Mastering Stand-Up: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Successful Comedian
I noticed that shortening the setup and the punch, making a joke less generic and more personal, and shaping jokes to fit the persona of the comedian would bring new vitality to their performances.
This fact gives stand-ups the ability to create entertainment about the present moment—now. What happened today, in the world and in their lives.
What they had in common was a sense of humor, a desire to be onstage, and the urgent need to communicate through comedy.
What does it take to get undeniably good? Talent, yes, but mostly work. Lots of work. Years of work. Great talents are people who are obsessed with their work. Are you up for this?
Originality is a hallmark of exceptional art. In comedy, it’s what the entertainment industry looks for first and foremost when determining who has the makings for the big leagues.
Carlin’s work taught Louis the two things that became Louis’s trademark. The first is to have the courage to speak the unspeakable onstage. And the second is that if, every year, you throw out all your old material and write an hour of new material, you will be forced to dig deeper and deeper into yourself to find your comedy.
A joke that anyone can tell and get laughs with is the definition of a generic joke. You don’t want those in your act. You want jokes that are so clearly stamped with your personality, your opinions, and your attitudes that no one can tell them as successfully as you.
He doesn’t lecture his audience. He talks to them about things they already know. What is surprising, original, and funny is his take on these things.
1. Building frequent laugh lines into the story by . . . 2. Organizing the story not chronologically but by subject, followed by laugh lines that . . . 3. Seem genuine coming from your persona.
Most stories are structured chronologically. This happened first, this happened next, and so on. That’s not the way comedians organize a story. They do it by subject. This is my first subject, and here are the laugh lines tied to that subject, and here is my second subject and the laugh lines tied to that subject, and so on. Transforming a funny story into stand-up comedy material essentially involves formatting the story in this way.
As a delivery system for laugh lines, the stand-up sketch can’t be beat. Once the initial setup is in place, the rest of the piece can be virtually all punchlines, nonstop laughs.
it is better to show the audience something than it is to tell them about it. Let them see it. It’s almost always funnier. A great rewriting technique for a joke that is almost there, but needs punching up, is to retell it through act-outs.
But here’s the thing: comedy is not nice. It is unflinchingly, unapologetically honest. Comedy looks unblinkingly at life and says, “A lot of this sucks. Let me be specific.” And a lot of life does suck. Always has, always will. Comedy is an entertainment that calls out the bad stuff. It ridicules the bad stuff. By taking the things we struggle with and worry about, and by ridiculing these things, comedy transforms them from overwhelming to laughable.
It enables us to laugh at the struggles and problems we share. And when we can laugh, we know we’re OK. And when we hear other people in the room laugh, we know we’re not alone. For a glorious moment the comedian lifts our worries off our shoulders and unites us in laughter. The underlying message of comedy is this: You have problems; I have problems. But we’re OK. You are not alone. We’re in this damn thing together.
YOU IN A PERSONAL STRUGGLE is the golden land of comedy.
Don’t make the assumption that the audience is on your side when you complain about people they don’t know.
No feelings were being hurt by these jokes because they weren’t personal. They were targeted strictly at impersonal stereotypes, and delivered without a trace of malice
The message behind the comedian’s self-deprecating jokes is, Yeah, I’m going bald [I’m short, I’m flat-chested, I’m fat, I’m single, etc., etc., etc.], but so are other people in this room and we can laugh about it. So we’re OK. HAH!
When stand-ups put themselves down for shortcomings that are widely shared by their audience, big laughs are often the result.
Much of crowd work is written. (Shhh! Now that you have joined the fellowship of comedians, that trade secret has got to stay between us.) It can also be ad-libbed. Often it’s both. A comedian who enjoys improvising can have some solid crowd-work jokes prepared and use them along with ad-libbed remarks.
What gives the best edgy comedy its bite is that behind the shockingly outrageous jokes are deeply held convictions.
George Bernard Shaw saw in his own time and place: Our problem is not that we fail to live up to our ideals. Our problem is that too often we do live up to them, and too many of them are corrupt and self-serving.
The trick is to learn how to deliver written material in a way that seems so spontaneous, the audience thinks you’re making it up on the spot.
Ad-libbing is not a form of stand-up comedy that is performed at clubs. It is, however, the genesis of all comedy. You spontaneously think and say funny things, and that’s an important part of creating the first draft of your stand-up material.
For a person who knows how to make people laugh, comedy writing is work—nothing more, nothing less. And the harder you work at it, the better you get. I’m believer in this maxim: talent is work, and brilliance is obsession with work.
Subject 1: How you feel about your life. (Your life in the past, your life now, and what you think your life will be in the future) Subject 2: How you feel about everything else that matters to you. (Politics, celebrities, pop culture, food, fashions, technology, etc.)
No one has experienced a starry night and rendered it in a painting the way he did. Through his eyes it is a celestial night ablaze, and thrilling to look at.
What ultimately gives your writing originality and freshness is not your subject, but your way with the subject—how you think and feel about it.
Don’t worry if you’re going too long before getting to a laugh. Sometimes what we initially think is a setup to a joke turns out to be the punchline, and you don’t want to mistakenly cut it because you think you don’t need it.
Part of the craft and art of performing stand-up comedy is creating the illusion that you’re being spontaneous onstage. There’s a word for creating this illusion: acting. Just as a skilled scriptwriter finds the best way to phrase a line, the gifted stand-up comedy writer finds the best way to word a joke.
Write about people, places, and things that annoy the hell out of you.
The second assignment is: Write about anything you want.
You don’t score with a paying audience by being the filthiest, most generic and inauthentic stand-up they’ve ever seen. You score with them by being original, genuine, and funny.
Always remember, however, that ultimately it’s your decision whether to accept or reject feedback. Feedback should resonate with you; it should feel right. If it doesn’t, reject it. The only feedback you cannot ignore is the laughter or absence of laughter that your jokes receive from paying audiences.
But in comedy clubs and televised comedy shows, this audience expectation of frequent laughter is firmly in place, so stand-ups must concern themselves with their laughs-per-minute ratio. They typically shoot for an average of at least four laughs per minute.
The setup is the essential information the audience needs in order to get the punchline. I tell my students in class to underline the word essential in their notes, because the concept is so important.
Part of the art and craft of comedy writing is the ability to identify and eliminate words that aren’t needed to get the laugh. The first move a comedy writer makes to punch up a joke, then, is to shorten it.
There is one exception to this short-setup guideline. A long setup is justified when its purpose is to ratchet up tension that will pay off in a big laugh.
The best technique for keeping setups short is to make sure they contain only one subject.
Let’s review. A good punchline is Concise Comes as a surprise Clearly expresses your attitude
Setup and punchline and rolls are the formats that will enable you to achieve this hallmark of a master comedian.
It’s important to get one or two solid laughs within the first 30 seconds of your set. Every time a new stand-up takes the stage, there’s a question in the audience’s mind: Is this person funny? You want to answer that question as quickly as possible. When you get one or two “A” laughs at the outset of your routine, the audience makes up its mind: She’s good! She’s funny! Once this matter is settled, they’ll cut you some slack if a few jokes down the line don’t get laughs.
But you don’t want to start with your absolute best jokes. You want to save those jokes for the end, so that your act builds and you leave the stage in glory, with gales of laughter. So you want to start with your second-strongest jokes and end with your strongest.
There are certain jokes that don’t do well up front—for example, jokes about sex and your sex life. When we’re looking at jokes on a page, it’s easy to forget that introducing yourself to a club audience is a social situation. If you were meeting people in a social situation outside of a club and while extending your hand for the introductory handshake you said, “So I was jerking off earlier and . . .” there would be several reasons at least why your hand might go unshaken.
If you want to be edgy or shocking up front, keep in mind that you have to take the audience with you. They have to like you to go along with your edgy material. You don’t want material up front that pushes the audience away from you.
Hey! Did you ever kill anybody by mistake? It was an edgy joke in that it gave voice to a negative stereotype some white people harbor about African American people being violent. It was delivered right up front and got a huge laugh. By comically acknowledging this bigoted thought that some people harbor, this stand-up forged an instant rapport with his white audience.
the attributes you’re looking for in your opening jokes: They get one or two big laughs within the first 30 seconds or so They give the audience a picture of your comic personality They acknowledge your salient feature, if you have one They can be edgy and shocking but shouldn’t make your audience feel uncomfortable with you They should leave the audience looking forward to what you next have to say
Crowd work does best after you’ve made the audience trust you and like you through your opening jokes. Once you’ve established a rapport, they feel safe participating in your act. And this rapport also gives you the license to take risks. That’s why established stand-ups try out new material in the middle of their sets.
Remember that a good setup has only one subject. Furthermore, writing transitions creates more language that won’t get laughs, hurting your laughs-per-minute ratio. If, however, the segue itself contains a laugh, then by all means keep it in.
Year after year in opinion polls, people say that their number-one fear is public speaking. They fear that more than death. As Jerry Seinfeld put it: This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.
Here is Louis C.K. on the subject of these first two gifts: I get antsy. I don’t like waiting to go onstage. I get very anxious and it’s just uncomfortable. I learned that it’s important to seize on that instead of running away from it. So I stay in the back and bottle up the energy so that when I go onstage I’m more connected.
Audiences can, however, clearly see a positive manifestation of your nerves: your excitement about being onstage. That they see. And the ability to communicate to your audience, “I am so excited to be up here talking to you,” is the single most important part of performing stand-up and the third gift your nerves give you.
Joyous communication is the single most important technique in performing stand-up comedy.
What joyous communication means is that you take joy in communicating to the audience your emotions, be they anger, confusion, outrage, excitement, frustration, love, or whatever else you’re feeling.
That feeling that you have when you get to unload to a sympathetic listener—that is joyous communication.
That’s why joyous communication is so important. If you communicate to your audience the feeling There’s no place on Earth I would rather be than right here on this stage talking to you. Thank God you’re here! your audience will feel Thank God I’m here with this comedian. I’m loving this guy.
Obviously, that’s not the whole ballgame. You also need funny material, and you need to perform it skillfully. But unless you have a deadpan persona like Steven Wright, performing your material without joyous communication makes it unlikely that you will kill.
you are thinking frightening thoughts, you will feel frightened. They’re going to hate me. I’m not going to get any laughs. My material stinks. Thoughts like these will produce fear in you. And you don’t want to be terrified while you’re onstage doing comedy.
on the other hand, you are thinking realistic, positive thoughts, you will feel good. I’ve really honed my material. It’s been working well. I’ve been getting laughs. The more I’m onstage the better I get at this. I’m getting to do what I love doing most—giving people laughter. Please note these are realistic, positive thoughts, not fanciful ones—which is an important distinction. Because if you’re thinking, I’m the greatest. They’re going to roar with laughter at everything I say. I’m going to get a standing ovation!—these are fanciful, delusional thoughts that will tee you up for failure more certainly than doing 20 minutes of how-you-wipe-yourself jokes.
Creating a persona takes time; it takes many, many performances, usually over the course of several years, to crystallize who you are as a stand-up. However, you can get this process off to a strong start right at the outset of your stand-up career. The key is learning to be emotionally full onstage.
Being emotionally full means that the audience knows moment to moment how you feel about what you’re saying.
The emotion should be as large as you can make it within your persona. Make a mountain out of everything. Hating something is funnier than being a little annoyed with it.
Some new stand-ups don’t realize that performing stand-up is acting. So they don’t think through and define the emotional life that underpins their jokes. They think that professional stand-ups just go onstage and talk, and that whatever emotions they express are coming out of them spontaneously.
Knowing the words of your jokes doesn’t mean you’re prepared to perform stand-up. You’re prepared when you know both the words and the emotions that underpin them.
By being emotionally full onstage, you come alive to your audience. You achieve emotional fullness by building strong and clear attitudes into your writing and acting them out in performance.
The stand-up’s part of the conversation is his or her words. The audience’s part of the conversation is their laughter and applause. They need to feel that they and the stand-up are in the room together sharing an experience.
the fourth wall, the one that would be blocking the audience’s view if it were actually there, is imaginary—but the actors pretend it’s there.
The factors that constitute delivery are pacing, timing, emphasis, and pauses.
Going fast sends an unintended message to your audience: I don’t want to take up your time. I know you’re not all that interested in me, so I’ll get this over with fast.
cares and you shouldn’t either. If perfection is your goal, comedy is not for you. Great stand-up comedy is not written, it is rewritten—and rewritten and rewritten for as long as it takes to make it work.
If you have the commitment to work on your jokes, delivery, and persona until you get undeniably good and give consistently strong performances, you have a future in this business. Forget about perfection.
Evaluating yourself is more subjective than evaluating the audience’s laughter.
The final and ultimate way of moving a joke up to an “A” is to change the attitude underpinning the joke to its exact opposite.
learn to write jokes that, no matter their apparent subjects, ultimately are about you. Don’t write generic jokes. If you do, try to sell them to generic stand-ups. Write jokes that no one else could possibly tell as well as you.
Larry David’s comedy rests on an insight into comedy that Shakespeare gave us in the title of his play Much Ado About Nothing. David creates comedies that are much ado about nothing. It’s been said that Seinfeld, which he cocreated, was about nothing. It wasn’t. It was about how the leading characters got so worked up over nothing—the
Take a look at the stand-up jokes in this book. Some seem old-fashioned, others very contemporary; some edgy, some family friendly. But with the exception of some of the put-down jokes, they all speak of the stand-up’s personal struggles.
Whatever you’re talking about in your stand-up, strive to make it personal; make it clear how strongly you feel about it and why it matters to you. And position it so that it’s something you’re struggling with not in the past but right now—this moment onstage.
Good entertainment provides us with the opportunity to exercise our feelings.
Throughout most of our lives, we occupy places where we have to keep a tight rein on our feelings. At school, at work, and even at home, we often feel the need to hold our feelings in check. Good entertainment enables us to safely drop the reins. It enables us to be moved.
A performer succeeds to the degree that he or she engages the emotions of the audience, moves an audience, provides them with a heightened sense of being alive. The performers who are capable of doing this are the ones who have learned to use their medium to express, in their own way, a vibrant emotional life.
The most important thing you can say to them is to have fun and enjoy talking to the audience.
The more you succeed, the louder the voice becomes. It is a reason that some people, on the cusp of success, self-sabotage.
By identifying the voice, you are identifying the real source of your anxiety.
Again, here are three steps to take when the voice starts rattling you: 1. Identify it. 2. Remember it’s wrong and shut it off. 3. Restate its negative message to yourself in positive terms, and embrace your progress and success.
When you get big laughs, people in the business notice. The ballgame is to get good. This is accomplished through training, performing, writing, and persevering.