Stand-up comedy has to be one of the most intimate and intricate forms of performance there is. Not only are you putting your own carefully crafted material out there for all to witness, you’re delivering it yourself. Live. On stage. With possible hecklers. Yikes!
Is that enough to put off natural-born comedians, though? No way. Quite the opposite, in fact – it’s actually what they thrive off. And so might you, if you take a deep breath and just give it a go.
Easier said than done, we know. But if you’re reading this article we’re betting you’re seriously thinking about it. Which means you’re passionate about what you do. Which means you should definitely take the plunge and see what happens. What is there to lose?
How to get into stand-up comedy
Ready to turn your dream of becoming a stand-up comedian into reality? Start by reading these top tips👇
Perform at open mics
Open mic nights are an aspiring comedian’s best friend. They provide the perfect opportunity for you to hone your craft, practice being in front of an audience, and network with like-minded people.
They also give you the chance to get spotted by bookers, who can help you get into doing stand-up professionally.
It can be daunting to put yourself out there, for sure. But it’s the only way to get started, and it’ll get easier with time.
Practice on your friends
If you’re not quite ready to dive into live performing, there’s no shame in practising your material on friends. You could get them together and run through a set with them as your ‘audience’. Or you could simply hang out and deliver some of your material in the natural flow of conversation. Either way, getting a few laughs from them can be a great confidence booster.
Don’t have any of your own material yet? Try carrying a notebook around with you (or using an app on your phone) to jot down moments of comedic inspiration as and when they happen. Whether you get an idea for a funny story on your morning commute, or think of a great punchline for a joke when out shopping – writing in the moment is a good way to start building your own material.
In this BBC article, BAFTA award-winning presenter, writer, actor and comedian Paul Merton, says:
“Making your friends laugh at school or in the office is not the same as getting up on stage and making a bunch of people who don't know who you are laugh. But it is a step in the right direction and being funny around your friends is certainly one way of practising.”
Think about taking a class
While natural talent is undoubtedly important if you want to do stand-up, there’s no reason you can’t develop your comedy skills by taking a class. Think of it this way – some of the most successful actors in the world went to drama school. And there’s nothing wrong with taking the same approach to stand-up.
Attending a class could help you learn how to write a full comedy set, how to feel more confident on stage, how to master comedic structure, and so much more.
Give it a shot – it could just provide the breakthrough you're looking for.
Realise you’re not always going to get laughs – and be ok with it
There’s not a comedian on the planet who won’t have had a punchline greeted with unearthly silence at some point in their career. Telling a bad joke, messing up delivery, freezing up on stage – these are all failures that contribute to a stand-up’s ultimate success. If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t learn from them – and comedians do need to learn and grow if they want to hone their craft.
It’s also important to recognise that you’ll never please everybody. Even the best comedians in the world aren’t liked universally. But they’re comfortable knowing that their style resonates well with the people who ‘get’ them.
In an article on ‘how to be funny’, stand-up legend Kevin Hart says, "You have to be cool missing the big laughs,” going on to describe how, "Your attitude has to be 'You boo me today, but you'll clap tomorrow.'" Can’t argue with that.
Don’t be afraid to run with your inspiration
There’s a difference between out-and-out copying someone, and being inspired by them. Inspiration, after all, is what makes all creatives tick. Jim Carrey has openly talked about how his father inspired everything he’s done in his comedy career. In this article, he describes how his personas were based on his dad:
“It really was an imitation of my father who was this insanely joyful, incredibly funny animated character that didn’t just tell a story. He became the characters. Everything I’ve done in my comedy career can be traced back to that origin. I love that guy so much.”
If you’re inspired by someone – either in your personal life or someone famous – don’t be afraid to run with that inspiration. It’s important to find your own voice, of course, but that in itself will be born out of an amalgamation of different influences. Trust your gut – if you’re starting to mimic someone rather than create your own style from the inspiration they give you, you’ll know it’s time to take a step back and get some fresh perspective.
Practice writing material
A certain amount of improvisation can make a comedy set more interesting (like when dealing with hecklers). But being a stand-up comedian definitely isn’t about winging it. Stand-ups write their sets in meticulous detail, with pretty much every last nuance thought-out in advance of actually performing.
So, when you’re trying to break into stand-up, it’s essential to practise this skill. To get started, pay close attention to one of your favourite stand-up’s routines, and take notes. Listen out for how they set up their jokes (which will often be as a part of a longer narrative), and how they then deliver their punchlines. The more you do this, the more you’ll become familiar with the form of a written comedy set. Then all that’s left to do is give it a go yourself!
Don’t get disheartened by the amount of comedians already out there
The comedy circuit can feel like a saturated space – but have you ever heard anyone saying there are just too many comedians to choose from?
When you’re a creative, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ll never ‘make it’ because there are so many amazing people already doing what you want to do. But that’s exactly what it is – a trap. There’s always room for more talent, and thinking otherwise could end up stalling your career when it would have had a good shot at taking off. Actress, comedian, and writer Sara Pascoe summed this up really well in a social media Q&A a few years ago:
“In terms of being worth fighting for, the comedy scene is made up of whoever wants to be in it. It is big enough for everyone. Not everyone will be able to pay their mortgage from it. But as it exists in rooms above and below pubs, anyone and everyone who wants to should try it and see how it feels. It's like being a town crier. And what is so exciting about how huge the live stand-up comedy scene is now is that the diversity of voices, because more people feel welcome, has improved the quality of stand-up greatly.”
Breaking into stand-up comedy can seem like an impossible dream. But, in reality, the only person with the power to make it impossible is you. If you have faith, put the work in, and (most importantly) put yourself out there, you’ve got every chance at achieving success.
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Also, if you’re already getting started on the circuit, you might find this article on building a loyal event community useful. Best of luck!