"Do you have any advice for beginner comedians?"

Slava Yaryshkin interviewed me for his Stand-up Comedy 101 blog. Among other things, he asked me, "Do you have any advice for beginner comedians?" My answer to that:

Well there's the usual stuff like get onstage as much as possible, learn how to be funny not just how to write jokes, and other things you can hear people say on the "On Comedy" CDs (Seinfeld and Woody ones are great) or listening to CK interviews (the one on his new DVD is super).

Here's one I don't hear a lot: Learn how to listen. The audience is having a conversation with you. They're talking back to you. They're just not using words. So you have to gauge that energy and how they're feeling and if they're with you or not and steer the ship accordingly. I think a lot of new comics just spit stuff out at the crowd and they're surprised when they don't get something back. Slow down and have a conversation. Comedy, especially in small rooms, is more like harmonizing with the crowd. You have to hear what note they're singing back to you and then use your words and timing and inflection to get on their wavelength and vice versa. If shit ain't flying, turn conversational. Just tell the truth about that moment. Being in the moment and unfunny is way better than reciting a script and being unfunny.

That's kinda namby pamby. How about something more concrete? Try different stuff. When you're starting out, I think it can be healthy to try one liners, longer bits, characters, and other things. Exercise those different muscles. See what hits. What feels comfortable (and not). Sometimes stretching yourself will lead you to places that other people wouldn't go. That will make you more interesting than other comics. Most comics are boring. Don't be boring.

Oh, and go see good comics perform. I see a lot of new comics who only go to open mics and that's it. That's like trying to learn physics from a bunch of lab rats. Go see a master and you'll learn a ton you'd never learn on your own.

One final thing: I think comics are like magicians, but with words. There are too many out there just doing card tricks. Try to saw a woman in half.

Read the entire Q&A here.


myq said...

Agreed on multiple counts! (Especially like lab rats analogy.)

Only thing--sawing a woman in half has been done. Try breaking some new ground.

Hammering a man in thirds?

Screwdriving a child into infinite pieces?

Shoot for the stars.

Matt Ruby said...

Good point Myq. I suggest: Sandpapering an infant into dust.

Mo Diggs said...

I agree with most if it, but I would have to use one of your previous points on this blog to disagree with what you said above about watching great comics live.

On the one hand this is good but, referring to your post on 10,000 hours/Malcolm Gladwell and how you should get up as often as possible, doesn't watching another comic get in the way of you getting up onstage yourself? Most great comics get up at times when you should be doing a mic/show.

The compromise seems to be listening to comedy albums on the commute. Is that right?

Dan Fontaine said...

record your sets. video if possible. watch the bad ones more than the good ones and take notes.

Matt Ruby said...

Mo, stage time is most valuable but going to see great live comics is also crucial. And way different thing than listening to an album. Gotta do it IMO. Go to the Cellar at 11pm after your open mic spot. Or Whiplash at UCB is late night. Or blow off performing once in a while to go see a great comic do a headlining set. You learn different things.

Matteson said...

This may be sacrilegious, but is "stage time" being over valued by comics that are still at the open mic level (like myself)? I think in someways Stage Time has become an excuse for not doing work. Some comics do the same jokes at the same open mics for weeks or even months but justify it by saying "I'm getting stage time". But if you're not using the time to get better and try new material, there are diminishing returns. It seems that some people think the mere fact of being physically on a stage is what "stage time" means. Clearly there's a sweet spot between writing and performing that needs to be found, but sometimes I think I benefit more from a night at home writing for two hours than doing the same 5 minute set from last week. I'm mostly speaking of open mics. This is something I struggle with. Anyone else thought about this? Is there much benefit to going on stage at an open mic with no material or old jokes that you've told dozens of times before?

myq said...

Of course, not writing is a problem.

But you can write at any time, really, can't you?

Youdon't have to choose between writing and performing.

There are only limited times that performances are happening, and especially when you're starting out and at the open mic stage, it's worthwhile to get to as many of them as possible.

So the best case scenario is write jokes all the time that you have no performance opportunities, and perform at all the performance opportunities you can. *

Even doing the same jokes can be not a waste of time, again especially at the early stages of your career aspirations--you HAVE to do the same jokes, to get comfortable with them in front of different audiences, to learn exactly how you want them to go, what order you want them in, that sort of thing...

Sure, telling the same jokes to the same traveling group of comedians that go to the same open mics all the time, that can be a waste...
That's why writing at other times is good, too.

* And also do see quality performers. Seeing people live is exponentially better than listening to CDs. I certainly listen to CDs as well, but go see quality performers live also. Do it.

Matt's right, there's definitely opportunities like Whiplash or shows at the Cellar when you don't have bookings.

PS Sandpapering a baby into dust sounds perfect, and I vote for the name of this blog to change to SandpaperDust, please.

Mike Drucker said...

My advice is "Don't Worry."

It sounds ridiculous, but it's the one thing all starting-off comics forget. They put so much pressure on themselves that they burn out way too easily.

It's not a race to the top.

myq said...

My advice is:

What are you, crazy? He just wants you to not worrying because he knows that worrying is the track to success, and he wants you OFF of it. Out of his worrisome way. Don't be fooled.

So, to summarize, my advice is:
1) Write all the time.
2) Perform all the time.
3) Worry all the time, more than Drucker does.
4) See quality performers all the time.
5) Kill babies, to be original.

I think that's it.

london calling said...

loved the bit about listening ....too often comics fail to make any connection with their audience , they do their pre-packaged thing and that's it .

could i do add ?

Don't be a dick . You'll get further quicker with just basic courtesy whether for your audience or your fellow comics .

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