All the other stuff comics "should" be doing besides standup (Part 1)

Another Q&A with Myq Kaplan.


So was talking with another comic last night about the other stuff you "should" have ready to go, other than standup skills, once you get some buzz. This comic's view: You only get the heat of Gotham/Montreal for a limited time and you should be ready to strike while the iron is hot. Scripts, treatments, show ideas, book ideas, etc.

Is this something that comics should think about? What if you just want to do standup? Should you still work on other things in order to diversify? Is it tough to get management if all you want to do is standup? Do managers want you to work on this stuff? Do they make suggestions on what route is best to take? Is it unwise to shoot for, say, Montreal if you don't have any of this stuff ready to go?


I will answer this question, and maybe I am already doing it (depending if you want to include this as part of the answer). However, I will add a disclaimer or two:

1) I do not know if I am the ideal person to BE answering this question. That is to say, I only have my experience. I am not a manager or an industry whoever, so I certainly don't know what they all think.

2) Even though I have my own experience, I only have it up until this point, and I don't know what will happen in the rest of my life and career, as far as learning whether I've made horrible mistakes or used the information I had all wrong.

3) This is all coming from a person who mainly wants to do standup. Standup is what I know and love doing. Sure, if I was offered a job writing monologue jokes for a late night show, I certainly would be happy to do so, and I have in fact created packets to submit for such jobs, but it's not my main focus. I spend most of my creative energies writing and performing standup, because that's what I enjoy most and know how to do.

Disclaimers out of the way. Still reading? All right.

I will continue by saying that there are very few "shoulds" about this business. I mean, you SHOULD do the amount of time you're booked to do, you SHOULD not do other people's material, and you MAYBE should come up with a third example for situations like this because 3's are funny (also K's, and 3 K's equals the KKK, which is super funny). See?

That said, I think the real answer depends on what your goals are, and how much you enjoy doing things that are not your goals. Certainly, writing spec scripts or monologue jokes or screenplay treatments can be beneficial if you want to be a writer. And taking improv or acting workshops or audition classes and building up that kind of resume can be beneficial if you want to be an actor. And shooting videos or making internet clips or some third relevant thing (see, should have had something here) can be beneficial as well.

ALSO, all of those things can be beneficial to your standup career as well, if you're doing them in addition to doing the work of a standup. If you become a better actor, your standup can improve. If you get more experience writing different kinds of jokes or sketches or scenes or bits, your standup can improve. So certainly, there's no real downside to such endeavors.

Unless you don't enjoy them. Or if they take up too much time or creative energy such that it detracts from your standup (if your standup is something you don't want detracted from). I know people who have written for late night shows who have felt the need to put their standup on the back burner. But that's after they GOT the job, so maybe I'm getting off topic. Or maybe it is still on topic, in that if you can get burnt out doing that kind of work for a paycheck, imagine doing that much work on spec, before you've even GOTTEN the job. If imagining that doesn't bother you, then do it. Or even if it does bother you, maybe do it anyway. Sometimes things will be hard and take work.

So, is a standup who has these other things in their back pocket more desirable to a manager or the industry than one who doesn't, all other things being equal? Seems like that would be the case. But if you're talented and passionate about what you do, and all you do is standup, but you're amazing at it, there are certainly people out there who can and will want to respond to that. Will some managers want you to work on certain things? Sure. Is that good or bad? Sure. If a manager is telling you to do things you aren't interested in doing, that's no good. If they're encouraging you to work on things that you think will help you, that's yes good.

I really believe that an individual's route to success depends heavily on what that individual personally considers success to be. If it's just a boatload of money from whatever? Then sure, diversify as much as possible. Work on everything you can that can lead to that boat. Join the Navy. Whatever. If your goal is to create a certain kind of art, create that art.

Sincerely (and I don't know how helpful or profound this may be), you should do what you want to do, or what you think you might want to do later. Certainly, if you want to write books, then start writing. If you want to be a TV writer, start writing the kinds of things you will want to be writing later. If you just want to be a standup, focus on becoming the best standup that you can be. And if you have extra time, it certainly couldn't hurt to do any of the other stuff we're talking about here. Or other things, like a blog about comedy.

PS I honestly don't think it can be "too late" to capitalize on having created something. Sure, if you have something ready to go when your heat or buzz hits, that's all to your advantage. But, there are plenty of people who continue to create, develop, pitch, and work on projects after that first wave of success hits. Maybe you don't hear about everyone and everything they're doing, but I don't believe that it's an all-or-nothing issue of timing. If you are working hard on whatever you're doing, whenever you're doing it, I think that's key. Do what you like, do what you want to do, and try to get what you're doing out in front of people that you want to get it in front of.

Continued in Part 2.


Kiki Kapral said...

I think it’s interesting that you only mention being seen by managers and what managers would like to see from a potential client, when there are so many other types of industry professionals that track the stand-up scene.

In my personal experience, I have worked at 2 different offices where we routinely seek out stand-up comics to do things other than stand-up, weather that is commentary, acting or what have you. In both offices, having a manager was not important. Even now, working for the largest TV Studio and distributor in the country, we will bring people in for auditions and cast people in pilots even if they don’t have any representation. We have even seen random You-Tube videos and said “Find me this person. Oh they live in Lincoln Nebraska? See if they’ll put themselves on tape” Personally, when I go out to see I show, I’m always thinking to myself “What else can this person do?” But if I see someone I really like, I’ll bring them in to meet the rest of my office and generally (since we cast TV pilots) we need to see that they have at least some acting chops, so I guess that’s just one example of the importance of having something prepared. Also, we have even sent a few comics to meet with agents and managers after they’ve had great auditions for us.

Speaking of striking while the iron is hot, It’s also infuriating to me when I see comics go on Live at Gothem, Letterman, or Fallon that don’t have a web site. That’s just crazy to me, when you get that kind of exposure, everyone should be able to google you name, find your site, where you’re performing next and how to get in contact with you. This includes comics that have managers and agents – those people should be working to earn their 10%. In my eyes, your basically just wasting a great opportunity.

Stand-up is great, I love it, it’s my favorite art form, but usually it is a gateway to other things. I can’t think of many renown stand-up comics that actually ONLY do stand-up, and that’s it. Can you?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

I'm very glad to read this post.

Kiki, I have a website (wink, nudge-nudge, opens box of chocolates). You make a good point about renown stand-ups, but there are plenty of talented veteran comics who uniquely do stand-up. They are renown on local radio stations and have enough draw to fill clubs but you don't hear about them because they work the road. Not everyone wants to be the voice of toenail fungus or wear makeup to deliver pizzas to Neil Patrick Harris.

I echo Myq's sentiment that if you're talented in various areas and you have the drive, pursue it. One worry I used to have was that I'd dilute the potency of one specific artform by not devoting enough energy to it. I thought people who work on stand-up 100% might be better at it than people who spread themselves thin with other ventures. They are--in the short-term.

With all this pressure to be a virtuoso, it makes you wonder how strong a stand-up you'd be if you put 20% into stand-up, 20% into acting, 20% into viral marketing, 20% into monologue writing and 20% into improv. You'd probably be an average stand-up in the time it takes Mr. 100% to get snapped up at festivals. But put more years into it, more work into it, and you two could meet up on the same gig. You with connections having worn many hats, and he with connections from having been considered a prodigy.

Matt seems to have approached the issue from a Corporate America hiring perspective. "We want someone with a strong business background, but experience in HR is a plus." So it could be that having extra skills puts you over the edge. Or it could be that once you're an established stand-up, people assume you can be marketable in other ventures (like Mitch Hedberg's joke: "As a comedian, they want you to do other things besides comedy...All right you're a cook. Can you farm?")

I don't think managers know what they want until you give it to them. As long as you're wondering what a manager wants from you, they'll try to make you fit the mold of the last interesting thing that walked into their office.

soce said...

I think it certainly helps to have multiple skills. In addition to my stand-up, I do music and sketch video work, and that's definitely opened up a variety of new doors for me that may not have been so easily cracked through my stage work alone.

myq said...

Kiki, thanks for weighing in with more information.

To one item you brought up--I think in the part that hasn't been released yet, I mention a number of standup comics that do basically only standup comedy (or at least have built their successful careers through it), the best example being Brian Regan, I'd say. One of the most respected comedians in the country, he fills theaters on the strength of the name that he built with standup alone (just checked his IMDB page, and every item in it is standup-related, it seems).

I mean, also he's amazing. And that's why something like that could happen, and should have happened, and happened.

But he's not alone. There are certainly numerous comedians making great livings in the college market, doing corporate gigs, cruise ships (some of them happy to be doing it, some of them likely less happy, but doing it nonetheless).

It is certainly doable, whether desired or not. (Hopefully it is desired for the bulk of those doing it.)

Also Abbi, while I agree with most of what you say (especially the part where you agree with me), I would gently question the usefulness of breaking down one's time/energy/commitment into percentiles, in that I think one can commit 100% to standup AND do other things, depending on one's circumstances (for example, if someone has a day job that allows for other creative work to be done during it... compared to someone who has to work all day without working on comedy at the same time, such that their 100% turns out to be even smaller than the other person's 20... don't know if this is useful to get into, but it's math so I figured I'd be in my element). All that said, I still say the ideal for anyone is to figure out what they want now and eventually, focus their energies in that/those direction(s), and then hope the universe loves them enough to allow for those circumstances. (Not that you were arguing with that point. Just wanted to talk about math I guess.)

Numbers and positivity!
(Not to say negative numbers aren't important either.)

soce said...

Myq talking about math = possible foreshadowing..

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Myq don't you ever gently question me again! Well, if you're trying to encourage those who diversify their comedic interests, then by all means encourage.

The 20% theory (borrowed from my comedy mystery miniseries "Paragraphs She Wrote") was to illustrate my previous fear of slowing my own progress by spreading myself too thin. To apply it without math, I'd say, if you're worried you're not any funnier than last year since you're not getting up as often as you'd like because you're also sending out a funny newsletter that takes you a month to draft and that no one reads, don't be afraid to drop the newsletter. Don't feel pressure to keep all these plates spinning because IF you're not meant to, eventually they come crashing down.

But yes, your time is what you make of it. Saying success in comedy is a percentages game is as silly as defining a comedy career by how many years someone's been doing it--it's not the best indicator because I've seen 10 year open-micers and 2 year comics with TV appearances. Not that open mics or TV appearances are good indicators either. The most accurate way to measure success is to cut your arm off and see how many rings you can count across the diameter.

soce how you titillate!

Margie said...

How did we know for sure we wanted to focus our professional lives on standup until we tried it? I think the same thing goes for other creative fields, and it's really important to at least give acting and writing a try. If you are good at just one of those, many doors can open up for you for your standup.

Anyone who was at Bridgetown... when the comedians who are on nbc comedies did the improv shows, the rooms were packed. Because people recognize them from tv. It's what got some people to come to the festival in the first place!

Warning: I'm about to use the word successful. That doesn't mean you have to make a lot of money or even be happy because some people have a hard time with that. But whatever your definition is, I do think that to be a "successful" comedian, you have to have a lot of people who like what you do and laugh at it. But how do you make that happen? It's different for everyone. But acting is certainly a more common path than Brian Regan's success story. So if you haven't tried it, you might be missing out on the key to your career.

When I first started, someone told me about "the comedian." "You don't know his name, but he makes six figures traveling up and down the east coast doing comedy." (This person defined success in terms of salary). But yeah, it's true, there are comics like that and they do comedy all of the time and they love it and are successful at it. Most NYC comics I know are not on that path of traveling the road. I knew a few who were. When they're in NYC, they do spots at clubs and then they go on the road. They make money when they do standup. I never saw them on a free show in the back of a bar. It's a different path, one that seems to lead to writing or acting for television or film for the ones who stick with it.

The comics I know in LA all take acting classes. My boyfriend, who most would describe as a standup/writer, has been taking acting classes for five years. He doesn't audition a lot, but when he does, he wants to do well. The thing I keep hearing is you have to do well in front of a casting director 4 times before they really recognize you and remember you and root for you. If you don't do well at all, it can be damaging and hard to un-do.

Casting directors really like standup and improv people, and so we have that on our side. Several NYC comics came out to LA for pilot season in the spring, and many of them said they were getting sent out for pilots but they didn't really know what they are doing. So it's just a wasted opportunity that could have done amazing things for their standup careers if they were prepared for it.

It's the same with writing. You are more marketable if you do more than just standup, and if a great manager or agent asks if you have any writing samples and you don't, that's just a wasted opportunity.

Kiki is great. She's a fan of comedy and she is able to recommend really talented people for those opportunities that would get them great exposure. I hope those people will be prepared as possible when they get such an opportunity. Kiki said "generally (since we cast TV pilots) we need to see that they have at least some acting chops." If you don't have acting chops yet, work on it so you don't blow it!

I feel like part of "focusing 100% on standup" is devoting some time and energy to really exploring all the different paths to success. There are so many ways, just don't dismiss any before you've really tried.

myq said...

Regarding what Margie has said...

I completely agree that people should certainly give acting and/or writing a shot, or anything that you haven't tried that might be relevant, or irrelevant, because any experiences you have can certainly be useful to creating comedy.

My assessment that there is no "SHOULD" about acting, say, is directed towards people who have given it a reasonable quantity of trying and found it unfulfilling, unenjoyable, and undesirable.

Definitely don't rule anything out without giving it a shot, definitely try things that are outside your comfort zone and might lead to more opportunity, but don't make yourself miserable in the present. Unless that's your process. Then go for it.

Obviously, do anything that you want to do, or think could be helpful or useful.

Regarding "the comedian" who lives in NYC and works the road ("I never saw them on a free show in the back of a bar"), I feel like that might not be entirely accurate. I think we all know plenty of comedians who work the road for a living and spend their time in NYC doing shows that they want to do, free or not. One example that springs to mind is DJ Hazard, an amazing human being and comedian who I know frequents the story-telling scene as well as clubs in the city, plus smaller shows as well... and also makes a living from working outside the city in clubs, cruise ships, etc. (I feel like I'm introducing him... please welcome to the blog, DJ Hazard.)

Also, I'm not sure the exact demographic of Matt's readers, so while I know many probably reside in the NYC comedy scene, some likely exist outside of it, and differing experiences are worth relating...

The point is, of course, if you want to write or act and aim for the opportunities that those can bring (whether from NYC, or hotel rooms on the road, where plenty of comics do a lot of such work as well), go for it.

I just wanted to reiterate that for those that want it, the path of "the comedian" does exist. The path may meander in and out of other opportunities, so certainly don't close yourself off to auditions, or submitting packets if the opportunity arises, but if you love doing standup in the present, and want to keep doing it in the future, I stand by my assessment that you "NEED" not do anything specific outside of pursue that. (Additionally, if you keep honing that skill that you love, eventually, outside opportunities will find you as well. As it seems Margie and Kiki have attested to. So I don't know if we're in disagreement really at all.)

Like Margie said, don't dismiss anything before you've really tried. And like I said, feel free to dismiss things after you've really tried, and keep trying the things you really like.

Anonymous said...

Apologies for not having a Google Account - This Eric I, hopefully adding something of value to this so-far excellent discussion.

And, sincerely - great stuff from everyone on this topic.

Thanks so much to all of you for your generosity (and to you, Ruby, for providing this homonym of "for 'em" for us).

THIS is one of the things which I *LOVE* most about our community.

So many of us are happy to help for the sake of helping, and also, it feels great to know that any valuable information received is often paid forward.

And, no, I'm NOT rolling.

I just love this game.

- Eric I, Focussed Almost 100% on writing great jokes, at making good jokes great, at making great jokes even greater, and thanks to great advice I've received from an extremely successful and respected comic . . . as painful as it is, I have learned the gruesome-yet-necessary task of "knowing when to kill [my] babies" (i.e., retiring, at least for the time being, jokes which *I* personally love, but which are consistently NOT hitting). For now, at least - as Myq astutely alluded to earlier (how could he have possibly alluded to it later?),- writing jokes is almost completely all it's about for me RIGHT NOW (I perform regularly, too - partly to improve that portion of my stand-up, but admittedly, largely, to get a feel for which jokes are working in which ways) - simply put - for me right now - the focus is on the writing - it's what I LOVE doing. I have long ago abandoned concrete "goals" other than to be the greatest writer of jokes I am capable of being. Whether that translates into a career in writing, or a career in stand-up, or, perhaps, into a bit of both, is not quite on my radar right now. Now, I just want to focus on becoming great at one thing, not because it's a path to anywhere in particular, but rather, because, as many of us have said (or at least know), it's great to spend the bulk of your day doing something you LOVE. In my experience, there aren't enough hours in a person's lifetime to become the hypothetical "Perfect" stand-up comic. Attell and CK are in their respective 22nd-ish years and, in my not-especially humble opinion, they're both STILL improving as stand-ups. Hell, I'll say it, as great as he was a "pure" stand-up ("Los Enchillas" and a couple of other nice efforts notwithstanding), even the late great Mitch Hedberg made HUGE strides from year 6 to year 8, from Year 8 to Year 10, from Year 10 to Year 12 BY ALMOST COMPLETELY FOCUSSING ON BECOMING *GREAT* AT ONE THING. Sadly we'll never get to see how great he could have become, and just in case it's not blatantly obvious already, I consider Sir Hedberg to be the Shakespeare of Comedy - the Greatest Of All Time up to this point. Getting back to my own personal journey, I truly wish that there were more than 24 hours in the day, even if only to be able to write even more. Wow - this was a long sign-off. I'm gonna go now, and write some more. Probably 99 not-great jokes and one great one. And because I LOVE the process so much, I even love writing the 99 non-great ones. I'm lucky, as many of us are, to be doing what I love. Great discussion. Thanks to all.

- Eric I


"What's money? A man is a success if he gets up each morning, goes to bed each night, and in between, does what he loves to do."

- Bob Dylan

Margie said...


I agree with everything in your reply. That was easy!

And you make a good point about DJ Hazard. I know some great comedians who are based out of NYC but are very successful working clubs and colleges across the country. And maybe that's the reason I don't see them on the bar/alt venue shows as often. They're out of town working a lot of the time, and many of them don't know the comedians who perform mostly in NYC very well. And comedians based out of different places than NYC certainly read this blog, and I agree that "differing experiences are worth relating."

Wait, I already said I agree at the top, what am I doing?! I'm about to read Part 2 of this topic, that's what!

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