Whenever I find myself at a party or a bar, drained by the task of holding up one end of a forced conversation, the question inevitably arises: “what do you do?” This question, in itself, is a vague one. It could technically be answered any number of ways…I do karate. I do drugs. I do the dew… however, this question has a commonly accepted implication: what do you do for work? What do you get by on? What do you do for a living? My answer applies in both cases. Stand up comedy is what I do for work. It is also what I do in general; all of the time. I have found this to be the case for most comedians. It isn’t a job; it’s a never ending compulsion. You don’t focus on it for designated periods of time. You learn to function while constantly ruminating about it.
I can’t help but notice a surge in stand up’s popularity, both in appreciating it and attempting it. I’m not sure where it comes from. I’m sure Louis CK’s meteoric rise has attracted some to the art of stand up. I am sure that some people have realized that stand up has evolved beyond “mainstream” and “alternative” and shown itself to be as diverse as music. I have even heard arguments stating that our current facebook/twitter/blogosphere world has convinced people that they are clever and that people “like” what they say. No matter what the catalyst is, everyone quickly learns the same thing: it is not how you think it is.
Nothing prepares you for stand up, or makes you good at it, other than just doing stand up. It is not the same as being funny for your friends. It is not being the life of a party. It is public speaking with an intended effect. You are attempting to force an involuntary reaction out of a crowd of people, and they know it. Reciting your blog will not work. Hoping that it will all somehow come together onstage will not work. You are not given anything just for getting onstage. The art of crafting, editing, and delivering jokes is very specific and unique from almost all other writing. This is, in part, what I fell in love with about stand up. I used to write humorous articles for zine type things and would occasionally get general feedback about the piece as a whole, but I couldn’t know what part had whatever effect on the reader…or if I could have made it better. With stand up, you get instant feedback, and nothing is permanent. You can chisel a joke down to perfection.
If there were a comedy beginner’s handbook, it should probably include the following bullet points.
- Don’t tell them you suck. Pity is about the worst emotion to stir up an audience with. No one cares if you are new at this. You have to at least feign confidence.
- Don’t try to take stand up to some other level. You can’t bypass the basics of stand up. Attempting some kind of high concept humor out the gate will only ensure that both you and the audience have no clue what the fuck you are doing.
- You can only shock them once. Being gross without having actual jokes or experience will result in you being both offensive and insecure. There’s a saying: comics who are green try to be more blue to appear less yellow. It’s very true.
- They aren’t with you until you get them. They have no reason to hear you out. You have to give them a reason. No one is excited at the mere fact that you have brought up weed smoking, or think republicans suck.
- You will bomb. You will bomb hard. You will continue to bomb. Get used to it. It is always a possibility, and it isn’t the end of the world. No one hates you for not being funny. Bombing is usually less memorable than doing well.
These are just some of the most common misconceptions that I see in people starting out. It is easy to see a comedian who is good say something funny and not notice the calculated method in which the laugh was achieved. It takes some time to figure out what is “stage funny.” It takes time to figure out how to develop material and a process for doing so. You really shouldn’t expect greatness your first time on stage, or your first 100 times. Comedy is a lot like darts. A lot of people think they are good at darts because the objective can be simplified: make the dart hit the bullseye. Most people, however, are not good at darts. They’re just drunk. It is easy to simplify comedy: you go onstage and make people laugh. Many people have delusions about mastering a craft they haven’t yet attempted. It’s like watching movie about boxing and assuming everything is clean jabs and perfectly landed haymakers. Watch professionals box and note how sloppy that can be. Now imagine the mess you would make of it.
I think anyone starting out should come up with some jokes, make sure you know what you’re saying, and just get through it. You have to get the fear of being in front of people out of the way. That is actually the easiest hurdle to leap in stand up. You cross over a threshold most people won’t. You get used to doing what most people fear more than death and you realize that is relatively easy. You are going to hate those jokes later on. You are going to find a way to deliver jokes later on. The more you get onstage, the more you will be able to find out what works and what doesn’t. Don’t bother reading any further installments of my windbaggery until you’ve gone and attempted stand up.
Go have fun.