Stand-up comedy seems to be undergoing an ongoing resurgence in popularity. Part of this is probably Netflix’s appetite for low-cost content: stand-up is even cheaper to produce than reality TV. The variety of new content delivery channels like YouTube also means that barriers to entry are lower than ever for new performers, and stand-up is easy to bootstrap. Finally, I moved to San Francisco from Montana recently, which means that now I live in a place where there are a bunch of stand-up comedy venues, so maybe it’s always been this popular and I just now noticed.
Many of us watch comedy in part because we’d really like to perform. We’ve all told jokes that our friends have laughed at, and the glamorous lifestyle enjoyed by luminaries like Louis CK and Bill Cosby is appealing. Like lottery tickets, cryptocurrency speculation, and startup equity, a successful comedy career promises fame, fortune, and a lifetime of enduring prestige. Unfortunately, it can be hard to figure out how to go from casually watching specials on your couch to actually telling jokes in front of an audience. I’ve been doing this for over two months now, and so I decided to write this guide to help you stop dreaming and start doing.
Step 0: Take a class (optional)
A lot of people think comedy classes are a waste of time and money. I respect their incorrect opinions, which is why I wrote “(optional)” up there and made this step 0 instead of step 1.
The funniest people I know didn’t take classes to start, and that includes the people who teach the classes I waste my time and money on. The funniest people I know also spent a long, frustrating time getting to the point where their material was strong and their delivery was funny.
Taking a class doesn’t immediately short-circuit the need to put in the time writing, re-writing, and practicing new material. But it does hold you accountable to work on your jokes every week, and it comes with a built-in framework to get started. Furthermore, your classmates will be a more forgiving and engaged audience than any you’re likely to encounter elsewhere. Finally, many of those same classmates will be out there trying to do comedy themselves, which means they’ll invite you to quality open mics and shows.
I take a weekly class at the SF Comedy College, which I highly recommend if you’re local.
Step 1: Write and practice some jokes
This seems obvious. It’s not. Some people come out to do comedy and they don’t have jokes. They have stories, which might have a sensible chuckle somewhere at the end, but are otherwise sad, rambling, and hard to follow. Depending on the performer that can still be engaging enough that the budding comedian will keep trying it.
Sometimes, people will come out there without any jokes and just try to come up with them on the fly. That’s no good either. Those people are me. I do that. Don’t do that. It’s a huge waste of everyone’s time.
Look: jokes have punchlines and tags and laugh points. I’m not telling you how to design jokes, or opining on the nature of humor. I’m just suggesting, gently, that you tell jokes as part of your comedy routine.
It’s also important that you practice the jokes before you go on stage to tell them. You don’t have to memorize the funny bit about your cat eating your gluten-free quinoa like it’s Hamlet’s soliloquy, but standing up there and reading verbatim off your phone can be really frustrating and it creates distance between you and the audience. I’ve done that, too.
Step 2: Find an open mic and tell your jokes
Tell your jokes to other people. Tell your coworkers. Tell Lyft and Uber drivers. Corner your neighbors in the elevator. Once you feel confident that you’ve hit upon something funny, find an open mic in your neighborhood and try it out! Depending on the audience, your delivery, the quality of the material, and any number of other factors, the people there might not laugh at it. Other comedians often don’t laugh even at jokes we think are really good. Sometimes we’ll shake hands afterwards and say “good job,” which is genuine.
Most open mics will let you go up for about five minutes. Some will let you have four minutes, and give you more time if you buy a drink. Sometimes, especially if there aren’t too many people signed up, the host will let you go for nine or ten minutes, until you run out of material. In any case, they’ll flash a light at you to let you know you should wrap it up – it’ll probably be the face of a cell phone or a smart watch, but it might be an actual flashlight. Usually, the light means you have one minute left. Once you see the light, wrap up your set and get off the stage. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but for professional gigs, “running the light” (going over time) can seriously mess with other people’s schedules. Get into good habits now. Once you get the light, finish up your current joke and say goodnight.
The jokes that are the best are usually the jokes that get laughs, and you keep those around and try to iterate on them – in software development, we talk about A/B testing, or the multi-armed bandit approach. That’s what we’re doing here. If you’re a psychology student, think about performing operant conditioning on yourself and your set, training your jokes to be good via the stimulus of audience reactions.
If people don’t laugh – and they won’t, not as much as you expect or hope – that’s okay too! If it was easy, if you could just come out and be like a combination of Dave Chappelle and the ghost of Richard Pryor after writing jokes for half an hour, there’d be no reason to do it. Keep practicing, keep writing, and keep attending open mics.
Step 3: Be a regular at your favorite open mic
If you remember only one thing from this post, make it this one. If you go to different open mics all over the city you’ll see a whole lot of new faces, hear a whole lot of new jokes, and you and they will blend forgettably into each other’s backgrounds. If you pick one open mic and make it your church, though, it opens up the possibility of building a real mutually beneficial promotional relationship with the venue. The other regulars at the same place will have seen you before, which encourages you to try new material frequently so they don’t get bored. It also means that the other regulars will grow to like you, which means that your performance will be more engaging, and you’ll get better feedback.
Furthermore, if you get to the point where you’re feeling confident enough that you want to invite your friends and coworkers to come watch you, having a consistent time and place at which you do comedy means that they’re more likely to be able to attend in the future. If your schedule constantly changes, it’s harder to bring an entourage with you, which means it’s harder for the venue to care since you’re not bringing in people who will buy drinks.
I got really lucky with this strategy. The first open mic I went to was Edinburgh Castle Pub, which is a short walk from my apartment. The host, TK Moyer, is a high-energy showman and a great comic, which makes it easier to bring other comedians and audience members back again and again. Really this whole blog post is just an ad for the Edinburgh Castle open mic, which happens every Monday at 8 pm at 950 Geary in San Francisco.
Step 4: Keep going
It’s hard. Comedy is hard. You get funnier as you keep working at it. You get funnier faster if you work at it consciously, considering the rhythm of the setups and punchlines and tags instead of just going at it haphazardly. But regardless of how quickly or slowly you improve, you have to put in the time.