How do I learn to be a comic?
March 9, 2023 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I’d think I’d like to experiment with stand-up comedy as a creative outlet. I am a complete amateur with no recent experience in theater, comedy, etc. How does one go from zero experience to writing an initial routine to not embarrassing yourself at a small open mic? What resources should I be using to develop skills?

I work in the ashes of the dying American healthcare system, and I have been managing an absurd bureaucratic clusterfuck of a situation for six straight days. Somewhere around day three, I realized I was narrating the events in my head in a stand-up comedy cadence, with exaggerated voices and pauses for punchlines. Then I got to thinking about all the other absurd things I encounter day in day out, and I thought, maybe I could make a longer routine…

I have zero experience with comedy writing specifically, but I’m an okay prose writer, people tell me I’m funny, and I genuinely like public speaking and being in front of an audience. I am absolutely not looking for real money or viral success, just the ability to perform solidly at some local open mics and see where it takes me.

Where do I even begin to learn how to turn the things in my head into structured comedy? Are there particularly well-regarded writings, videos, etc about the craft of comedy and how to structure a series of jokes? If I were to seek out a local comedy community or classes or something, how do you select for ones that aren’t asshole-dominated? (I realize that hearing a lot of your own and others’ mediocre jokes is part of the learning experience, but it would be great if those mediocre jokes weren’t about hating your wife, or about how kids these days are so soft that they won’t even let you make fun of trans people anymore).

Obviously I will be seeking out other comedians I like and watching their routines, but what other ways can I learn and grow my skills?
posted by ActionPopulated to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I have seen graduation performances of the stand-up classes at Second City in Chicago. I think the classes did a good job! If you're interesting in taking a local class, see if they have graduation performances you can attend. I believe different instructors will have different perspectives on things like 'punching down', humor based on stereotype, and believe it or not contempt. (There was a weird pro-contempt undercurrent in some classes I attended in Chicago.)

I also asked around about books for writing comedy sketches. Most of them had a big focus on stand-up and/or joke writing. Here are some highly recommended ones:

- The Comedy Bible (Judy Carter) - I thought this one was really, really good

- The Comic Toolbox / How to be Funny Even if You're Not (John Vorhaus)

- Comedy Writing (Mark Shatz with Melvin Helitzer)
posted by amtho at 7:29 PM on March 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

We have had prospective (very new) comedians within & try out our Toastmasters meetings - there is a humorist role, but on a practical note, you can visit loads of meetings before any commitment to joining. There are loads of us who would benefit from people who fully enjoy humor.
posted by childofTethys at 7:33 PM on March 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

The Second City has online classes. They're excellent for this.
posted by shadygrove at 7:46 PM on March 9, 2023

If your location in your profile is still accurate, there's standup comedy classes through Helium, ComedySportz, and Crossroads. I'm familiar with a number of the instructors, happy to chat specifics over memail and be able to name some great humans.

In my experience as a very occasional standup performer, a lot of it boils down to finding a writing voice that works for you on paper AND on stage. It's also about finding material that you can believe in and not tire of.
posted by knile at 8:10 PM on March 9, 2023

my local comedy club offers beginner's resources, maybe yours does too.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:38 PM on March 9, 2023

It’s not exactly a how-to, but there’s the Comedian’s Comedian podcast by Stuart Goldsmith. He’s a stand-up and interviews other comedians about their process and craft, how they got started, etc. Mostly UK-based. Lots of insight and quite serious and thoughtful.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 9:31 PM on March 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

There's a genre of comedy called Science Stand-Up that features people from various science related professions and the audiences that love them. MedLife Crisis is the YouTube channel of Dr. Rohin Francis, an interventional cardiologist based in the UK that writes comedy in addition to medical educational pieces on his channel.

Another is Dr. Glaucomflecken who seems to have just started with TikTok dialogs very similar to the your initial idea described above.
posted by effluvia at 10:27 PM on March 9, 2023 [4 favorites]

My spouse was a stand-up for a decade. He didn't know anyone who came out of a stand-up class and was successful. In his experience, people learned bad habits in those classes, not stand-up.

The best way to learn stand-up is by watching and doing stand-up. Go to your local club where newer stand-ups are performing and watch their sets. Find your local open-mic nights and go watch a few times. Then sign up for a slot, get up there on stage, and try out your stuff. Get someone to go with you to record your set. Yes, you will of course probably bomb, but you'll probably get a few laughs. Watch the recording, figure out what worked, revise those jokes, write new jokes, and get up there again the next week to repeat this process until you have a solid set.

At the same time, listen to other people's sets and take the time to get to know the other folks just starting out. Watch how they revise their material week after week and take inspiration (not jokes) from their process.

There are no short-cuts. It's a lot of hard work. But it's also a ton of fun.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:07 AM on March 10, 2023 [12 favorites]

The best way to learn to do standup comedy is to do standup comedy. Find open mics local to you; they may be Tuesday evenings at 6:00 in a bar with six people, but they are probably there. Then you just get up in front of people and tell jokes. See what works and doesn't work. If you're funny people will invite you to more stuff. I've seen people who were not particularly great improve enormously by just spending time up on stage.

Random thoughts (YMMV):
* You probably will only get a few minutes to begin with. Every minute is precious. Edit yourself ruthlessly. If stuff isn't getting laughs, it goes.
* You have to have the ability to get up on stage over and over even after you bomb.
* Find unique perspectives. There are topics that are mildly socially transgressive but still acceptable, and jokes about those things are common. If you go to a lot of open-mics you will see a lot of "I like to SMOKE A LOT OF POT ..." or "BOY HOWDY DO I DRINK A LOT" or "I GREATLY ENJOY sexual intercourse!"
* I was told to put my second best joke first and my best joke last, which sounds kind of formulaic, but you're going to have to hook the audience quickly either way. If you have 3 minutes, I would not suggest you launch into a 3 minute joke. If you have a 3 minute joke it should be very very funny.
* If I think it's funny but my audience consistently doesn't, it's not funny.
* Punching down makes you less likeable, and it's easier if the audience finds you likeable.
* Remove the mic from the stand and place the stand behind you.

There is no feeling in the world like a good performance. Good luck!
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:20 AM on March 10, 2023 [3 favorites]

How does one go ... to not embarrassing yourself at a small open mic?

I used to know a guy who was getting into standup, and my impression was that the way he developed his material was by being willing to embarrass himself at small open mics to learn what worked and what didn't. He once brought me to an underground* show, and that also seemed to be everyone else's strategy.

*Underground in that it was a word-of-mouth gathering held at someone's house, and also underground in the sense that it was in their very unfinished basement. I think I was the only audience member who wasn't there to also try out their own material, but they took my money at the door just the same. It seemed to be a regular thing, maybe you could find a group like that.
posted by solotoro at 6:27 AM on March 10, 2023 [6 favorites]

Seconding the suggestion that you look into taking a class. A former roommate did that, and the class's "graduation" was that all of them did a gig at a comedy club here in NYC. (I still remember one of her jokes - she was talking about shopping for jeans at Old Navy and noticed that they have a size "00". "That's not a size," she said, "that's a shotgun gauge!")

Another good reason for taking a class is that you would be introduced to all of the aspects of being a standup comic - the amount of work you might have to do, the hustling you'd have to do to get gigs, and so on. And that can be very, very valuable information - my roommate was good, and did well in the gig, but later told me that the drumming-up-business side of things they'd told her about were unappealing, and so even though she'd done well she knew that the other bullshit would make things un-fun, so she went back to writing like she was already doing. I had a similar experience studying acting in college.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 AM on March 10, 2023

Like any sport or performance skill it is always repetition.

Only you know yourself well enough to know if you would be ok jumping in immediately with an open mic or if a class is appropriate. While I am sure the Second City class is staffed with someone great and the material is worthwhile, I think you should aim to take a local class just for the community aspect. You have to perform to get good and it is intrinsically a communal act. Finding your local community will be helpful to stay motivated and perhaps more importantly, they are your inside line on getting stage time.

An improv friend decided to take up stand up during the pandemic and she was interviewed about how she grew into a stand up performer.
posted by mmascolino at 6:47 AM on March 10, 2023 [1 favorite]

A bit like @EmpressCallipygos suggests, in 2019 I took a stand up comedy class culminating in a performance showcase where each student performed a five minute set to a friends-and-family audience.

The whole thing started as an effort to improve my competence in public speaking rather than because I thought I would have anything particularly funny to say. I took an improv class with no performance element first then the stand-up comedy class a few months later. I live in a major city so there were a few options for such classes but I would imagine you would be able to find an online class these days.

The class taught the mechanics of writing jokes, allowed us to practise our sets and gave us space to give each other feedback before the performance, and taught us how to handle hecklers. I enjoyed it and plan to take the “level 2” class this summer, but one can go straight from the “level 1” class into “the scene” - we were given suggestions on how to do that, too.
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 11:35 AM on March 10, 2023

I am not a comic, but I know some, and I've read interviews with lots of others about this sort of thing. The only way to not embarrass yourself as a standup is to embarrass yourself as a standup, at least a few times. Bombing is how you figure out what works.

It's not easy to be a standup comic - it takes a TON of work, in both writing and getting in front of people and doing it. Write a lot (more than you think you would ever want to!), and don't worry about polishing it and writing the perfect joke/bit/anecdote, whatever - just write. Then perform, and you'll quickly know what works (for you and your style, and for an audience) and what doesn't. Use that feedback to write more and write better. Repeat until, well, just keep repeating.

Are there particularly well-regarded writings, videos, etc about the craft of comedy and how to structure a series of jokes?

I mean, probably? But "comedy" isn't a monolithic puzzle that has one answer that you can crack. Comedy is Hanna Gadsby's Nanette, comedy is Andrew Dice Clay, comedy is Jerry Seinfeld, comedy is Mel Brooks, comedy is Patton Oswalt, etc. "Comedy" is not one thing or one way of doing it - you have to find a style that works for you. That may be a known type of style, or it may be something unique you develop! You make what you say funny; it's not funny because it fits a certain template or structure.

None of this is meant to scare you or say you shouldn't be trying it - just don't underestimate the amount of time it'll take to feel comfortable doing it (your first time will be terrifying no matter what, and probably the 2-3 times after that too!), and don't think there are shortcuts or easier paths, because there aren't. Just do the work. The comics I know love the process of making comedy, and you probably will too. It's just a lot.

Good luck!
posted by pdb at 4:52 PM on March 10, 2023 [2 favorites]

You may also find inspiration in the Good One: A Podcast About Jokes interview series, which I devour nearly every episode of. Similarly, there's the book Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers.
posted by knile at 8:12 AM on March 11, 2023

I do stand-up. I wrote a couple short how-tos (part 1, part 2).

I also find it's helpful to watch other forms of performance, such as really entertaining lectures by experts, and theater, which offer related toolboxes to borrow from. Steve Martin found value in the magic tricks and sleight of hand work he'd done way before he did stand-up.
posted by brainwane at 9:13 AM on March 12, 2023

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