How To Become a Standup Comedian

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Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Standup comedy is one of the most intimate and intimidating forms of performance out there. Mastering standup comedy requires years of hard work and dedication—not to mention thick skin and the will to persevere, no matter how many times you bomb. But stick with it and you’ll reap the rewards: Becoming a standup comedian will help you hone your comedic voice, connect in a unique way with your audience, and even launch an acting career. If you’re wondering how to get into standup comedy (or how to do standup comedy in the first place!) you’ve come to the right place. We’ll break down everything you need to know about how to be a comedian, from where to train to how to write a joke.

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What is standup comedy?

In the most basic sense, standup comedy is a form of comedic performance in which a comedian stands up (get it?) on stage in front of an audience and delivers a pre-prepared routine—usually a mix of jokes and longer humorous stories. Although material and performance style can vary wildly from comedian to comedian, there are a few things that are pretty universal when it comes to standup comedy as an art form: 

Standup comedy is a solo gig. Traditionally speaking, standup comedy is a one man or woman show. If you’re more comfortable performing as part of a team or ensemble, there are other forms of comedy—like sketch comedy and improv—that will allow you to scratch that itch. 

Standup comedy is made up of prepared material. Trying to get up on stage as a standup comedian and “wing it” is a recipe for disaster. Unlike improv comedy, which is made up on the spot, the best and most iconic standup routines are the result of lots of practice and careful refinement. That said, the best standups also know how to think on their feet, especially when faced with a heckler. 

Standup comedy is a performance. Standup comedy is one of the hardest forms of comedy to truly master because it’s not just about writing a killer set of jokes. It’s also about finding your voice and presence on stage, honing the delivery of each punch line, and developing the mental tools to deal gracefully with a joke that bombs or an audience that just isn’t responding.

How do I get started in standup comedy?

When it comes to standup comedy, getting started can be the most daunting part. Here are the first steps aspiring comedians should take to dip their toe into the world of standup.

1. Take a standup comedy class. Taking a class isn’t a requirement, but if you’re struggling with how to get started, formalized instruction can help. Many comedy clubs offer classes, or you may find a local comedian who offers group classes or one-on-one instruction (either in-person or online). A standup comedy class might be right for you if: 

  • You’re overwhelmed by the process of trying to write your first set.
  • You don’t have experience with joke-writing and comedic structure.
  • You’re struggling to find your comedic voice.
  • You’re having a hard time working up the courage to get out on stage and perform. 
  • You want to network with local comedians and other newcomers to the comedy scene in your city.

2. Perform at open mics. Whether you take a standup comedy class or not, putting in time at open mic nights is pivotal for any up-and-coming standup comedian. Open mics give you the chance to perform and fine-tune your set in front of an audience. They’re also a great place to network with other people in the industry, from fellow up-and-comers to bookers who can eventually tap you for more professional gigs. 

3. Find your voice. Standup comedy is one of the most personal forms of comedy—and works best when your set feels authentic. As tempting as it is, don’t try to imitate your standup comedy heroes. Instead, think deeply and critically about who you are in real life and who you want to be on stage. Make sure the two complement each other, even if they aren’t exactly the same. A good way to start this process is by asking yourself direct questions, like: 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?

What are some standup comedy tips for beginners?

Getting started might be the hardest step in your journey to becoming a full-fledged standup comedian, but no part of the process is easy. When you’re still in the beginning stages of your standup comedy career, here are some tips that will help keep you on track:

STANDUP DOs:

  • Perform as often as you can. Even the most seasoned standup comedians perform at small clubs (and sometimes even open mics), especially when they’re working on new material. You can write jokes alone, but you can’t actually practice standup comedy alone. Standup comedy only really exists with an audience and the more time you spend performing in front of audiences, the better your set will be.
  • Carry a notebook with you. A great way to get started writing your set 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.
  • Bring energy to the stage. Always hit the stage running! Comedy has an energy to it,” says 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.”

STANDUP DON’Ts:

  • Steal—or even borrow—jokes. You can find inspiration in other comedians’ timing or thematic undertones, but write your own set! Nothing will alienate you from the comedy community faster than stealing jokes.
  • Forget to take care of yourself. Many standup comedians (especially when they’re starting out) are juggling their comedy with a full-time job to pay the bills—a classic recipe for burnout. Make sure you get enough sleep, manage your time wisely, eat healthily, and exercise regularly. Self-care is key to a sustainable career in the performing arts.

How do I write a joke?

Practicing and performing are key to success in standup comedy, but without a solid set of material, there’s nothing to practice and perform. That’s where honing your joke-writing skills comes in. 

To learn how to write a joke, first you should understand its structure. Many comedians deliver their jokes woven into anecdotes or longer narratives, but every joke—no matter how it’s presented—can be 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,” explains acting and performing coach Shari Shaw. “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.

The next step is simple: Practice. Comedian Red Grant stresses the importance of making time to write jokes every single day. “Jokes come in and out of my head all day long, but when people ask me how I write them, I say, ‘Just write five minutes at a time,’” he says. “I know five minutes doesn’t sound like a long time but on stage, it can feel like an eternity. Writing for five minutes is simultaneously tricky and easy...it’s one of those classic comedy riddles.”

How do I write a standup routine?

Jokes are the building blocks of a standup routine, but the best standup comedy routines have their own narrative or thematic thread that ties everything together. Here are some tips for how to write a standup comedy routine that really gels.

Choose the right thing to make fun of. A golden rule in comedy is to always punch up. When you write a joke, carefully consider who or what the subject is—jokes land better (and tend to be less offensive) when they target people and institutions in positions of power, rather than those that are disadvantaged. 

Try to make your audience feel good. Making your audience think is great. Making them think, “Wow, everything is awful and I’m depressed now,” not so much. That’s not to say that sad or dark subject matter is off-limits—a lot of great comedy draws from dark places—it comes down to how you handle these topics in your jokes. If you’re adding levity to something your audience also struggles with they’ll be grateful. If you make them feel worse, why should you be getting paid to do comedy?

Be mindful of transitions. When you’re creating a standup routine, you naturally want to include all of your best material—but the best standup sets flow naturally, almost like the comedian is engaging in a one-sided conversation with the audience. Think about how you’ll transition between your jokes and play with the order and structure of the overall standup routine to find the best fit.

Consider the audience. Comedians perform their sets over and over again to perfect their jokes, and part of perfecting jokes comes from seeing how different audiences made up of people from different backgrounds react to them. The best and most iconic routines honor multiple points of view. Not every joke will resonate with every member of every audience, but jokes that make entire groups of people uncomfortable are duds. 

Avoid generalizations. Not only are generalizations a recipe for potentially offensive jokes, they just don’t make for great comedy. Your standup routine should feel specific to you and your lived experience. Aim to tell jokes that are true to your voice, but that draw on universal experiences and ideas. “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,”  says actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick,” “Silicon Valley”). “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.”

How do I perform standup comedy?

When you’re starting out, you probably won’t perform standup comedy at major clubs—or anywhere that pays you, even. Here’s where to do standup comedy when you’re still a beginner: 

Open mics: As a new standup comedian, open mics will be your best friend. They’re a great way to get experience on stage and network with other people in your city’s comedy scene. Open mics are a great way to network and get your performances in. (Pro tip: Try to time your meals around your performances to keep from going broke, since many clubs have a one- or two-item minimum during open mics.) 

Perform for other comedians: Open mics are great, but the audiences at them can be a real grab bag, so you may also find it helpful to perform for other comedians you trust to give you feedback. 

Start a writing or practice group: If performing for other comedians helps you improve your material, consider joining (or starting) a practice or writing group with other comedians you trust to help critique your jokes and delivery. 

Perform during your daily life: Another great way to practice standup comedy is to weave your material into day-to-day conversations. Try your jokes out on your friends, family, coworkers—basically, the people you already make laugh anyway. 

Post on social media: You can try posting jokes on social media to hone your routine. On apps like Twitter, this might mean sharing your jokes in writing, but TikTok and Instagram Live are great platforms for performing virtually. 

Put on your own show: If you want more practice in front of a live audience and open mics just aren’t cutting it, you can always consider putting on your own show. Keep in mind that this requires a lot more upfront planning and, usually, upfront money, as well, to rent a venue and advertise the show.

How do I deal with hecklers?

Hecklers—audience members who criticize or make fun of a comedian during their set—are an unavoidable part of becoming a standup comedian. Dealing with 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 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. In a Reddit AMA from 2014, Jerry Seinfeld shared his unique (and very effective) approach: 

“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…. 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.”

Can standup help my acting career?

For some performers—like Jerry Seinfeld, Jerrod Carmichael, Cameron Esposito, just to name a few—success in standup comedy translates very directly to acting opportunities. But even if you’re not offered a sitcom based on your comedy routine, performing standup comedy can boost your acting career in some important ways:

Standup comedy experience can help you nail auditions. Standup comedy can improve your auditions in several ways, like by helping you master timing and delivery of lines and giving you practice performing when you’re not in your comfort zone. 

Standup comedy helps you overcome stage fright. Standup comedy can make you a stronger actor by making you feel more at ease in front of an audience. Performing standup often means laying your soul bare in a way, and once you’ve mastered that, performing someone else’s lines feels much less intimidating. 

Standup comedy teaches you vulnerability. When you’re standing alone on stage, performing material you wrote yourself, often inspired by the most personal moments of your life and thoughts in your head, it’s natural to feel vulnerable. Learning to embrace vulnerability in front of an audience helps strengthen your acting across the board. 

Standup comedy trains you to stay present. You can’t phone in a standup comedy routine, which makes standup comedy a master class in staying present. If you get too into your head the audience will feel it and you have to be engaged and in the moment so you can react and adjust to the energy the audience is giving you. 

Standup comedy helps you develop your presence. When you’re doing standup comedy, all eyes are on you—and nothing but you. You can’t depend on other actors or even costumes or set design to keep the audience’s attention. Hone your stage presence in standup helps you become a more dynamic performer in general and captivate audiences (and casting directors) in your acting, as well.

Looking to put your comedy skills to good use? Check out these auditions!

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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