I’ve been involved in the world of comedy since the beginning of this millennium – mainly behind the scenes in various capacities. Earlier this year, I decided I would start performing stand-up comedy and treat it the way you would any full-time job. However, unlike most people starting out fresh on the circuit, I had the advantage of my experience working with, and watching performances by, hundreds of professional comedians over the course of many years. Based on what I’ve learned, I wrote myself the following “Ten Commandments for a new comedian” that, I must admit, I haven’t always stuck to as religiously as I should have. And I know I would be a better comedian if I had. Here, I share them with the world…
1. Be deliberate about how you look on stage.
How you look is a part of your act, and deserves as much consideration as your material. Your appearance and your words must complement each other, otherwise there’s a danger of audience confusion. (Yes, the vast majority of punters are easily confused thickos. The sooner you realise and accept this fact the easier it will be for you.)
2. Arrive early.
Get a feel for the room. Watch the audience as they filter in. You may need to change your planned routine if the audience isn’t what you were expecting. Talk to the staff as they know the place better than you ever will. Ask them what kind of material goes down well, and which comedians have been popular there recently.
3. Watch the other comedians performing.
If you’re not opening then… You get to see if there are any sound and/or technical problems you might need to overcome. You get to gauge the mood of the room. You might learn the names of some punters, can see who the hecklers are (if any), pick up any running gag opportunities – all of which can enhance your own performance.
4. Have confidence in your on-stage persona.
Even if the persona is supposed to be the opposite of confident, have confidence in your ability to convey that persona.
5. Know your material inside and out.
It is never acceptable to not know what you’re supposed to say next. (It is perfectly acceptable to look like you don’t know what you’re supposed to say next if that’s part of your act.)
6. Stay sober.
You think you’re funnier when you’re drunk/high? You’re really not.
7. Never overrun.
For many reasons, it’s important to stick to the amount of time you were asked to do. The main one being that the audience are expecting the show to finish on time and they have lives outside of the comedy show that they need to be getting on with.
8. Make the audience laugh.
This is the ONLY measure of success. In business-speak: this is the only KPI that matters. Most headliner comedians achieve (on average) a big laugh every 20 seconds. It’s worth keeping that in mind as a target to aim for.
(Note – Making other comedians laugh is not an achievement. The only group whose opinion counts is the punters who paid – in time and/or money – to be entertained. They are not even remotely impressed by your comedy circuit in-jokes.)
9. If you’re obviously dying then get off the damned stage!
The promoter and other acts will not thank you for killing the mood dead with five minutes of uneasy silence. There’s no dignity in ploughing through your whole routine if it’s clear the audience aren’t enjoying it. For an audience, two minutes without a laugh is an eternity! If it ain’t working then cut the set short. Smile. Thank the audience. Say goodnight. Because, there will be other shows.
10. Record your gigs and be HONEST with yourself.
This is perhaps the hardest thing to do for sensitive egotists, but the laughs (or lack of them) don’t lie. Every time a joke doesn’t get a laugh is a failure. Now, listen back to each recording and for every joke that didn’t get a laugh blame YOURSELF for the failure. It didn’t work because you either wrote a poor joke, delivered it badly or delivered it to an audience it wasn’t right for. In all of these circumstances, YOU are the one to blame for that failure. No-one else. You.
Accepting the blame for your own failures as a comedian is the ONLY route to becoming a better comedian.