Standup comedian Kumail Nanjiani relocated to New York City from Chicago in 2007 to jump-start his career. Fast-forward just two years, and Nanjiani has been named a comedian to watch by Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and New York magazine, writes for and performs on the Comedy Central series "Michael & Michael Have Issues," has appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman," "The Colbert Report," and Comedy Central's "Hot List," and is touring his standup act. This year he's also developing a sitcom pilot for NBC.
And he did it with a little help from his friends. Nanjiani knew other Chicago transplants in New York, such as comedian Pete Holmes, and he'd opened for Zach Galifianakis on tour before moving to the city. As soon as he landed in New York, Nanjiani started performing regularly at open-mike nights, where he met and built relationships with more-established comics like Eugene Mirman and Michael Showalter.
"It was sort of lucky, where I had known the right people coming here, and then once I did shows, I always had the right people seeing me," Nanjiani says. His rapid success is the exception rather than the rule, of course, but his career suggests the many opportunities available for comic performers in New York, whether their goal is standup, improvisation, or sketch comedy.
For standups, Andy Engel, director of new talent at the comedy club Comix, says there are five basic ways to get stage time in New York: open mikes, "bringer" shows (which require that performers bring a certain number of paying audience members), "bark" shows (comics must stand on street corners and "bark" for a club by handing out flyers before performing), standup classes, or by starting your own comedy show at a new venue.
But no matter your approach, the most effective way to develop your comedy career is to get lots of stage experience. "If you really want to be a professional comedian, how good could you possibly get if you're only going on stage once a month?" asks Chris Mazzilli, owner of Gotham Comedy Club. Though they don't pay, open mikes and classes offer an environment where you can test new material—and, perhaps more important, where you can fail. With hundreds of open mikes throughout the city, there are enough slots for hard-working newcomers to get on stage seven nights a week. And performers at open mikes are also considered for the club's mainstage and headlining shows.
Pay attention to the various opportunities offered by comedy clubs and other venues, from career advice and mentoring to networking and auditions. For example, those selected to perform at the weekly new-talent show at Comix (and who bring at least 15 audience members) also receive a free DVD of their standup set—which Engel calls an invaluable "comedy résumé." For more information about the options available to new standups, Mazzilli hosts seminars at Gotham Comedy Club, where working comedians and bookers such as Eddie Brill (who books comics for the Letterman show) answer questions and offer advice.
Performing at the city's major comedy clubs is like one ongoing audition for late-night talk shows, sitcoms, and other TV gigs, says Engel: "It's a huge opportunity, because casting people are continually looking at all the different clubs in the city on a regular basis. And if the club owners get to know you and they know what type you are, when they get a call for a certain type of comic, they can call you in."
Using many of the skills of traditional acting, the worlds of sketch comedy and improv may be more familiar to actors, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the Peoples Improv Theater (the PIT), and the newer Magnet Theater are your best bets in New York for classes, shows, showcases, and information. But don't ignore traditional open mikes, says Alex Zalben, who performs as part of the sketch-comedy troupe Elephant Larry and teaches classes at the PIT:
"We went to every single open mike we possibly could, and they totally sucked. But the thing that happened there was we started to see the same people at the open mikes who we also thought were funny, and then when we had a show we would say, 'Hey, do you guys want to do a short set opening for us?' And when they had a show, they would say, 'Do you want to do a short set opening for us?' Pretty soon we didn't have to do open mikes, because everybody was supporting each other and putting each other in each of their shows."
"The hardest thing about moving here is starting over," says Nanjiani. "I think that's really, really important. And you just have to swallow your pride and do shows at 5 p.m. and get in line and sign up. The rewards are there. You're going to get so much more exposure from being in New York that it's worth putting in that time again."