Advice to Aspiring Stand-Up Comics from 5 People Who’ve Made It
We’ve reached that sad point in every young podcast’s life when the first season has come to a close, but the second season is not yet prepared for release. Our first 10 episodes, hosted by Dave Schwensen, featured interviews (come to life again from 2008!) with guest comedians like Adam Ferrara, Steve Hofstetter, Wendy Liebman, and Kevin McPeek. Their hilarious conversations provide great insight into the comedy world, and we’ve decided to use their advice to help out the next generation of comedians as we conclude our season.
Stand-up is a tough business; it really exposes comics to criticism and is offset by extremely little monetary reward. Starting out, you’d be considered lucky to get dinner and your cab-fare home from the club. However, many comedians argue that it is worth a few bad nights of harsh criticism and no paycheck to later evoke laughter from thousands of people; to them, laughter is its own currency. Thus the struggle is well worth it, as artists in almost every field would agree because it is only through small gigs and lots of grunt work that they get “discovered.” So how exactly do you go from cab-fare to The Late Show? Well here’s advice from a few people who would know:
1. Dan Nainan - Bringing Your Uniqueness on Stage with You
When Dan first started out in comedy, he asked his instructor if she thought he would be at a disadvantage due to his mixed-race; she replied that it was something which he could use to his advantage by working it into his material. “She turned out to be very prophetic,” Dan says because it became his golden goose.
Both Dan and Dave recommend seriously examining what it is that makes you unique or interesting as a person before you begin writing comedy. “Anybody can tell a joke about cell phones or getting drunk,” but it takes somebody like Dan (or his sister!) to share jokes about growing up in an Indian-Japanese-American household. Part of growing up in such a family is what shaped Dan’s strict sense of propriety. “I get booked so often because my comedy is clean and the market is 10 times bigger for that,” he says. He explains that he started doing clean comedy because his dad showed up to one of his shows and he didn’t want to do some of his raunchier jokes. He always wants to be comfortable telling his jokes in front of his parents, and now it actually works out in his favor because of the larger audience. Dan believes that you will be successful if you stay true to who you are because comedy is based in truth.
2. Nick Griffin - Living Life Fully and Using It in Your Act
Nick Griffin watched Richard Pryor when he was younger and was struck by the fact that he talked about the most humiliating, personal moments of his life, but he was absolutely hysterical. Comedy like this had a huge impact on Nick, and he realized he needed life experience to be a truly good comic.
Early on in his career, Nick had the skill set to write good jokes, but he lacked substantial material. He says his act was very mediocre because he just talked about his girlfriend and college. It was only after he gained some life experience (e.g. a wedding, bills, divorce, etc.) that he could truly reach a level of embarrassing, honest comedy. People are often surprised to learn that Nick is a comedian because his demeanor and outlook on life are rather grim. However, Nick says comedians are often this way because they observe what is wrong with life to make other people laugh about it. Like Dan Nainan, Nick stresses the importance of keeping your comedy honest and personal!
3. Janette Barber - Using Comedy Toward Something Good
Janette Barber discusses the importance of using comedy for something more than your career. She lived out this idea in her own life by performing overseas during relief efforts in Algeria and for our U.S. troops stationed there. According to Janette, “laughter is the universal language,” and she says that we cannot forget to use this unifying quality toward something good. Janette was fortunate enough to get paid vacation from her employer, Rosie O’Donnell, for this missionary excursion, and even though others are not always so flexible, she encourages everyone to help in whatever way they can. It was a very rewarding experience, so no matter what you are passionate about - be sure to use your talents to help others.
4. Eddie Brill: Auditioning for Television Comedy Programs
Eddie Brill used to book comedians for David Letterman on The Late Show, and he gives us some insight into what it's like auditioning for the program and how to be successful. Eddie says that he had to scout for comedians who would make Dave laugh because it was Dave who had to interact with them on live television. This meant Eddie had to search for content-driven acts, turning down some comics whom Eddie really admired.
If you audition for The Late Show, your comedy might not fit precisely with the brand, so you should research other hosts and consider auditioning for one of their television programs. Eddie says not to change your act according to any given host because then you will have a bad act. Stay true to who you as are a comic; a rejection doesn’t usually mean that you have a bad act or should give up. It likely means that your comedy voice fits better with a different style, so search accordingly to find the people who will help you promote your style!
5. Kevin McPeek: Performing Comedy Like It's Music
Kevin McPeek had a very unorthodox start to comedy as a child prodigy in music. McPeek was the youngest student when he studied music at Berkeley. He says it is many of the skills that he learned through musicianship that have made him such a great comic. Music teaches three important skills that Kevin applies to his comedy: timing, practice, and minutia. Timing is important to music as seen by changes in mood and tempo, and it plays a similar role in comedy. Kevin is patient and learns the perfect timing for delivering a punchline because he studied timing so intensely in his musical pursuits. The second skill, practice, needs little explanation. To become excellent at anything, you must practice constantly.
Kevin learned his work ethic and dedication while studying music, and he translated these practices in his pursuit of becoming a great comedian. The final skill he mentions is minutia. This means ensuring that a piece of music has a clear beginning, middle, and end. In the same way, a stand-up routine must have a clear outline, or the audience will be left wanting. Kevin focuses on bringing the audience along for a story from start to finish, and they will understand that the show is over because of the obvious and fitting conclusion (just as long as the punchline isn’t obvious!).
Let’s hope that this blog has followed the rules of minutia with a clear beginning and middle because now we’ve reached the end of our podcast season and final What’s So Funny! blog. We hope you’ve enjoyed the advice from comedians in both this article and in our podcasts. Remember, the offseason is the perfect time to catch up on any that you missed!
Photo Credit: https://tvfestival.org/