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March 26, 2010

Getting started in stand–up comedy

I’ve had this question crop up a lot lately. Both from people in real life, people online, and indirectly through the sizeable number of people who want to make a career out of it as part of Mark Watson’s Ten Year Self-Improvement Challenge . Now Mark already did a great blog that gives some great advice on having the right mind-set to approaching the whole thing, but it doesn’t tackle the very basics: how the hell do you go from a regular person to someone that “does stand-up”.

I should set out my stall to start with. I first did stand-up about four years ago. I’ve done it on and off ever since. I enjoy it, but have no ambition to make a career out of it. I’m not particularly good, but nor am I toe-curlingly bad. Outside of performing, I’ve been peripherally involved in the industry through reviewing and promoting for about eight years now. Some of my advice other people will agree with. Some they won’t. Let’s go.

So, you’ve never done a gig in your life but you want to get in to stand-up? Where do you start. Well first, you need to work out where you are currently. The obvious response is “nowhere”, but even among those that have never performed, people are prepared to different levels. Some people have routines and material already worked up in their heads, they just need a bit of a push to actually go and perform it. Others have vague ideas of things that are funny but haven’t really developed it in to a routine. While there are some that want to be stand-ups, see themselves as ‘funny people’ but don’t have any particular ideas to speak of. Work out how far along you are already.

Warning If you fit into the latter group, sometimes it can be tempting to just try and get some stage time and go on with no plan other than to talk to the crowd. After all, you can make your friends laugh in the pub, so you can do the same with a room of strangers right? Wrong. Audience interaction is not like joking with friends in a pub, and even the masters of the form like Ross Noble use a lot of pre-prepared and re-usable stuff when doing so. You are far from a master.

Setting targets
So what’s the goal? What you need is five minutes of material. For some people that seems insurmountable – if a joke is thirty seconds then it’s ten good jokes – but it’s amazing how quickly a routine can build up. For others they already have twenty minutes of material worked out and find five minutes somewhat constricting. The truth is that in that twenty minutes you’ll be extremely lucky to have five minutes good stuff in there. Either way, what you need is a five minute set – if it’s longer, cut the chaff, get it down to five minutes of what you think are the very best routines.

Learn from others
Now if you’re struggling, hell even if you’re not, the most important and useful thing you can do is GO AND WATCH LIVE COMEDY. It sounds obvious, but take in as much as you can. And I’m not talking about seeing Frankie Boyle at the O2. Hell, in this case I’m not even talking about seeing Daniel Kitson at your local theatre. Instead, check out the local comedy clubs. You’ll get to see four or five acts, mostly doing 10-20 minute sets. It’ll give you a much better idea of what you’re aspiring to. If you can find an open mic night, or a new act / new material night, even better. By watching people closer to your ‘level’ you’ll get a better idea for how it’s all put together and what you’re aiming for. Watching Dara O’Briain’s latest DVD is a great way to spend your time, but it’s a show that’s been performed literally hundreds of times, and polished to the point where the joins just don’t show. It’s so effortlessly natural that you won’t learn much.

Getting to the funny
Now explaining how to sit down and actually write or develop material is almost impossible. Different people do it in different ways. Some can actually literally do just that: sit down and write stuff that might be funny. For others, we have to wait until we notice an interesting or potentially amusing idea and try and develop it. The actual process of how that works is different for everyone, but I will offer one pointer: punchlines.

There are different styles of comedy, but unless you’re doing something entirely off-the-wall (and are therefore, prepared to not get many laughs), your routines will need punchlines. Now, the punchline ideally pulls together all the elements of the set up in to the biggest laugh of the routine. Ideally. But not all jokes work like that and not all styles work like that. The punchline serves another purpose though. It indicates to the audience that that bit is over, instructs them to laugh, and allows you to move on to the next bit. It paces the set, and keeps the rhythm going. Now, when you get good you can have all sorts of fun messing with the audience’s expectations and subverting that, but for now, punchlines = good. They don’t have to be brilliant, they don’t have to be the point of the routine, they don’t have to get the biggest laugh, but it’s unwise to ignore them entirely. Even if the point of the routine is just to put across an amusing concept or use a funny turn of phrase, having a punchline, even a predictable one, grounds the routine in something familiar for the audience, making it easier to get them on side. It shows that you understand their expectations and respect them. Yes, I know, you’re a comedy maverick, you don’t play by the rules, you confound audiences and are entirely unique. But if you want to get laughs, trust me on this one.

As an adjunct to this: try and work out where the laughs come in your routine. Look at what you’ve written, and work out where you think the audience are going to laugh. In a five minute routine, if you have 30 seconds without a laugh then you’re pushing it and the next laugh best be a big one. If you get to a minute without expecting a laugh then you should maybe rethink your material. Despite all this you will find the audience will laugh in unexpected places and fail to laugh in others, but then you take that and adjust for future performances accordingly.

Note that again, I’m no expert. And yes, much of the best comedy breaks these rules. These are not rules for being a good stand-up in general. These are rules for getting some laughs from your first five-minute open spot. Once you’ve got a good number of gigs under your belt and feel more confident, you can throw them out if you like.

Getting a gig
This is always tricky: you need to find someone willing to give you five minutes on stage when you have no experience. Fortunately there are a lot of very nice promoters out there, you could do worse than check the forums at in the industry noticeboard section, and ask about open mic or new act nights in your area. There’s bound to be someone that can help you out. If you live in the West Midlands / Warwickshire area or don’t mind traveling down to Leamington Spa on a Monday night, that person could be me. There’s a link to e-mail me at the top of the blog.

It’s tempting to enter one of many stand-up competitions just for the stage time early on. It’s not a bad idea, but I wouldn’t suggest it for your first gig, the added pressure of being judged directly isn’t something you really need.

Likewise, under no circumstances fall for any sort of pay-to-play scheme, even if it’s just “bring along so many paying friends to get on.” Not only do these shows damage the industry at large but you also end up performing to a bunch of people that don’t give a fuck and just want to see their friend.

If you’re a student, you can try and find some sort of performance society that might be able to give you a slot at an event. These are generally quite friendly and can be a nice place to up your confidence, though often you’re on with all sorts of other performers and again, you’re playing to people that are mostly friends of other performers.

There’s basically two aspects to comedy: writing and performing. Now at some gigs the performing is more important. If you’re playing to a room of loud, obnoxious stag-parties then confidence is everything. They smell any weakness and will eat you alive. Fortunately, most open mic or new act nights will generally have a fairly comedy-savy audience that come along regularly and are willing to listen. They’ll forgive a somewhat ropey performance if the material is good. However, they’re less likely to laugh at bad material just because it’s delivered confidently.

My suggestion for a first gig, is to just focus on remembering your set. Walk on, take the mic out of the stand, move the stand away, do your jokes, put it back, walk off. If you can manage that, the rest doesn’t matter so much. Yes, try to make eye contact with the audience, keep your head up, speak clearly, don’t rush through your set. But even if you screw all that up you’ll be alright if the jokes are good (as long as they can hear you!).

One thing that crops up a lot is how well you should prepare. There’s nothing wrong in stand-up these days in knowing exactly what you’re going to say, word-for-word, and just saying it. The whole ‘pretending it’s all off-the-cuff’ style mostly went out years ago. If you feel more confident doing that, then do it. If you’d rather just have a strong idea of what you want to say, but not the exact words, then that’s okay too. By this point it should be obvious that if you can’t speak a version of your set out loud to an empty room then you’re not prepared enough. One caveat: if you don’t learn your set word-for-word, it’s essential that you identify the key phrases in the set. Generally these are the punchlines, but also any clever wordplay or smart constructions. You have to get these right, and you have to know these word-for-word, as messing them up can ruin the entire routine. Practice them.

Drinking: don’t go on stage drunk. You will forget your words or screw something up. That said, if you’re nervous and drink calms your nerves, there’s no harm in having one drink to steady yourself – we’re not driving heavy machinery here. If it helps boost your confidence then go for it, just don’t get carried away.

Once on stage, stick to the script. Write some keywords on your hand to remind you what order things go in. If you’re not getting laughs, don’t panic. Don’t start editing, or skipping ahead to something that you think might be ‘funnier’. You only have five minutes anyway, just stick to your routine, don’t lose faith in it. You’ll confuse yourself, or end up skipping something that would have got a laugh anyway. If you forget something, it’s okay to pause for a few seconds, try and get it back. If it’s really gone then own it: “and I’ve totally forgot what I was going to say, so about [next routine]” – it’ll break any tension and you’ll probably get a laugh from being so blatant about it.

Have fun
A wiser man that me once told me that a wiser man than him once told him that “if the worse thing that happens to you on any given day, is that room full of strangers don’t laugh at you, then it’s been a good day”.

Even if it all falls apart, even if you don’t get one single, solitary laugh – well, go back to the drawing board and try again next week. And it was probably a crap audience anyway. Some people spent five minutes not laughing. Who cares? But chances are it’ll go fine. You’ll get laughs. Maybe not in the places you thought and maybe not even as many as you hoped. But the second you get that first laugh you’ll realise how awesome it is and why we do it. “Better than sex” is an overused phrase these days. But it is. You’re bringing a bit of pleasure in to the life of a load of people all at once. It’s basically like making 50 people all come at once, but less messy. So enjoy it. If you want to do this professionally you’re going to spend years traveling around the country performing in tiny pub basements for no money, so if you don’t enjoy there’s really very little point!

Hope that helps someone anyway. Weird way to follow up that last blog but there you go!

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