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What Is Stand-Up Comedy?
Stand-up comedy is a show or performance in which a comedian performs original jokes on stage in front of a live audience to make them laugh. The jokes are scripted and have setups and punchlines. The average stand-up comedy show gets four to six laughs a minute from the audience.
When Did Stand-Up Comedy Originate?
Since ancient times, people have staged comedic performances, but modern stand-up has roots in vaudeville acts from the late nineteenth century. Vaudeville acts were live and included a lot of slapstick. As comedy grew in popularity, jokes started to change. They developed a defined setup and punchline.
Charley Case, a vaudeville performer, is credited with doing the first real stand-up act sometime during the 1880s. He performed comedic monologues in front of an audience, leaving out the props and antics of vaudeville. Like comedians today, Case told anecdotal jokes—funny stories from his life. Stand-up comedy as we know it today was born.
What Is a Stand-Up Comedy Set?
A set is a complete stand-up routine from start to finish. It is structured with a beginning, middle, and end. The length of a set depends on whether a comic is the opening act or the headliner. When you’re the featured act, prepare to be on stage for an hour or more.
Here are the elements that make up a stand-up comedy routine:
- Opening. The opening of a stand-up set often dictates how the show will go. Start with a great joke to get the audience laughing from the first line.
- Bits. Bits are what comedians call jokes. Every bit has a setup detailing the characters and situations they’re in and a punchline. The punchline—or conclusion—is the funniest part of the joke and almost always goes against the audience’s expectations.
- Transitions. Transitions are short conversational bridges that connect one joke to the next.
- Closer. The final joke in the show. It might be a callback—a reference to an earlier joke. Wrap up your set with a solid close that leaves the audience laughing.
How to Prepare for a Career in Stand-Up
There are a few necessary steps that every aspiring comedian should follow to prepare for their comedy career.
- Study other comics. Becoming a stand-up comedian takes time, practice, and research. One of the best ways to figure out how to put a set together is by studying great comics like Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Wanda Sykes. Watch their early stand up followed by more recent shows. How have their comedic voices developed over the years? Go to a comedy club for a live show to see how comedians structure their set. How do they open and close? How many bits are in each set? Sit in the back and observe the audience. How often do they laugh? What do they respond to most?
- Collect potential material in a notepad. A good comic can turn anything into a decent bit. Throughout your daily life, make an extra effort to observe everything happening around you—both to others and yourself—then write down anything that makes you laugh in a notepad or the notes app on your phone. Some of these observations will become future jokes. When jotting down ideas, try to think of how you can use your specific point of view to develop your own style. Even if you just see a glimmer of an idea, jot it down. You never know if it might work down the road.
- Take an improv class. There are many benefits to taking improv classes. The biggest advantage is that it'll help you become comfortable performing in front of others, which is a crucial skill for a stand-up comedian. Starting in a class environment is significantly easier than getting on stage at a comedy club for your first time because you’ll have support from your instructor and a group of other beginners. An improv class will help teach you how to think on your feet and ad-lib, which are essential skills for crowd work and dealing with hecklers.
- Watch an open mic. An open mic night is a stand-up comedy show specifically for both beginner and veteran comics to try out new material. At the open mic, you should observe what makes people laugh, and think about what you liked and didn't like about each comic's set. Afterward, seek out the host and briefly introduce yourself in a friendly manner. For future reference, ask the host about the sign-up procedure and thank them for hosting the show.
How to Become a Comedian
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Pursuing a career in stand-up comedy isn't for the faint of heart, as even the most famous comedians often struggled when first starting out. Follow this step-by-step guide, and with enough natural talent, hard work, and hours of stage time, you'll be in the best position possible to become a professional comedian.
- Start writing jokes. Write every single day. Pick an idea that you wrote down in your notepad and approach it like a story—find the narrative arc and flesh out your setup. Who are the characters? Where’s the setting? What’s the situation or conflict? Write a punchline or two. In joke writing, the punchline is always a plot twist that goes against the logical conclusion. In some cases, the punchline might be the first part of the joke you uncover. In that case, work backward to the setup. If it’s a longer bit, include jab lines—funny moments in the body of the joke—so the audience doesn’t wait too long to laugh. Remember that comedy is about pushing limits. If you leave your comfort zone, you’re headed in the right direction.
- Build a following on social media. Self-promotion is a major component of a stand-up comic’s career. Social media is the best way to build your brand, try out material, build an audience, and promote your shows and appearances. If you're serious about pursuing a full-time career as a stand-up comic, create accounts on all the major social media sites (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube) and post jokes and funny videos as often as you can. Creating a strong online presence is a necessity for comics of all levels. Social media can expose your work to the masses, help you build a following, and get you gigs.
- Assemble your act. Once you have enough jokes written for an hour-long show, select your best material to include in a five-minute and ten-minute set that you can use to open for other comics, for short sets at comedy clubs, and open mics. Make sure you have a great opening that shows the audience who you are and a strong closer that either ties your act together or ends with your best joke. Don’t cram in too many jokes—leave room for laughter. Always have backup jokes ready in case you need to switch directions. Don’t think of your act in terms of progressing from bit to bit, but rather as a unified whole. Write transitions between jokes to create a flow. Your act is a composite. Every element matters when you’re performing, from the words you speak to the motions that accompany them.
- Perform at an open mic. After assembling your act, you’ll need to test it out in front of an actual audience. Before the big night, familiarize with all the rules of the open mic—sign-up procedures(typically by a “first come first serve” list or a lottery), the length of your set (usually under five minutes), and what type of signal the club uses to tell you that your time is almost up (typically by the host signaling you with a light). Open mics are notoriously tough rooms because the audience is mostly other comedians who are too busy focusing on their upcoming sets to engage with yours. Bombing at your first open mic night is common, so keep that in mind if your set isn’t going to plan.
- Mingle after the show. Post-set mingling is traditional at comedy clubs where building relationships is critical to your success. If possible, stay after your set to watch the other comedians. Before you head home, thank the host and introduce yourself to other comedians whose sets you enjoyed.
- Assess and adjust. While your previous set is still fresh in your mind, write down what did and didn’t work in your set. In the beginning, you'll probably have a lot more negative feedback than positive, but that's okay. It takes lots of stage time before your start to kill consistently, and even professional comedians still bomb from time to time. If possible, record your sets so you can watch them later to pinpoint what did and didn’t work in your performance. Edit or replace the jokes that didn't get laughs to fine-tune your set.
- Make connections. Open mics are great for getting comfortable on stage and testing new material, but you eventually want to start getting paid spots on comedy showcases. Whenever you're at a comedy club or watching a show at another venue, try to make friends with the show’s organizer and other comedians. Ask them for advice or feedback about your set, and politely mention your interest in performing at a future show. Stand-up comedians may be solo performers, but it's important to become part of a comedy community. It's most often your fellow comedians and club owners who will recommend you for bigger shows, comedy festivals, and various jobs throughout your career.
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