know they will be performing for good audiences. You will gain a reputation for putting on a great show. You will start to make a name for yourself in your comedy scene. You will get better because you have access to a quality audience every week because you have never let them down. You will be a stronger act and more desirable for other bookers. Booking only good comics on your show; making sure everyone who walks through the doors of your showroom has a great time; these things will give you the very thing you wished to achieve by booking your show in a calculating and devious manner. Produce a great show full of great comics, and you will serve your career just as you serve your patrons.
Under no circumstances should you produce a “bringer” show. This is a leftover from the world of hair metal in which the performers are booked based on their promise to bring a certain number of audience members to watch them. This is a cancer on our entire form of entertainment. It is not only exploitative to the performer, it is damaging to your show. You now have a show full of substandard performers. And the people that were brought are now witnessing a mediocre-to-bad show, and thus are unlikely to give watching standup another try. Producing a bringer show gives you a bad reputation among comics, gives the audience a bad product, and gives standup comedy dozens of disappointed audience members a week that will never take a chance on our art form again. Do not do this.
Keep your show at a reasonable length. Think of the comedy movies you have seen. Most often, they run about an hour and a half. When they run two hours or longer, people will inevitably complain about their length. Laughing is a tiring and disorienting activity, as pleasurable as it is. Surrendering your complete attention to a taxing involuntary experience takes a lot out of you. There is no reason to make a show go past two hours, and if you keep it to a tight ninety minutes, your audience will thank you. If you must go over two hours, consider an intermission. Leave the audience wanting more, not wishing they had had less. Try and end your show before your audience starts thinking about leaving and they will thank you for it.
Other comics may bug the shit out of you when you don’t book them. It is emotionally draining to wear both a booker’s hat and a performer’s hat. You do not want to make enemies in your comedy scene. It may be useful to have a booker who is not a comic book your show, even if you or the both of you actually make the booking decisions. Anyone to take the flak that you will inevitably get from people who aren’t ready to perform on your show. I know people that have even made a fake person up to serve this function. You may not need to go that far, but you don’t want needless animosity hindering your artistic growth.
You are now a part of a comedy scene. Just by participating in the amount of Open Mics necessary to complete this class, you have become a part of whatever standup scene exists in your area. You will continue to meet a ton of comics. You will make a few close friends. You will make a much larger number of “friendly work acquaintances.” These are the other people at your “office.” Interacting pleasantly with them is important, especially in a scene that often blurs work with social activities, and showers both in alcohol. In general, don’t say mean things about anyone. Even if you were the greatest comic on Earth, your reputation will not be enhanced by publicly judging people. I have done this and it has hurt relationships and my career. I cannot stress it enough: don’t spread negativity into your scene. It feels good momentarily, but it sticks to you and harms you in the long run.
This is not to say that you cannot make creative judgements about other comics. But remember two things. One, you have to separate the person from their act in your mind. It seems obvious, but there is a danger as you continue with standup to value people only for what they do on stage, as if nothing else about them matters. This is shallow, petty, and immoral. So what if someone isn’t funny? It doesn’t make them any less worthwhile, and it won’t kill you to be nice to them and get to know them. Being known as a nice person will get you places in the long run, even if it isn’t important to you for it’s own sake.
Second of all, the place to negatively judge someone’s act is when you are writing or talking shop with one of your close friends in comedy. This means a friend who has gone beyond the “friendly acquaintance” stage and is someone you trust. And the context to do it within is when you are trying to improve your own act.
It can be cathartic and valuable to rant away at an act that represents everything you hate in comedy. This can give you insights into your own comedic values and what to write into, and cut out of, your act.
But this needs to happen in carefully chosen company, in private, with no chance of needlessly hurting people. And be careful to keep it to aesthetic, creative criticism, lest you begin to nurture hateful negativity that will harm your character. The insecurity that will result from attempting to become a professional standup will make these kinds of negative assessments very attractive, and you need to keep artistic criticism in its proper place and perspective. “That act pisses me off” and “That guy sucks!” are two very different thoughts and you need to keep one from leading to the other. Identifying what you don’t like can help you, but do not let it make you a cruel and dismissive egotist. That will only hurt your career.
It goes without saying that when you begin to meet the people on the industry side of the equation that you need to keep any negative thoughts about fellow comics to yourself. You don’t know who is someone’s friend or client and you don’t want “know-it-all loudmouth asshole/bitch” to be their first impression of you. I know this from painful experience. I was drunk and said disrespectful things about a comedian who turned out to be a powerful booker’s good friend and it hurt my career and reputation. No one is impressed by your ability to denigrate someone, and keeping your interactions with everyone in the comedy world positive and civil is necessary to a successful career.
To this end, I implore you, keep your alcohol intake in comedy industry related events to whatever you can manage without affecting your behavior. You will not find an industry where more events that effect your career happen around an open bar, and self control will be a great friend to your continuing advancement. Remember that your first impression is often your only impression, and make sure it is a good one. The comedy industry is tiny, and the same small group of people will likely run it for the duration of your career. You want them all to like you. Help that happen with your behavior. Don’t make it harder with actions you can prevent.
Throughout this class I have tried to emphasize that people improve at different rates. Some people are awesome comics at five years. Some people pop at 53, like the great Eddie Pepitone. This is not a race. This is golf. You are not trying to beat the person next to you. You are trying to beat your personal best performance. Do not compare your rate of advancement to that of other comedians. This is an irrelevant marker. All this can do is take you off the task of making yourself the best comedian you can be. It will waste your time with jealous thoughts and constant examinations of “why!?” and “why not me!?” This will retard your growth as an artist.
Pete Holmes calls these jealous and negative thoughts “comedy cancer” and notes that every comedian he knew in New York who became consumed with them has since quit comedy. Wondering why some comedian got a festival slot, a TV show, got moved up to feature, was hired at a club, or was given a showcase spot before you does absolutely nothing for you. Whenever one of these thoughts enters your head, and this is human and inevitable, actively replace this thought with, “what can I do to make myself the best comedian I can be?”
There is no way of knowing why some people get things and others don’t, but if even if there were, there is nothing to be gained from dwelling on it. Someone got something because of their looks? So what? Show business has a strong visual component. This is natural! Of course it happens! Don’t worry about it. Some style different than yours is popular right now? So what? Things happen in cycles. Trying to be more like them is the wrong way to go. If James Adomian and Anthony Jeselnik worried about this, they never would have revived impressions and one-liners, respectively. Neither of these styles were in vogue when they started their careers. Conan O’ Brien said that all a performer can do is broadcast their own signal as pure and as refined as they can make it and hope people appreciate it. They may. They may not. But trying to artificially engineer that signal to what you think people want to hear is the wrong way to go about things. I wasted valuable time trying to please the crowd with a high energy act in the way I saw other comics in Los Angeles do it in the early 2000’s. I should have been trying to make my own approach better. The act that made Zach Galafinakis famous was the one he did after he gave up on doing what he thought Hollywood wanted. When he decided to be himself, that’s when people cared.
That isn’t to say that the artistic success of others should not inspire you. Watching Kyle Kinane quickly develop a ton of new material personal to him while I was still relying heavily on old jokes was a great inspiration to me. I realized I needed to work harder on my own act. But the inspiration was not to try and be more like Kyle, it was to work harder at writing new material in my own voice, and honing that voice into something more distinct and unique to myself.
There is no guarantee that your efforts will pay off with money and fame. That is the wrong reason to do this. If doing standup only for the reward of making an audience laugh with your own point of view is not enough, this is the wrong art form for you. Some of the best talents I know work in relative obscurity and some mediocre comics have earned a great fortune. If this is not something you can handle, get out while you can.
I have made mention of your “voice” and being “unique.” How do you hone that voice? The Comedy Refinement Process is a great tool towards developing successful material. But there needs to be another check on that material if you want to get to the heart of your own comedic perspective. Developing material that “works” is not always enough to differentiate yourself from other comedians.
Every now and then, record your set and watch it. And ask yourself this question:
If I was an audience member, who never saw this act before, would I love it? Would this act be up there with those of my favorite comics? The answer will probably be “no.” Then ask yourself these questions:
What jokes WOULD make it onto my favorite joke list? What jokes wouldn’t? Then cut the ones that wouldn’t. Then ask yourself what it is about your favorite jokes that speaks to you?
Why do they resonate strongly? What do they have in common? This is the area to explore. This can lead you closer to being the best comedian you can be. You will see what type of jokes you are proud of telling. And it is this sort of joke, the kind of joke that fills you with pride when the audience laughs, that will make you the unique act you always wanted to be.
Dwayne Kennedy said that “first you have to learn to be funny at all, then you learn to be funny the way you want to be funny.” Hopefully this class has helped you to begin to accomplish the first task. The second task will take you the rest of your career, though you will get much better at it as time goes on. A helpful hint to guide you through the years that second task will take is this:
Your vote counts just as much as the audience’s does as to whether a joke is funny. You have studied comedy. You have done comedy. You are an expert. They are not. When they laugh at something you think is kind of easy and dumb, that laugh can be seductive. That laugh can make you change your opinion and start to cater to them. You’ll start letting an uninformed audience write your act for you. This can lead to big laughs, but a generic point of view. This can lead to the type of act that if you saw for the first time, you might not love it at all. It is the jokes that both you AND the audience love that should be the star you steer towards when you write. Please yourself AND the audience and you are on the right track.
Remember, as Bill Cosby said, “Try to please everyone and you will fail.” The people who don’t laugh at the jokes that you both love and know are funny weren’t going to be your fans anyway. You can’t worry about them. If you have some jokes in your act that are polarizing or alienating to some people, do not let that frighten you into playing it safe. While no one can sustain a career in comedy bombing in front of everyone they perform for, it is only by sticking with the kind of act you want to do that you will craft something unique enough to find yourself actual fans. Take risks. Be bold. Stand by your jokes. Every comic that someone loves is a comic someone else hates. For every die-hard Letterman fan who watches every night, there is someone who can’t stand to look at him. This is as it should be. If you are clean, someone will hate that you are not dirty. If you are silly and abstract, someone will hate that you aren’t pouring your guts out up there. Your goal is to go from entertaining people who just wanted to see “comedy” to people who want to see YOU. The only way to do that is to make sure you always listen to your own opinion of what is funny just as carefully as you listen to the laughs of the crowd.
Standup comedy is a great art form. It has a unique power to make people listen to ideas they wouldn’t have entertained. It has a valuable function to relieve unhappiness in the hard lives that people lead. A comedian can make people happy when they are sad. They can make people open a mind that had been closed. They can make people connect to a performer’s hardships and realize that their own are not insurmountable. Comedy can make scary facts of our existence less scary. Comedy can make it easier to get through life. Comedy is an alchemy that turns negative thoughts into joy. Comedy makes life better. It is a satisfying and worthwhile trade to be a comedian. I am glad and grateful that you have chosen to try it. I hope that I have helped you give it a try. I hope you have enjoyed it. I hope other people have gotten happiness out of the work you did for this class. And I hope you continue to practice this thing that I have dedicated my life to, whatever your commitment level ultimately is. People need comedy and I am glad you are helping to give it to them.
The Class is over. Feel free to ask me anything you wish and I will answer it on the bog. There’s no need to answer any questions about the following videos. Just watch, laugh, and enjoy. Thank you for expending the effort to make other people laugh. Now let these people do the same for you: