Questions from a college kid who wants to do standup

A reader writes:

I'm a senior in college and over the past six months I've been considering becoming a standup comic following my expected graduation in May...I go to school in a city in Mississippi without any form of standup comedy scene. Thus, I have very limited standup experience. I perform at an annual comedy show at my college, and that's it in terms of my standup experience. Also, I'm planning on making a trip to NYC for this year's fall break, so as to experience the NYC standup scene, gauge my own abilities, and also visit a friend who lives there. Below are some questions I have regarding standup comedy, particularly as they pertain to my situation.

My fall break is Oct. 14-Oct. 17. Assuming I'm in NYC on those dates, will I have an opportunity to perform standup?

As an outsider I assume my performances would be limited to open mics only?
You're right.

Also, could you recommend some venues for me to perform at?
Slava's mic list is a good place to start. Identity Bar on Thursday and Woodshed on Saturday are two good ones in your date range.

Could you also provide some information I should know about performing standup comedy in NYC, such as what attire is appropriate, what length my act is limited to, etc.?
Wear whatever you want. If you have something unusual, people will make fun of it. But secretly, many of them are just too scared to wear something their friends would never wear. So don't sweat it. Anyway, there are lots of other things that are more important. Like what cologne you wear.

Your act will be 5 minutes (or less).

Could you explain what it's like when you're first starting out?
It's easy at first. And then it gets hard. For some reason, people tend to be funnier the first time they do standup than the 20th. That's when you really start to realize just how tough it is.

In regards to the launch of one's stand up career, do you have any tips?
Try out different stuff. Don't fall into the funnel of what everyone else is doing. Perform a lot. Edit, edit, edit. Get to the point and get out. Read/listen to interviews I've linked to with pro comics at this site. Watch lots of standup too.

Realize you're going to suck for a while. Be delusional about being better than you are so audiences think you're confident. But still, be humble in the back of your mind and know there's miles of hard work to go if you wanna get good.

And also live a life that's interesting so you become an interesting person with interesting points of view that will be interesting to others onstage.

From what I have gathered, it typically takes about one year of performing stand-up comedy in order to get paid. Is there any possible way to reduce that length, other than of course increasing the funnyness of the act?
One year? Good luck with that. In NYC it takes a lot longer (if ever) to make a living as a comic. But I guess you could go the angle of appealing to one specific demographic (college crowds, urban crowds, gay crowds, or whatever – maybe you should be a gay urban college comic!) and that would make you more marketable in your race to get paid. Really, I'd advise not worrying about getting paid right now. Get a job that doesn't suck and lets you do standup at night.

Do you have any general advice for me, perhaps based upon things that you have learned over the years or mistakes you made as a standup comic?
Most of what I've learned is here in this blog's archives. Start with the best of posts and work back from there if you really want to get into it.

Can you provide me with any details about the profession that I probably don't know that I should know?
Do it because you love it. Otherwise, it ain't worth it.

What are your thoughts on NYC as my post-graduation residence? Is it better than any alternative (ex. LA)?
I say yes. Move to LA if you've got something lined up. I think NYC is a better place to get good.

But you're prob even better off spending a few years in a city that's cheaper and has more stage time. Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, DC, Austin, and SF all come to mind. Do a few years there and then you can see if you're ready for a bigger city.

What are the difficulties associated with having a fulltime job while also pursuing a career as a standup comedian?
You need to stay up late and be out all the time. That can get in the way of, well, pretty much everything else in your life.


Abbi Crutchfield said...

Is it wrong that I'm already jealous of this kid?

Gonzalo said...

"You need to stay up late and be out all the time. That can get in the way of, well, pretty much everything else in your life."

That's one of the hardest things, is giving up all your friends and constantly putting relationships in harm's way. And juggling a halfway decent job... forget it. Don't do it, kid! Doing stand up is awful!

I remember when I started out, I met Larry Wilmore at this young writers thing and this other kid asked him how he balanced stand-up and his social life and he basically said, "I didn't. You don't have a social life. If you have a girlfriend, I guess try to make that work, but all your friends and everything else, you lose all that. All your friends end up becoming comedians and stand ups."

Really stuck with me, and at the time it seemed excessive, but now, I almost don't think he stressed that fact enough.

"Do it because you love it. Otherwise, it ain't worth it."

Truer words...

Sam Zayvan said...

Becoming a successful stand up comedian is very easy. All you have to do are the following things:

1) Spend every waking moment of your life for at least 10 years writing comedy, performing comedy, and thinking about comedy
2) Listen to and study every major stand up routine ever recorded.
3) Read every book on stand up comedy ever written as well as any interviews with stand up comedians.
4) Mine every emotion, neurosis, relationship, and life experience for anything that could be artistically interesting to others.
5) Find a way to combine all of the above into something radically conceptually new that nobody has ever seen.
6) Find some way to make that all funny.

london calling said...

work hard on being " dead inside " this makes the petty disapointments much easier to bear

Meghan said...

Abbi - I don't think it's wrong that you're jealous of this kind, but I do think it's funny because he's jealous of people like us.

This is actually a really great post. As someone who just moved to NYC and started stand up here not too long ago, I would stress the whole "accept that you're going to suck and be okay with it" part. I personally think that when you're starting out, it's more important to keep going, to keep working, and to keep striving for a positive attitude than it is to worry about impressing people with your sets. Of course, this is what I tell myself to keep myself from going insane as a newbie on the scene. Just keep going up again and again. Cherish the small victories, and use the mistakes as opportunities to improve.

Of course, I suppose it's easier for me to be so positive because I'm still so new. I'm not jaded yet, but if I've learned anything, like you all have said, you have to LOVE this. Otherwise, it's not worth your time.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Matt writes: "For some reason, people tend to be funnier the first time they do standup than the 20th."

Let's dig deeper into what is so magical about your first time. You are nervous and excited to be up there, so the adrenaline gives your performance energy. You may have had a beer or two to loosen you up. You also have the mindset of many non-performers, that getting onstage is hard but performing stand-up is easy: all you have to do is say something into the microphone.

You may have invited friends and family to watch you, so there are built in supportive laughs that you can't distinguish from genuine laughs. You have no sense of time and you can't see much due to the spotlight, so you're a bit disoriented. Once it's over you get more applause than when you came, so you're relieved, and you get a boost of self-confidence.

If you could package the looseness that alcohol brings, the energy and alertness that adrenaline brings, the lack of fear of being judged that family and friends provide, the delusion of ignorance, the confidence that applause instills, with sharp writing, great timing and originality, then you will have a good set. "But I can't get drunk, jog laps or pay my family every night!" Good news: those performance-enhancements can be substituted with time and experience. The only problem is time and experience are in constant battle with opportunity and self-doubt.

Create opportunities for yourself, stop doubting yourself, and keep writing.

Alex Grubard said...

A guy from Queens went up for the first time ever at Creek and the Cave at Friday's mic. He had some friends there and the lounge was packed, but rough. This guy gets flipcammed from three different angles. What does this guy have to express about his experiences to this room full of attentive New Yorkers?

"I hate my job. That's why I want to be a male porn star."

Stand-up is the best thing ever.

Hank Thompson said...

Do it for the money. Stand up is the easiest and quickest way to earn lots of cash for very little work.

Skip the open mics. Immediately start emailing bookers looking for headlining spots. Don't take no for an answer. If you insist that you're funny, then you are!

You only need a solid ten minutes to headline. Why ten? Cause applause breaks will fill in the remaining fifty. Write one more minute in case you choose to do a six minute encore.

Pay no attention to the light. It's not meant for actual talent. Treat it like a suggestion.

Don't ever abandon a joke. You wrote it. Therefore, it's hilarious. Blame the crowd for not laughing. It is ALWAYS their fault.

The front row is there for you to belittle and berate. Remember: the rest of the audience can't see their uncomfortable fidgeting. Show no mercy.

Removing your headphones or backpack is optional. Sometimes you just don't have time to take off those hard-to-remove items before going on stage.

Talk loudly in the back of the room when not performing. Doing so shows you are more important than the audience and the person on stage. Believe it!

Give joke advice to more experienced comics. Your fresh, naive perspective is sweet, sweet mana to seasoned veterans.

Always bring extra sharpies. You will be surprised how quickly they run out while signing the breasts of fans after a show.

Most importantly, as soon as you get on the scene, shake the hand of everybody you possibly can, both when you arrive and when you leave. Hand-shaking is always appreciated by stand ups no matter how hard they seem to be writing at the moment or how many times you've already shaken his/her hand in the prior seven days.

Danny Cruz said...

Meghan touched on this briefly and I feel she really hit the nail on the head. One of the most important things to do in your first year besides writing everyday and getting up every night is, focusing on the positives. I'm nearing the end of my first year and I've eaten an obscene amount of shit onstage.the only thing that keeps me going after bombing two or three times in a row is that great riff I had in the second show, or writing a joke that makes someone I respect laugh. It's these small victories that keep me from saying fuck it and quiting. Hope that helps

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Hank writes: "Write one more minute in case you choose to do a six minute encore."


Danny writes: "I've eaten an obscene amount of shit onstage."

LOL, Amen! Thanks for sharing. But let's be honest, your riff wasn't that great.

soce said...

If you want to pursue comedy hardcore, then you definitely need to give up your social life. It's very difficult to be in a relationship where you are working an 8-hour day job and then spending 4 hours a night at shows.

You basically get to hang out with your loved one between the hours of 11pm and 8am, although often you'll want to sleep some of those hours as well. And friends don't always warm up to "So you want to hang out with me? Then come watch me perform some time!"

myq said...

I second the idea that starting in a non-NY/LA city can be great. Especially since this questioner is somewhere that there is NO standup, so he can go anywhere that there is.

I also feel positive about the concept of feeling positive. At any given point after you've been doing standup a year, even if it seems like it sucks, you can look back at where you were a year ago and see that it sucked even worse. What have you done in the past year? Maybe you performed at a show you hadn't before, written a joke you like more than any other joke you'd written, made some new friends (two out of three is good).

Oh, and one way you can have some relationships, a full-time job, AND do standup at night is to work as a male porn star during the day.

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