“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” comedian Victor Borge has said, and what a gift it is to close that gap between strangers and friends. Does that sound like something you’d like to dedicate your life to? Welcome to Standup Comedy 101, where we break down (with the help of some seasoned pros and industry experts) how to get started.
- How do I know if standup comedy is right for me?
- What’s the first thing I should do to become a standup comedian?
- How do I write a joke?
- How do I make a joke land?
- How do I find my voice as a comedian?
- How do I write autobiographically without alienating the audience?
- What do I do if a joke or a set bombs?
- How should I deal with hecklers?
- How do I turn my experience in standup into acting work?
If you’re here in the first place, it’s safe to assume that you feel the call to perform. If you’re the type of guy or girl who loves to get a laugh, loves to tell a story, loves to (as Borge says above) shorten the distance between two people, then it looks like you may have some natural-born talent as a standup comedian. Comedy in all its shapes and forms—from “how about that airplane food” to “two priests walk into a bar”—requires a special kind of regard for others and their behavior, and a unique perception of the things that make the world go round. A lot has been said about the day-to-day: What can you wax on that’s fresh and specific to you? As Backstage’s resident comedy expert Steve Kaplan says, we are just a “motley crew,” after all, “hurtling through the void in a cold, uncaring universe.” So why not make light of that existentialism with good humor?
“No matter how hopeless we are, how pitiful, how pathetic, how wrong-headed, how selfish, how petty our solutions, it's also wonderfully, gloriously human,” Kaplan writes. “And the comedian is simply the courageous person who gets up in front of a large group of strangers and admits to, simply confesses to being human—telling the truth about herself, and others. People may be sitting the dark thinking, I’m a failure, I'm defeated, I'm all alone. The comic artist goes out there and says, ‘Me too.’ The comic actor isn’t straining to be funny but simply allowing his own humanity, her own absurdity, with all the flaws, foibles, and failings, to inform the characters they play and connect with the audience sitting in the dark. The essential gesture of the comedian is the shrug. ‘Hey, you’ll live. I’ve been there, that’s life, you’ll live!’ The art of comedy is the art of hope. This is the truth, the comic metaphor for our lives.”
Isn’t that a beautiful thought? The art of comedy is the art of hope. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be presenting yourself as aspirational or privileged to the audience, though; just the opposite, in fact. It’s important for a comedian to have an everyman or everywoman approachability. We’re all hurtling through the universe; it’s the comic’s job to find the funny. If that sounds like your kind of happy, read on.
The answer to this one is easy (but, as is often the case, easier said than done). Don’t start standup if you’re not willing to put in the work. That will require you to start writing your own material, for one. There’s always the ongoing dramatics of comedians stealing each other’s work—that’s a conversation for another time and place (watch Dane Cook’s episode of “Louie” with Louis C.K. for a taste). But the long of the short of it is don’t partake in joke-stealing. You can find inspiration in other comedians’ timing or thematic undertones, but write your own set! A great way to get started is to keep a journal or carry a notebook for off-the-cuff musings and observations. Document how you see yourself and how you see the world; there’s something in there that’s worth telling.
Another practice that’s easy enough to ascertain for an early-career comic: Get your butt onstage! No one’s going to get to know you as a standup comic until you start putting yourself out there, and that means going through the paces of telling jokes at empty open-mic nights, writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting your 10 minutes of material, networking with and befriending other comics, and working your tail off in that spotlight until you start seeing results. Not to play mom here, but the early days of that long haul may mean late nights in bars before waking up in the morning for your 9-to-5: Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, manage your time wisely, eat healthily, and exercise regularly.
That last part is particularly important, considering the physical and mental effort that comedy requires. Comedy in itself has a rat-a-tat rhythm that requires its masters to be of sound mind and body. “Always hit the stage running! Comedy has an energy to it,” says Backstage Expert and acting coach Cathryn Hartt. “Even if you’re doing very laid-back humor, there’s a buzz to it. Plus, you have to be having fun to do good comedy, so you need to get your ‘juices’ flowing. You can’t do comedy tired or dragging. And you don’t want to have fake energy. It will make you feel and look forced and unfunny. So really jump around and get the blood pumping in your body and your brain. Everything will happen faster and more easily.”
Again, there’s no one way to do this, but whether you’re taking your comical cues from Kathy Griffin or Chris Rock, the structure of a joke will generally be a story broken into two basic parts: the setup and the punch line. One doesn’t work without the other. “The setup provides the information that gives the joke context and allows it to make sense,” says Backstage Expert and acting coach Shari Shaw. “The setup sets the circumstance that makes the punch line funny…. There can be a lot of setup or just a little, but it’s got to be there and it’s got to give the exaggerated or surprising punch line meaning.” Next stop? The punch line, which delivers the joke. It usually runs as “an exaggerated or surprising response to the information provided in the setup,” Shaw says.
You can be writing the most incisive and accessible joke the world has ever seen, but it won’t mean anything unless you know how to deliver it. That’s where experience in performing onstage comes in handy, simply so you’re comfortable and light on your feet in front of an audience. But when it comes to this setup–punch line structure discussed above, Cathryn Hartt says that for both standups and comedic sitcom actors alike, you have to have clean beats. One of the most actionable ways to do this as a newbie is to take a breath, make a face, and then say the line.
“It’s simple: Make a face, then say a line,” Hartt says. “It’s good to move first before a line anyway, as it makes a cool beat. And, on camera, it makes for a better edit. Plus, it forces you to have reactions. The beats can be quite fast or a slow reaction that you ‘milk’ for laughs. This is great for basic commercial timing, too.”
Finding your voice as a comedian is accomplished by the same means as a lot of things in an entertainer’s life: trial and error. While being a standup is different from being a comedic actor in that you want to be a version of your authentic self onstage, you won’t know what lands and resonates with audiences until you get out there and test it in real time. The best way to do this is to “let your unedited inner child out” to play, says Shaw.
“Let loose and go for it. Look for it. Unless you’re a real dud, it’s there,” she says. “When you’re out with friends and they laugh at something you say, make a mental note of what you did and how you did it, how you sounded, and why they responded the way they did. That’s your quirk. That’s your special weirdness that no one else possesses. That’s your funny. Apply it to your joke delivery and it’ll work. And when all else fails, just fall back on another comedy rule: Say your line bigger, broader, faster, and funnier. Once you’ve found your funny, try your line deliveries in different ways —faster, bigger, broader, quieter, with attitude. Sing it with some body movement. Whisper it. Cry it. Flip the meaning of the words and say it in a surprising way. If you’re talking about being happy, reverse it and say it with sadness. Cover your disgust with excitement. Say ‘I love you’ with hatred. Experiment with vocal tones. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find by delivering the same line in different ways over and over. When your body tells you, ‘Wow, that was loose and made me laugh,’ you found it. If it’s tight, it’s not right.”
Backstage Expert Jamie Irvine agrees: Ask yourself questions. “[It’s] a useful starting point,” he says. “How do people see me? What stereotype(s) do I most easily fit into? What is funny about me? What is funny about where I come from? What is funny about how I live my life? And perhaps most importantly, what do I find funny? If you start [there], your material and approach are more likely to be original because they’re unique to you.”
While you yourself are the most important part of developing your voice, knowing who your audience is may also help you sharpen and realign what works and what doesn’t. That’s something that immediately struck us when meeting with standup comedian and actor Jerrod Carmichael last year to discuss the final season of “The Carmichael Show”: He knows his audience like the back of his hand. Even at the height of his success at NBC, Carmichael does standup whenever he can. When he was in New York City for our interview, he made it a point to do a quick set at the historic Comedy Cellar. “Sometimes when I’m writing the script [for ‘The Carmichael Show’], I’ll go onstage and talk about what we’re talking about in the episode to really explore how I feel about it,” he told us. Contrary to popular belief, though, Carmichael says standup isn’t all about the laughs. “I’m looking for feeling, I’m looking for connection, I’m looking for a reaction…. When I think comedian, I think [of] the satire of Mark Twain as much as the jokes of Chris Rock. Obviously, laughs are an important thing and you want to be funny and you want to give [audiences] that experience, but you also want them to feel some type of connection to what you’re saying. I treat my audience like adults.” In that sense, he wants to make “art that’s perceived to require thought.” Using him as a case study certainly shows how one can reap the benefits of knowing a thing or two about their demographic.
Cameron Esposito of Seeso’s “Take My Wife” also has a unique approach to finding her standup voice: She talks to herself. “I think almost all standups do standup so they can talk to a younger version of themselves,” she says. “In my case, it was really, really difficult to come out. I didn’t know gay adults, and I didn’t know that I could have a positive life. I was personally really upset to figure out who I was, and it doesn’t have to be that way; that’s always what I’ve been trying to [communicate], talking about my life.”
Esposito brings us to the next point in our standup comedy guide, and that’s writing autobiographically. This is probably the most common way comedians do their thing; no one else in the world sees their world with their eyes, nor do they live the life that they live. The old adage is “write what you know” for a reason. But that also risks alienating those who don’t understand or relate to the life that you’re talking about. One of the ways Esposito fixed this dilemma was by taking her own advice: talking to her younger self. In that sense, she’s going out and talking pretty directly to all lesbians, young and old, who she knows will understand what she’s relating onstage. She knows her audience and finds her voice through them.
“I never really worried about talking about my life because all standups talk about their lives,” she says. “[Being ‘too gay’ is] a criticism that I get all the time, and it doesn’t make any sense to me because I can’t see the world any other way.”
Taking a look back at our “The Big Sick” cover story with Kumail Nanjiani, he, too, weighs in on his secrets for writing autobiographically: The key is to be specific to you while also picking out nuggets of universality.
“As long as you’re writing about stuff that is interesting to you, you have to trust that it’s going to be interesting to the audience,” Nanjiani said. “You can’t predict what people are going to relate to. All you can do is try to articulate your own life and your own issues in the clearest way you can, and trust that we’re all similar enough that people will find something to connect to.”
Don’t be shy, either, about asking larger questions in your work. Writers don’t have to have it all figured out. If you’re asking the “big questions,” these are likely doubts and queries everyone has, and it’s through the not knowing that a shared emotional language is created. In “The Big Sick,” for instance, Nanjiani grapples with his Muslim upbringing while onstage doing standup. No matter one’s religion, you’d be hard-pressed to find an adult American who hasn’t questioned their faith (or lack thereof).
“You have to try and tackle the stuff that bothers you,” he said. “Articulate those questions. That’s really all you need to do…. We’re in a world where people try and divide themselves from other people, and [we] really have so much more in common than [not]. We’re ultimately just kind of looking for food and love and meaning and understanding and community. So if you can articulate your experience in a real way, the audience will find you.”
Sometimes, however, the wrong kind of audience will find you. Maybe they just don’t get your sense of humor or they’re of one dominant and opposing ideology compared to yours. No matter the case, sometimes you have an off night up there. It happens to everyone. You’ll see the pros let it slide off like water off a duck’s back—they hardly pay it any mind, and then they’re back to swimming. As an early-career standup, that’s what you should aspire to. But that thick skin doesn’t build up overnight; it takes sets upon sets upon sets of weathering. Even when something doesn’t fly because the crowd is too young or too old or too male or too female or too gay or too straight or simply on or off, it’s your job as the comic to take it in stride. Don’t waste a breath with a bout of self-deprecation (which you’ll notice a lot of comics resort to). Just make a mental note and tweak the bit to perfection for next time.
Hecklers are a bit different from joke-bombing because they’re all but pushing themselves into your set and forcing you to interact with them. Just like with joke-bombing, though, handling hecklers comes down to confidence and an ability to think on your feet. Sometimes they require a jab back to make them be quiet—give it to them. You’re a comedian! Use your wit. Some comedians also opt to engage hecklers in conversation and feign an actual interest in what they have to say. Others bring them onstage. Others kick them out. But we like Jerry Seinfeld’s approach; in a Reddit AMA from 2014, he says he takes on the role of therapist for said heckler.
Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. So that when people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger. It opened up this whole fun avenue for me as a comedian, and no one had ever seen that before. Some of my comedian friends used to call me—what did they say?—that I would counsel the heckler instead of fighting them. Instead of fighting them, I would say “You seem so upset, and I know that's not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let's talk about your problem,” and the audience would find it funny and it would really discombobulate the heckler, too, because I wouldn't go against them, I would take their side.
You see it all the time: Acts like the aforementioned Jerrod Carmichael, Cameron Esposito, Kumail Nanjiani, and even Jerry Seinfeld take their material and skill sets honed on the standup stage and bring them to screens big and small. Unfortunately, there is no one set road map to making this happen. It’s the aspired destination of many, but the actual result is for the few with the talent and determination to break through. Keep it going by attending open mics and booking local comedy gigs and getting an agent and getting seen by and networking with the right people—these are the kinds of things that, one after another, lead to comedic success off the stage, too.
Otherwise, a comedic actor’s journey is very much like that of any other actor. For more detailed, step-by-step advice to that end, give our How to Become an Actor Backstage Guide a read; we know it’ll have some handy tidbits for you.