4 Questions Aspiring Comedians Should Ask Themselves
Welcome to Cracked's Comedy 101, where we offer comedy coursework without adding all that much to your student loan debt. Today, we'll be covering some questions any aspiring comedian should ask themselves.
If you’re starting out in stand-up comedy, or just thinking about trying it out for size, I'm gonna have to stop you right there and ask you the same question your parents will no doubt run over and over in the back of their minds upon learning your intentions: WHY?!?
It’s a fair question. Why would you want to invite such lunacy into your life, much less consider making a career out of it?
So, in that spirit, I’m gonna pose four additional questions that I feel every greenhorn comedian might need to ponder at the beginning of this wonderful journey/potential trainwreck. Because these are the kinda things that, if I had a time machine, I would probably go back and ask myself at the start of my career… well, that and maybe relay some lotto numbers, stock tips, and a long list of people not to date.
What Do You Hope to Get Out of This?
I want you to think of what you want most from a career in comedy. What does ultimate success mean to you? More to the point, which comics have found the success that you would sell your soul to have? Got it?
Now, here’s the bad news: You’re likely never going to have what they have… at least statistically speaking.
I’m not saying that to dash hopes or crush dreams, I just want you to understand the odds you're up against. There’s just not a lot of room at the top, and unless they Louis CK out of existence, they don't leave.
As such, they haven’t had to audition or beg for work in a very long time. Opportunities chase after them instead of the other way around. It’s not that they don’t toil hard for what they have or don’t put out great work, they’re just in a position to choose which projects they really want to take on.
So, any advice you can glean from famous comics in their autobiographies, from interviews, or from clickbait gridset videos needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Draw inspiration from their stories? Yes. Treat them like step-by-step instructions? Hell, no!
For example, if they talk about how everything started blowing up for them after they moved to L.A., that doesn’t mean you have to move to L.A. as soon as possible.
Catching your big break is way more of a question of if than a matter of when, and no one knows what their big break will come until after it happens. Sometimes, it’s the result of a lot of hard work. Sometimes, it’s a matter of simply being in the right place at the right time. If you’re particularly petty, you might get some results by making sure your competition is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One approach at the beginning is to take everything one step just outside of your comfort zone. Then if you need practical advice on what to do next, ask someone who’s two or three steps ahead of you rather than someone who crossed the finish line years ago.
Are You Ready to Handle Failure?
There’s a moment a lot of comics experience when first starting out where comedy goes from being a hobby to a pursuit… when they’ve had a lot of good sets thus far and they start thinking, “You know what, I think I can really do this!”
You can typically tell when this moment hits them. They add “Comedian” to their name on social media. They print business cards. They get head shots made where they're holding one of those (ugh) boxy vintage microphones absolutely no one in comedy uses except for show posters.
But then, reality creeps in.
They start to frequent different venues and get up in front of different audiences and that leads to bombing for the first time… hard. Or they start getting rejections from bookers and club managers. Or they enter a comedy contest and lose to a substitute gym teacher. If any or all of those things happen they get a fast baptism in rough nights with long, quiet drives home.
Part of the comedian learning process is accepting that having a bad set will happen, and that you’re gonna have to deal with rejection a lot. Over time, you start to figure out how to read the room better, or how to switch gears in the middle of a set to different material the crowd might like more. If the crowd doesn’t like you, there are things you can do during your set to win them over, or at the very least not bomb that badly.
But despite learning those skills, there will be shows that just absolutely crush your soul. Sometimes so much so that it sticks in your brain going into the next gig, but then you inexplicably wind up crushing it. Or the opposite happens, when you have one of the best sets of your life and you go into the next gig feeling pretty cocky, and then you bomb worse than ever. It can be quite an emotional rollercoaster.
The trick is to find a way to average out your mindset, where you’re not letting the bad sets destroy your confidence, but you’re also not letting the really good sets go to your head. Find a baseline between those two extremes you can return to before each show. Develop some rituals that help get you to that place every time. Listening to a particular song, walking around outside, stretching exercises, whatever works for you.
For a couple of years, my ritual was a shot of whisky before my set, and taking another one on stage with me. Was it a perfect plan? Nooooo… I swear, you agree to do one kid’s birthday party and all hell breaks loose.
Are You Willing to Lose Friends Over This?
Not gonna sugarcoat it, but stand-up comedy can cause you to lose a lot of friends. Not to say that your friends are gonna ditch you just because you decided to become a comedian, it’s just that there are a lot of reasons why comedy could cause you to drift apart.
For one thing, learning how to write and perform comedy can really screw with a lot of new comics’ social skills. They’re always working on new material, and there is a tendency to want to test out those new jokes on pretty much anyone within earshot. “Being on” all the time can get annoying really freaking fast, especially the habit of trying to shoehorn that material into a normal conversation.
For another, pursuing a comedy career means you’re gonna be busy on a lot of nights and mainly on weekends, so that might put a huge strain on many of your non-comedy friendships. You may not be left with a lot of time to hang out with them. On the flip side of that, your friends may not always be available to come cheer you on. A lot of comics starting out may be able to get a ton of their friends out to see their shows, but after a while those numbers start to drop. It’s not that your friends no longer support your comedy, it’s just that they may start to lose interest in seeing you perform every time you go up.
And for your comedy, that may actually be a good thing. It’s great to have your friends in the audience to cheer you on, but that’s not exactly honest feedback, is it? You’re never gonna learn from mistakes in your act if there are always ringers around cheering on everything you say. It’d be like watching a contestant on Family Feud blurt out the dumbest answer possible and the rest of their family starts clapping and shouting, “Good answer!” That contestant might just go the rest of their life maintaining that Jell-O is a fruit.
Comedy Specials Make It All Look So Easy, Don’t They?
I grew up on stand-up comedy. I listened to every comedy album I could get my hands on. I recorded, cataloged, and religiously watched every comedy special that came out on HBO or Showtime. I really didn’t absorb all of that comedy in the hopes that I would become a comedian one day. I was just a fan. It did also earn me the label of “the weird kid” in school, but that’s just what happens when you put off learning how to socialize in favor of memorizing Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small at age 10.
I didn’t actually try standup until I was 31, and for my first year, I felt like I was doing so much wrong. I had fun and got some laughs, but none of what I thought I was supposed to be doing based on all that stand up I absorbed as a kid worked. I was careful not to rip anyone off, but I tried to adopt some of the same types of mannerisms, joke structure, and timing in my material just like my heroes did in their specials, but still… everything just felt off.
And then I learned how all of those comedy specials and stand-up segments actually got made. They film multiple shows in the same venue with the comic doing the same set and wearing the same outfit, and whichever show had the best crowd/performance, that was the keeper.
But then they often edited in shots from one of the other shows and hid the splices with wide shots of the audience. In editing, they can tinker with the timing of a joke and the sound mixer might layer in laughter from the other shows as well. If it’s for broadcast TV, they may have to chop the set up out of sequence so it plays better with commercial breaks. These specials weren’t trying to be deceptive, only more efficient.
If you really want to see how much of a difference editing can make in a comedy special, check out Tony Hinchcliffe’s One Shot. That special was filmed just as the title suggests, in one long continuous take. No cuts, no alternate takes, no layered-in laughter. The camera never leaves him as he walks into the club, does his set and walks right back outside. If a joke doesn’t get a huge laugh, they leave it as is. It’s all there, warts and all. It’s as close to the real deal as any comedy special can be.
Realizing how those specials were edited changed my whole perspective but in a good way. I wasn’t aping the timing of these famous comics, but rather the guy in the editing bay. The little mannerisms I learned from the specials that I thought would better engage the crowd were off because they were probably cutting away to B-roll footage of a completely different crowd. The less I tried to replicate what I thought was their winning formulas, the better I got at finding something that worked for me.
The point that I’m trying to make here is that if you want to be a comedian, don’t worry too much about what bigger comics got right or else you might not see what you’re doing wrong. What those comics did was largely the result of a lot of lessons they had to learn the hard way, along with some clever editing to polish it up real shiny. Besides, no one ever became the next big thing by imitating the previous big thing.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter (https://twitter.com/FritschieComic), and he thanks you for your time.