How To: Become a Stand-up Comedian

Sure you’re funny. Everybody says so. But there’s a big difference between making people laugh until they pee and actually making a living as a stand-up comedian.

Good jokes aren’t enough. To have a successful career in stand-up comedy, you have to be tenacious and persistent, sometimes for years, before you start getting the right breaks.

Jay Davis, from HBO’s Tourgasm show, says on the HBO Web site, “You don’t even realize you’re growing, but I think it takes 10 years to become a comedian. It’s something you have to do consistently, and it takes so many times on stage. But after 10 years on stage, that’s when you graduate. That’s when you can say you’re a professional comedian.”

Here are some tips to get you started.

Learn from others

Writers have a saying – if you want to write, you have to read. The same is true for stand-up comedy. If you want to perform, you have to watch the performances of other comedians.

The idea isn’t to copy them. You need your own style and your own presence on stage. But you can watch other stand-up comedians to learn what they do wrong and what they do right.

Choose the comedians who have a style similar to yours, the ones you admire. See how they reconnect with the audience after a joke bombs. Watch how they handle hecklers. Try to pick up on the rhythm of their delivery.

A good place to start is Comedy Central. The network regularly airs “Comedy Central Presents” stand-up specials. Check out “Stand-up Nation with Greg Giraldo” on Friday nights to see comics who are still on their way up. And go to Netflix or your local video store to rent DVDs of some of your favorite stand-up comics.

Do your homework

Read some books on stand-up comedy to get a real idea of how to craft your material and what the business is like. A good place to start is “The Comedy Bible” by Judy Carter. You can’t learn to be funny from a book, or at all if you don’t have the talent to begin with, but she does a great job of breaking down joke-telling techniques and explaining steps to advance your career.

You also might want to take a look at the documentary, “Comedian” with Jerry Seinfeld. It shows some of the difficulties that he faced in reviving his stand-up career after then end of his long-running TV sitcom.

And consider some classes. You’ll be able to work on your timing and delivery and sharpen your material with other professionals. As with anything, it’s buyer beware, but there are a number of good comedy workshops and coaches available, including Carter and former stand-up comedian Neil Leiberman.

Finally, I’d recommend the “Become a Stand-up Comic” e-book by FabJob.com. The publisher is known for producing excellent guides for people trying to break into a new career.

Practice, practice, practice

You’ve studied the greats, researched the business and worked on your material. Now you have to see how it flies with audiences. By all means, try out your jokes on your friends – especially the brutally honest ones – but you also need to try them on people who won’t feel obligated to laugh.

Many local nightclubs and bars have open mic nights for performers. Go to them, even if it means having to wait in line behind the guy reading poetry and the hippie chick with her acoustic guitar. You usually only get two to three minutes onstage, so be prepared – with five or ten minutes worth of material. You never know when you might have to skip through some jokes that are bombing, or when you might be asked to keep going.

And try comedy clubs. Depending on where you live, you might have to drive to get to one, but it will be worth it. Most clubs will allow new comics who are funny – and can prove it – to do a three to five minute set early in the evening. Just don’t expect to be paid for performing. If you’re lucky, you might get a drink or two on the house. The real pay off will come from the experience and the exposure.

Go to work

If you’re funny enough, and you prove yourself to be a professional who shows up on time, comes prepared with enough material and doesn’t make outrageous demands, you will get work.

That could mean regular gigs in comedy clubs, on cruise ships, or believe it not, doing shows for corporate audiences. Companies regularly hire comedians to entertain at conventions, retreats and award dinners.

Most of all, be patient. This is going to take time.

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