Are you a New Yorker looking to break into the world of comedy? Welcome to Standup Comedy 101, where we break down (with the help of some seasoned pros and industry experts) just how to get started! For our full guide on how to become a standup comic (which also covers when comedy doesn’t go as planned and you’re stuck with hecklers or a bombed set) visit our Backstage Guide archives here. But if you’re looking specifically for New York opportunities and tips, you’re in the right place!
- How do I know if standup comedy is right for me?
- What’s the first thing I should do to become a standup comedian in NYC?
- Where can I find open mics in New York City for new comedians?
- What are some of the best venues in New York City for standup comedy?
- 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?
- How do I turn my experience as an NYC 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 and loves to tell a story, 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.”
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. New York City has a reputation for chewing you up and spitting you out, and it’s earned it! Succeeding here will require you to start writing your own material, for one. 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 in Manhattan, Harlem, Brooklyn (all over the five boroughs!), 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, jumping on the subway, and heading in 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.”
These are the basics to getting started, but ask any comic, and it immediately becomes clear that there’s no one way to reach success in standup. Some comics spread their wings in social media (which entertainers of all kinds should be taking advantage of: Take to Twitter to see what sticks with your audience!). Others find their voice in the theater and transfer their performative passions to solo stage work. To give you a better idea of the diversity that’s out there, especially here in New York, we asked six comics-on-the-rise who got their start in NYC for their best pieces of advice for standup comedy’s incoming freshman class.
Joel Kim Booster: “When you’re starting out, it’s so important to find other people who are starting out who you connect with and that you vibe with and sort of create a community with those people. It’s the hardest thing to do: to start off doing standup comedy, especially. Going to open mics is miserable; it’s one of the saddest things you’ll ever do. It takes months and months and months before anyone will remember your name…. The most fun part of early standup is meeting the people who are also starting up—whose personalities you appreciate—and sort of latching onto those people…. Those are the people that kept me going back to the open mics, no matter how rough it got or how hard the audiences were.”
Drew Anderson: “Do it. Just do it. Open mics can be really, really scary, and I think all it takes is really just going. At first, you really feel like you suck, and then you keep doing it and you get one or two laughs and you let that propel you. Keep going to open mics, and surround yourself with people that you feel like you can uplift and who uplift you. That’s the key. There’s so many people in New York City, so many comics. So just take the time to find people who will celebrate you and who you can celebrate and support.”
Bill Dawes: “I think one of the biggest fears about doing standup is...that you’re going to bomb, so I think you have this kind of methodized idea of what bombing is because of movies or TV shows…. As the performer who’s bombing, although that is definitely part of it, it’s so kind of connected to the need for expression that it doesn’t really matter. If you’re trying to express a unique point of view and you’re opinionated and you don’t necessarily have your audience yet, that’s going to happen. So the people who really end up making careers in comedy, they’re not out there pandering, trying to get laughs—they’re out there expressing tough ideas that mean they’re going to bomb.”
Davey Melch: “It’s OK to fail. Like, your jokes are going to suck at first. When I first started, I had some really good jokes, and I had some really bad jokes, but it took me a while to hone all my material…. I wish I would have known that it’s OK to go up as many times and to fail. The failures and the learning what is funny...will come with time.”
Sarah Kennedy: “You should always record your sets. It’s very important. You’ll see comedians all around the country, who every time they’re onstage, they’ll take their phone out and record…. You can go back and maybe pick up on things you were too busy trying to perform to [notice the first time]…. You don’t see that unless you’re taping all your sets, or recording them at least.”
Lauren Krass: “This is a hippie piece of advice, but I think it’s great to remember to actually live your life. You can’t write jokes about constantly going to coffee shops and writing jokes, because that’s not funny. Take a class, go on a date, don’t not hang out with your friends because you have to go to a mic or write. I feel like the thing that’s gotten me this far is self-care. I’ve seen people burn out, and I just think it’s important to remember to live your life [and] have friends that aren’t comedians to keep you grounded. They’re also the best people to write jokes with, because they’re the people who would be laughing at them.”
Sure, it’s a scary thing for anyone to get up onstage for the first time, but we’d be remiss not to emphasize the importance of the open mic. Ask any comic, and they will have a horror story or two or three or twelve, but put simply: Your voice won’t be honed, your style crafted, your jokes mastered until you get them up on their legs in front of an audience. You won’t be making money to get up and tell jokes in the beginning (in fact, many open mics in New York City require a cover charge for comics to get a few minutes in the spotlight), but for better or worse, that’s just the name of the game. While it’d be impossible to list all the open mic opportunities available in Manhattan and (increasingly) Brooklyn, Queens, and their surrounding areas, a good place to start is simply by seeking out well-known comedy clubs and their affiliates (some of which you can find listed below) and inquiring if they have open mic opportunities. If they don’t, they likely know where to send you. You won’t find opportunities as a comedy newbie at a venue like the Comedy Cellar, but a trendy Bushwick spot like Idlewild? Sure!
Another asset that can help in your search for open mics is Freemics, a website that lists your area’s best open mics for freshman talent. You can filter by location, time, price, and more.
Sometimes, one of the best ways to fine-tune your voice as a comedian is to watch other comedians at work. Even if you’re on the fence about whether life as a standup comic is for you, visiting some of the first-rate comedy clubs and bars that the city has to offer will give you a sense of the daily grind, ethos, and atmosphere that such a life demands. As stated above, not all bars offer open mics that would allow you to get up onstage for a few minutes, but some of them do! Do your research and get to know what’s what and where’s what. Below, we’ve chosen three venues (of the city’s countless) that all offer something a little different for New York performers. These three and more should be on your radar whether you’re going for work or play.
When it comes to New York comedy bars, this is one of the top destinations for locals and tourists alike. On any given night and at any given time, you’re guaranteed a good laugh and jovial crowds with yummy bites and booze. Plus, for a show at this historic establishment, you’ve got options: It’s expanded its space to a Village Underground venue that’s a little more spacious and still rakes in the talent.
The Stand has the kind of success story we can get behind. Though it just opened a short six years ago, it’s currently closed up shop at 3rd Avenue to move into a larger space in Union Square and meet the demands of its growing clientele. Sure, one of the reasons is its lack of a two-drink minimum, but it also brings the funny (and some delicious grub) night after night! If you want to check out what the Stand is all about prior to its 16th Street reopening this fall, you’re in luck, too: The company is currently touring NYC with various pop-up comedy nights. Visit its website to see where to catch them next.
The Duplex has it all. The historic piano bar adjacent to the equally historic Stonewall Inn is known for its night-night singalongs, drag shows, variety revues, and, yes, standup comedy. You’re as likely to find something as off-the-beaten path as a “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”–themed cabaret drag show as you are a buzzy up-and-comer on the mic and piano. For comedians who want to see what their brand could look like outside the confines of traditional standup, the Duplex is a well of inspiration. Plus, did we mention they have a great open mic?
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 the 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 to discuss the final season of “The Carmichael Show”: He knows his audience like the back of his hand. 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, co-creator of the show “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 says. “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 says. “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.”
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.
Check out Backstage’s comedy audition listings!