Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How I Became a Stand-Up Comedian in Five Easy Steps

Some people know, but most are not surprised to hear, that I've done stand-up comedy.

It's interesting when it comes up in conversation, because it turns out that many people know that they're funny. Some even kind of think that doing standup might be neat. But every time these people see a comedian on TV, they overlay a little mental picture of themselves over the comedian, and go...nahhh.

They're not that person. Intuitively, it doesn't make sense.

Well, I decided to discard my intuitive side and took a pretty analytical path towards being a stand-up comedian. Here's how I did it:

Step 1: Discovery

I was driving around with my sisters-in-law, complaining that the froyo shop near my house had gotten held up, and that the people in line were such placid sheep that they had done nothing to stop it. Let's set aside the crappy community aspect of this. I mean, you should be ashamed of yourself if your neighbor gets robbed in front of you and you don't act. 

But -- separate issue -- didn't these people care about froyo? This place had an hour-long line every time I walked by. If I had waited in that line for an hour, and the guy before me held up the place before I could get my froyo...dude--no. I will stab you to death with a taster spoon before I let you get in the way of my swirl cone. With sprinkles.

They laughed for about 5 minutes and they told me I should do stand-up. So I thought...okay. I've done a lot of Powerpoint presenting, and people tell me I'm good at that. Maybe I'd be good at standing up in front of people and talking in a different setting.

Step 2: Research

I had no idea what a stand-up set was supposed to look like. Obviously, I was not going to start with my own 60-minute HBO special.

So instead I did this:
  • looked up comedy clubs in my area with "amateur night"
  • found out how long my set needed to be (5 min)
  • figured out about how many jokes it would take to fill that time (3)

Step 3: "Writing"

Great, now I had to write 3 jokes. But, let me tell you, writing jokes by yourself is SUPER-boring. So, being a new person in a city where basically no one liked me except for my sisters-in-law, I decided to take some social risks.

I would get into conversations with strangers or recent acquaintances, and try to see if I could get them to laugh. If they laughed, I wrote the joke down for future testing.

The part I didn't expect was how much people HATED hanging out with me during this process. The outcome probability graph was non-linear:
  • Tell joke. Person gets it. Everyone laughs, I am a hero. (1%)
  • Tell joke. Person thinks it's amusing, but that it kind of sounds "stand-uppy" and weird. Social failure. (10%)
  • Tell joke. Person doesn't get it, thinks I'm an asshole. (89%)
Takeaway: Comedy is risky. 99% of the people I talked to during this period thought I was a weird asshole. Do not embark on a comedy career if you're a cool person who wants to be liked. There is nothing in it for you. This is art, man. There is no safe place for you to try out new stuff and get legitimate feedback. People are going to hate you. Deal.

Step 4: Validation

After about a month of going to parties, I had a repertoire of three jokes that would reliably get laughs. This was great, because it allowed me to recover a little socially from the writing period, and people started to hate me less. Not a lot less, but enough less.

I was ready.

Step 5: Performance

I signed up for amateur night at a local club, and showed up early with a copy of Anna Karenina -- in part because I was really trying to finish that book, and in part because I was hoping that it would deter people from talking to me. However, apparently, comedy is full of single dudes and not so many single ladies, so what ended up happening was that every guy who was there tried to hit on me by telling stories of their own comedy greatness:
  • "I was playing this room in Idaho, and they f*cking loved me..."
  • "Oh, yeah, I killed in Fairbanks..."
  • "Is this your first time? You know, I teach a class. You could come for free if you wanted; I wouldn't charge you."

After the flirting period ended, someone who looked official came along with a little sheet of "comedy tips:"
  • Don't remind the audience to tip their waitress
  • Don't go over your time
  • Don't say "you'll be here all week"

My friend Doro joined me and we waited for an hour-and-a-half while other people got up and told their 5 minutes worth of jokes. Then they called my name and I had to go on stage.


I killed! Everyone laughed, no one knew it was my first time, I stayed under the time limit, and Doro and I got faceplant-drunk right afterwards. Success.


If you want to do something big, weird, and totally out of your wheelhouse, it's okay. Just be prepared to accept the trade-offs (social estrangement, harassment), practice, and don't be a weenie about it. That thing that you've always wanted to do? It's probably not that hard. It just takes some planning.

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