I am not sure if this is more of a “How-to” article, or something in the way of a confessional, but as a young stand-up comic I made some early mistakes that set me back from my goals that I would like to share with newer comics. It should be noted that in relative terms of performing, I myself am quite new to comedy having only been in the game for 2.5 years. However, the mistakes I made (and continue to make at times) are fresh in my mind, so here is what I have learned so far:
1. Don’t brag- “I killed tonight.” I can’t tell you how many times I posted that on my social media accounts when I first started. I can, however, tell you how many times I was told I was an asshole for posting it: daily, possibly hourly. If you are new, chances are your idea of “killing” is not the same as experienced comedians. Trust me, the good comedians will notice when you kill, you don’t have to say a word. Stay away from bragging too much and just stay humble. It will get you further. Be thankful, appreciative, and if you have to brag about something then brag about how great the venue or the crowd was, not yourself. Other people should be telling you how good you are, not you telling us.
2. Don’t create a Facebook fan page- You don’t have fans yet, why create a page for them? Chances are, your fan page will turn into a page with followers that likely are already your friends, your posts about shows will mirror the posts you put on your personal page, and in all likelihood you will not keep it updated anyways except for the occasional meme that you didn’t even create.
3. Don’t share your early videos– I burned 10 copies of my first performance and gave it to my friends and coworkers. It was a terrible idea. While I was proud of it, and I didn’t bomb by any means, the comedian on stage is nothing compared to the comedian I am today. I was hacky, uncomfortable, and rough. And it has taken me two years to be able to convince those people to buy a ticket to any of my shows, as they still think I am the same comedian. I had my first video on Youtube and it had 278 views before I pulled it. I don’t know who watched it but I wish I could track them all down and apologize. Take your first few videos and share them only to other comedians or friends that can offer advice as a learning tool, that is about the only use they have.
4. Don’t talk down to/about other comics- You will see terrible comics. Don’t say a damn word about how terrible they are. Some of them are new and will one day be in a position to help you. Some of them are good friends of people that are already in a position to help you. You will often hear people talk about a comedy community, and that is just what you will be a part of. Some people in the community are stronger than others, but bringing someone in the community down does no good for anyone and can alienate you.
5. Don’t think you have to do new material each time- You are not performing for the comics, you are performing for yourself and trying to get a stronger set. Your set can only get stronger by repeating and trying jokes until they work. Don’t be afraid to do the same material over and over, the other comics do too. It is all about the crowd. I know comics that have done the same set all 3 years I have known them and yet I still book them in my rooms because I know that they are good at what they do.
6. Don’t be (too) blue- I teach comedy at the Orlando Improv and I see every person that has never done comedy before run up on stage with their first joke ready. Nine out of ten times it is something sex or shit related. Filthy stuff with no punchline. Offensive material may seem fun at first because the audience will react, but chances are they will react by walking out. Being offensive or overly blue will not get you gigs, but it may make someone hate you if you walk the only 5 people that showed to their open mic. Try writing smarter, not darker and you will see more doors open for you.
7. Don’t overestimate yourself- If you have 5 minutes of material, don’t take a show that requires you to do 15. I took a charity gig that required 30 minutes of stage time. I had 10. I worked really hard to get that extra 20 ready and, honestly, it didn’t go that bad. However, had I been better prepared and had an established feature set prior, I could have made a lot of fans that day and possibly have helped my career. One gig should open the door for another.
8. Don’t do new material in big rooms- When I first started I had the opportunity to perform with Brad Williams and Tommy Davidson. Both guest spots I did new material and both times I bombed. I thought anything I wrote would be gold and I was wrong. If you are doing a big room, stick to the tried and true no matter how funny you think that bit is that you thought of on the way to the show. Trying new material can throw off your rhythm, make you uncomfortable, and likely it isn’t as funny as you thought it was. Try new material at open mics or, if you are doing a set that is longer than 15 minutes, you can slide it into the middle, not anywhere else. Always start strong, end stronger.
9. Leave family and friends at home- Inviting your family and friends to early gigs is a waste of time, yours and theirs. They want to support you but you shouldn’t make them feel awkward by forcing them to laugh at your crappy jokes. I invited a huge group of people to my first big hosting gig, and I bombed miserably. It is hard to get people to come see you again after a show like that.
10. Don’t sweat being accepted by other comics- I used to worry about what other comics thought of me until a seasoned veteran explained why that is a waste of time. He said, as a comic you see people come out to try comedy almost weekly. Each week it is the same conversation about how you got started, what you enjoy about comedy, and inevitably someone will run unfunny material by you. Then, you never see them again. They chicken out, grow tired of comedy, or just decide it isn’t for them. After a while, you stop getting invested in new people because they often don’t stick around. We grow tired of telling the same jokes on stage, so why would we enjoy the same story week after week off stage? It is nothing personal, but comics aren’t quick to pull in a new guy and teach him the ropes until you have showed you’re there to stay and are serious. Comedian groups exist, just hang around a while, tell some jokes, and make small talk and you will eventually find yourself in one of them.
11. Don’t bankrupt yourself without purpose- I considered quitting comedy at one point because I was bankrupting myself driving 4 hours for 5 minutes of stage time. Some people say “That just means you work hard and want it.” Maybe, but if you aren’t getting a new experience or taking anything away from the trip, why go? If it is for a new club that could book you then go for it. But if it is for a bar on a Tuesday night where you will likely spend 4 out of your 5 minutes just trying to get the crowd to stop staring at the TV’s, then I suggest you stay home and write. Create your own open mics or, better yet, paid shows. If you are driving 2 hours to do comedy, that means others have to drive 2 hours to see comedy. Start a show and help everyone out.
12. Stay close to home- Many comics head for NYC or LA with dollar signs in their eyes, and return a month later with overdraft fees in their bank account. There is no need to make the move until you are fully ready. If you are a great local comic, then next become a great area comic, then a state comic, and then hit the road. You don’t have to live in NYC to book in NYC, go there and test the waters first and make connections. I work an area with lots of NYC and LA comics traveling in. I network with them and hopefully when I am ready to make the move they will help me to make the best of it.
13. Don’t try and make the show about you- You are new, so you should concentrate on the job first and the comedy second. What I mean by that is, when you are hosting you should be professional, likable, and get the crowd ready for the comics that follow you. Always get the announcements and specials correct even if it eats into your stage time. If you are doing a guest spot you need to be aware of time and not go over. And don’t worry about merch until you are headlining or have been featuring for a while.
14. Don’t be unprepared- My number one pet peeve is when I go to an open mic and someone steps on stage and says “I don’t really know what I want to talk about tonight.” This open mic didn’t just pop up. You knew where you were going and when, likely days in advance. Don’t waste the time of the comics or the audience by getting on stage and bullshitting your way through a set. If you don’t go on stage with a purpose, don’t go on stage. Is it ok to riff or do crowd work? Sure. Just don’t go up there and tell us you are unprepared and stumble through your set. If you have to ask how much longer you have for the sake of trying to fill time, then you have already overstayed your welcome.
15. Don’t go over time- If you are given 5 minutes, use 5 minutes. Not 5:10. There is no quicker way to get comics or clubs to hate you then to go over time. Ask where and when the light will come and cut your joke short if you have to, just stay within your time.
While this is not all the information you need to know to get started, these are a few of the top items that I have done or seen done that have set people back from their comedy goals early on.
Got a tip you want to add? Do it in the comments below.
Author: Devin Siebold is a writer, stand-up comedian and comedy instructor at the Orlando Improv. Check out his album “Extra Credit” available in all online music stores, and watch a video of his stand-up here.