So you think you’re funny? A Beginners Guide to Being a Stand-Up Comedian.

WHAT: How To Become a Standup Comedian

Being a stand-up comedian is nothing new. Stories, shticks, mischief, pranks, and jokes have been around since time immemorial. However, a single person, walking onstage in front of total strangers, blabbering under a spotlight with the sole intention of splitting their sides – that’s a recent thing.

Stand up as we know it began only a few decades ago, making it one of the only artistic mediums whereby some of the best in history are still peddling their act today. While the medium has morphed, the idea remains the same. Walk on stage, drop some wisecracks, and leave em’ rolling in the aisles. Or at least that’s the hope.

Stand Up Comedian on stage
Photo Credit: Matt Crossick. Comedy Central

Nowadays, the phrase “If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry” resonates more powerfully than ever. And if laughter truly is the best medicine, then demand currently eclipses supply. If you ever dreamed of taking the stage in the hopes of making people making people howl, then here’s our guide to becoming a successful stand-up comedian.

HOW

Comedians come in all shapes and sizes. Although comedy workshops may help, you need no specific education to become a stand-up comedian. From high school dropouts to Ph.D. students, most would-be comedians follow a similar route to perfecting their art. Steps to becoming a stand-up comedian include:

Take Notes

Begin by watching hundreds of comedy performances, including the good, the bad, and the embarrassingly ugly bomb sets. Youtube has enough material to keep you busy for ten lifetimes, so be selective. Observe joke and anecdote structures, timing, facial expressions, body language, and common themes of what makes good and bad comedy. Attend your local comedy club as often as possible. Laugh by all means. But remember, you’re there primarily to observe.

Write Jokes

Entire literary volumes exist concerning how to write stand-up comedy material. Ultimately, it’s down to you and identifying what your comedy is about. Will you riff about people, places, things, culture, philosophy? Will you sprinkle it with sarcasm and irony? Will you incorporate all of the above and more rolled into one? Or, as a machine-gun spiel of unrelated one-liners? Over time, the comedy writing process will become easier and more fluent. In the meantime, brace yourself for going down like a lead balloon, often.

Find Your Voice

One of your biggest challenges to becoming a stand-up comedian is knowing yourself and finding your voice – which is a neverending evolutionary process. It’s also the most rewarding. As you define your voice,  comedy writing comes more naturally. Above all, your voice needs to be honest. Whether you’re being you, an alter ego or heightened version of you, or even a totally different character, never underestimate how adept the audience is at spotting a fake. And, if you lose audience trust, the game is over.

Soft Targets

Think about dropping your first live set in front of those who won’t skin you alive for being rubbish. Invite friends and family over. Ask for feedback. Remember that jokes that crack up your college buddies may cause your gran to have a stroke. If jokes don’t stick, think about whether you can rework them before dumping them.

Organize your Set List

By now, you should have a fair idea of what material works- You’ll know when to drop it and how to structure your set. Remember your setlist will constantly be evolving.

Practice, Practice, Practice

That hour-long special you watched, amazed at how someone could drop explosive quips for an hour without missing a beat? The answer is practice. Years of it, day after day, night after night, spent studying, refining, and ultimately performing their art. To become a stand-up comedian, you’ll need to repeat it until you’re sick of it and then repeat it more. Do it with music blasting in the background or any other distraction designed to acclimatize you to the stress of being under the spotlight.

Embrace Nerves

Nervous energy will make you or break you. To avoid the latter, use stress as a catalyst for energy and focus. Above all, remember, when you walk on stage, the only one who knows you’re cacking your pants is you. Bombing is part of becoming a stand-up comedian. Just remember that the audience can’t see butterflies in your stomach. They can’t see sweaty palms. And if they can, so what? Go with the flow, smile, saunter on stage like you own it, and then own it.

Embrace Failure

If your fear of failure is insurmountable, abandon any dreams of being a stand-up. As you hone your act and find your voice, the ability to learn from, dodge, weave, and roll with the punches is as crucial as the quality of your quips. Remember that the toughest steel is forged in the hottest flames.

WHERE

Start small with an Open Mic. Preferably one that’s deserted. These are a great place to work on your act, network with other comics, and build relations in the industry.

How to Become a Stand Up Comedian
Photo Credit: Open Mic
RISKS

If approaching stand-up as a hobby, the most you have to fear is standing alone on stage to a soundtrack of crickets. Turning pro can be immeasurably rewarding. However, it’s also a long, painfully tricky, brutally competitive journey, with neither job security nor any guarantee of success. Even after years on the road, many comedians have to promote themselves, book their own shows, deal with hecklers and aggressive drunks while writing and practicing new materials in roadside motels.

REWARDS
  • You’re in showbiz. Travel, parties, hookups, social contacts, the company of hilarious individuals, and all-around glamor are part-and-parcel of the job. However, the real payoff comes from learning to dominate a stage, knowing that a specific word, at a particular moment, dropped in the proper manner, will evoke a storm of laughter.
  • Some of the best comedians aren’t just out to get a giggle. In an era when more people trust stand-ups more than news anchors, comedians are philosophers and poet warriors. Many top-shelf comedians know that with power comes responsibility and that the business of making people laugh is, in some ways, a deadly serious affair.

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