Is it better to start off as a comic in NYC or somewhere else?

I'd say somewhere else. Stay in (or, if you're in a podunk town, move to) Chicago, Boston, or Seattle and take some time to build your chops. The worst thing about comedy in NYC is how hard it is to get stage time. Other cities give you more of a chance to grow and get in front of real audiences sooner (and non-NYC crowds are usually more tolerant). Then, when you're really killing it in your home town, consider making the move.

That said, you'll be in for a rude awakening when you get here. Comics who are really cooking in, say, Seattle come to NYC and find that they pretty much have to start over. That can be a tough thing, to go from doing sweet gigs in front of real audiences to schlepping from one open mic to another where you're performing only for comics who don't give a fuck.

Also, you'll probably have to dump a lot of your material. Jokes that work on the road or in other cities can crash hard in NYC. The plus side to that: I think if you can kill here, you know you've got strong material. I feel like the talent level of other comedians and the savviness of audiences here really push you to come up with stronger material than you would otherwise.

After you move here, then what? Well, it helps if you've got friends here already. Being hilarious is a good start, but having people who can hook you up with spots and vouch for you to others can help you skip ahead and save months of grunt work. Still, you'll probably need to perform wherever and whenever at first.

And then there's the whole social aspect of being a comic. Being "on the scene" is cheesy sounding but it is the best way to get spots and get known.

Derek Sivers is a guy who advises musicians but I think a lot of his advice applies to comics too. In Advice for a 19-year-old guitarist who wants to be a session musician, he talks about the importance of social skills:

Commit yourself to learning the social skills needed to be the guy that people call. It means a few hours a day of meeting everyone you can, being around the studios where people are hiring session musicians, being a good listener, being positive and helpful, keeping in touch, etc.

(I made a living as a session musician in NYC for a few years. I’m a good guitarist, but I swear the reason I kept getting called is I would find a way to appreciate whatever crap they played me, telling them that it’s awesome. It was a white lie but a good one, because people can be really insecure in the studio, and need encouragement.)

Be humble and constantly learning, understanding you’ve made a many-year-long commitment to mastery. Some may scoff at you for being the new kid in town, so agree with them, respect their experience, and make sure they know you’re committed. So few really are, that you’re sure to stand out.

Just translate that to comedy and it's equally good advice. Go to all the shows, listen to people, be positive, leave witty comments on people's Facebook accounts, tell someone when you like one of their bits, and show that you're really committed to it. Do that for long enough and people notice.

And constantly get more hilarious. The best thing you can do is be undeniably good.


Kent said...

This is a great post, and an issue that we talk about a lot here in Philadelphia. I'm constantly reminding myself how lucky I am to be in a city full of supportive comedians and lots of stages. At the weekly Helium open mic, you are basically guaranteed a crowd of 30-40 people, and it often reaches 100 or more. I don't know how many open mics in the country are that good.

I am definitely pretty scared of being swallowed up by the New York or LA scene when I eventually move out of here. It definitely seems easier to work towards being one of the 10-20 notable comics in a smaller city than one of the 200-400 in New York.

Anonymous said...

Nail on the head here Matt. I spent 5ish years in Atlanta learning stand up and hit the road. I had great successes in those years but moving the NYC is TOTALLY starting over. I've had to dump material, come to grips with the fact that I wasn't that good in the first place and recommit myself to reaching goals. If you're on "cruise control" in NYC, you're going nowhere. Great post.

Mike Drucker said...

It does also depend on your situation. I started in college when I was already in New York, so I didn't have much of a choice - I wasn't going to quit college to start somewhere else, but I wanted to start.

I think it helps going to a new city and blowing everyone's mind with great material, which happens with your Kumails and Sean Pattons.

Gene George said...

It applies to Los Angeles as well except the open mics are usually more spread out.

Being positive and helpful is great advice in general. If you love comedy, that's easy. You make more friends and have more fun than being the dour SOB that no one wants to be around.

Does this count towards my networking credit?

Danny Solomon said...


Anonymous said...

Kent is absolutely right about the Philly scene. But I have an interesting situation. I started out in comedy (my first twenty times or so) in Philly. Then I spent six months in New York, doing tons of open mics during that period. I learned a whole bunch there and have come back to Philadelphia. I plan on going back to New York by the end of next year to stay there, but here's the thing.

I obviously didn't do any shows (I did one because I knew someone's friend), just open mics. And yeah, it was just ten comics not laughing pretty much every single time. And so my objective was to get laughter out of those jaded comedians and by the end, I got okay at it, which translated to doing really well in front of real audiences. But I've found that the quality of comedians here in Philly is far above the open mic crowd in New York. Obviously, I wasn't apart of or exposed to the rising guys who were getting shows and all that, but my question is about New York and maybe you could answer it for me -- how do you make the transition from open mic-er to actually getting gigs, paid or not? Because I never saw a single manager or anyone of importance watching any open mic (that I knew of) during my whole stay in New York. Is it just a matter of finding out where the underground shows are and talking to people? I think I've talked long enough.

Anonymous said...

Talked in that above message long enough. Not to comedians. Just clarifying.

Unknown said...

Great post, with lots of interesting points. I think the biggest thing is to get stage time, and the best plan for a starting comic is the plan that gets him the most of that. One thing that's tricky about this question is that there isn't any control group that I know of, where you could follow an alternate history where Kumail (for example) started in NYC at the beginning. His rise in the scene may seem more rapid to people in NYC because their awareness of his dues-paying years in Chicago is more abstract.

One thing that concerned me, though, was the passage from the session musician about getting work from musicians by "find[ing] a way to appreciate whatever crap they played me, [and] telling them that it's awesome." Does that cross the line from positivity into ass-kissing? Even if it does, does that just mean that ass-kissing is the right/necessary thing to do? Maybe it is.

Unknown said...


I've been grinding the mics in NYC since June 2008, and I don't think there've been too many managers in the audience. But you can get bookings on other shows from doing well at the mics. The path as I see it is a long one (which others are much farther along in than I am) is to get good at the mics, parlay success at the mics into bookings in rooms, do well enough in the first few rooms to book more and more rooms over time, and eventually, parlay that success in rooms to industry attention. So the mics are the first steps in a very long series of steps that leads towards managers, etc.

When were you in NYC?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

NOW HEAR THIS: I moved to NYC to get more stage time. In Indianapolis in 2004, there was one weekly open mic at a comedy club, Crackers. Now there's another club called Morty's (making TWO), but I'm not even sure it has an open mic. Any other stage time was had in bars, pulling the juke box cord to perform guerilla comedy. A comic's dream it was not.

NYC has:
- more opportunities for stage time (mics, booked shows, special events)
- never-ending supply of audience members who are used to performance art and sit patiently to see what you have to offer
- every other state's best comics who are hopeful for a career, and therefore, a cause to work harder for your laughs (see Matt's 3rd paragraph)

The best place to bomb is anywhere you want. The point is that you gradually get good.

Bee-tee-double-you, Comedy is an illusion. What others see as being funny, is merely the repetition of a skill you have honed over time. Even comics fall for people who make them laugh at first sight. They think, "Genius. Really good. Can't imagine them ever being bad." If their first impression is watching them fail, they never give them full credit for getting funny. In a competitive city like NYC, it becomes harder to hone your skill AND trick people into buying the illusion.

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