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How To Be A Comedian

March 24, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 166

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive while touring is "how to I get into this business?" I've been a professional touring comedian for 25 years, so I've heard this a lot! In the larger, sense, becoming a comedian is really a three-pronged endeavor.

  • Write your material
  • Hone and develop your comedy material (rehearse your "set")
  • Get work.

Sound simple enough? Well now comes the complicated part; actually doing it. The hard facts are that even if I gave you all the answers only one to two percent of you would actually apply it and go out and do it.

Comedy is not just an art. It's a skill-based science and a business. However, most comics--both professional and novice-- equate comedy with frivolity and they treat their careers frivolously. Like anything worth doing, comedy takes work. It takes work to write new material and it takes more work to go out and get the gigs. Show business is two words; there's the "show" and there's the "business" and it might surprise you to know that much of the time, you have to put more effort into the business than the show. The good news is, when you do it right, you're having such a blast that you don't really work a day in your life!

Sound like fun? Let's move forward!

Let's start with writing and developing material. There are a whole lot of people out there that think that you can't learn comedy, that you're either born with it or you're not. That's a pure and simple fallacy spoken by people that don't have a clue about the science behind laughter or the structure behind it. If you really think about it, have you ever seen a baby pop out of his mother's womb:

"So two people were making love...then boom! Out pops me! Is this thing on?" You call that a birth canal? It's more like trying to push an egg through a stir stick! Hey Mom? (spit, spit), you should shave that stuff! Haven't you heard of a 'Brazilian?'"

It just doesn't happen! Granted, there are some people that seem to naturally have a sense of humor built in. They seem to get it. My theory is that they grew up around comedy, either listening to the greats at a young age, or they were raised in a family that was filled with humor. All the comedians I know that make me laugh had exposure to funny people at a young age and began adapting comedic behaviors. Those behaviors got them attention. They began to recognize the patterns of behavior and language that resulted in laughter and applied them to other situations with good results.

The key word from the above paragraph is "patterns." There are certain patterns that professionals use time and time again, to get laughs and it's usually a pattern that creates surprise. According to psychologists who study humor, in this context, surprise is the number one element that triggers human laughter, If you can surprise someone with what you are going to say, they will usually laugh. One of the easiest ways to do this is to apply one of the 12 major comedy formulas that I discovered over the years of studying the greatest comedians. Heck, you don't even need to study the greats to recognize this formula. If you have a friend (I think we all do), who turns everything you say into a sexual connotation, than he/she is probably applying this formula. It is known as the "Double Entendre." This literally means "two meanings." You basically take a common phrase and spin the intended meaning to mean something totally different, but it could actually fit in the statement, but its exaggerated...

The other day I was at the grocery store. The clerk said, "Did you find everything you were looking for?" I said, "Well, I found the wine and the candles, but I couldn't find a soul mate... You had Mahi-Mahi, but I'm not into twins."

In the above joke, when the clerk used the word "everything," she meant everything in the store. As a comedian the word everything could be a lot of things. In this case I went with a 'soul mate.' What makes the joke work is not just the misdirection on the intended meaning of the word, but the fact that comedic interpretation of the word still fits within the context of the question. If it didn't make sense, then there would be no joke.

Let's look at another Double-Entendre play on words: Former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was having a terrible season. At the press conference a journalist said to the coach, "Coach, how to you feel about the execution of the offense?" McKay replied, "I'm all for it."

You can see there that the word execute was used in two different ways. This structure should be a regular tool for anyone who is learning how to write comedy. One of the ways I refine this ability and make it more available to my everyday life is through practice. Once a month I do a word exercise that reminds me that our language has a ton of words that have multiple meanings. Keeping this refined in my brain, gives me a tool that is always sharp and available. This allows me to re-interpret something someone says and apply a comedic spin on the word. The exercise is simple, yet extremely powerful. For the exercise, I take fifteen random, but fairly common words and write them down. Then I find at least five different meanings for each word. Working this exercise consistently will give you an amazing leg up on your quickness and finesse as a comedian. It's simple, yet extremely powerful. Especially because few comedians actually do it. This is only one of twelve major comedy structures used by all the best comedians and comedy writers. If I was to include them all in this article, it would take you a week to finish reading. It is a simple, yet powerful example of how you can manipulate the English language and create surprise and trigger laughter from an audience.

FACT: Every comedian who makes you laugh utilizes at least one comedy structure. It is the structure of the words or the act-out that triggers the laughter. Without the structure, there is no laughter.. Even when you have all twelve comedy structures down, (most comics work with 3-4), and you develop an act of at least five minutes, to start, thirty minutes to start getting paid, you have to start to work and hone it in front of an audience. I'd start with friends. Run the material by them, see what they think, see if you can make it better by tweaking the surprise. Once you feel comfortable that you can do the five minutes without thinking about it, perform it in front of an audience. How do you do this? Well, if you're in a larger city, there are probably plenty of open mics. These are places where you can perform 5-10 minutes of material to 'test it' in front of an audience. This is the way I started. If you do not have the benefit of being in a large city, then you might have a comedy show that plays once a week or once a month in your town at a local bar or restaurant. If that's the case, take a trip down there and ask if you can M.C. the show. Most bars that have 'one-niter' comedy shows, don't have an M.C. So if you show up and ask, they will probably be more than happy to have you do it. When you do your five or ten minutes up front, then you can video tape it. Once you have a video tape that's of good quality, you have a calling card to get other work. So now you still have to work the 'business' side of the how to be a comedian equation. When you have an act that is generating a laugh every 18-20 seconds, and has a solid beginning, middle and end, it is time to get out there. What most beginning comedians don't realize is that when you hit this level, (can take 6 months, or 2 years), it's time to get serious about treating your stand up comedy like a business. You are now a product (or service), and you need to sell. At this point in your career, you will not have a manager or an agent. If you are fortunate enough to have the cash, you can hire a Public Relations manager (around $3500 per month). They can help you get out press releases, spots on the radio or television. But you have to have a gig to promote first. But most of us don't have that option when we're starting out so let's leave that alone. So you have a 30 minute act that you've been developing at open mics and other events like meetings, parties, etc. How do you get it on the road? At this point you could be looking at several possibilities in your journey to becoming a comedian:
  • Targeting the comedy club and one-niter market
  • Breaking into corporate comedy or speaking engagements.

I do both clubs and corporates in my career, but now I mainly target corporate simply because there's more money in it for me. There is also the college comedy market, cruise ship market, resort and casino market, warm up comedian market (for live sit-com, game and talk show audiences), and military shows. Military shows can be big. I was working with a liaison for the military who said he could have me working for the rest of my life doing military shows. We could spend a lot of time going through all the possibilities, but that could take days. The important thing to remember is that if you can write and develop a comedy routine that is clean and good, you can work forever. Once you have this information, it's time to target your market, do your research and start selling. That's right. Start selling. You are your own business now and you provide a service. If you learn to treat yourself like a business by drawing up a business plan, setting goals and following through, you will start to work. When you start in comedy there are 3 positions available. They are each expected to perform for different amounts of time:

  • Opener/M.C. (15 minutes)
  • Feature or Middle (sometimes called "premiere") (30 minutes)
  • Headliner or Closing act (45 mins. -1 hour)

NOTE: This is business is competitive, but here's something most comedians don't know: If you work hard and you develop your act and you develop your reputation for being a good comedian, you WILL WORK! This business and the bookers who supply comedians around the country are always looking for good talent.

If you want to target the club market, you should also target the one-nighter market.This way you have more booking options available to you when scheduling dates. How do you target? Start small; start local. If you have comedy in your area, contact the clubs, go to the clubs, ask the managers, door people, M.C.'s what the protocol is for getting in the door and auditioning or doing a guest set. Be polite and be persistent. Jay Leno drove from Boston to the New York City Improv several days a week for many months before Bud Friedman (the owner of the Improv) let him do a set. He was prepared. He did a great job. The rest is history. When you get your opportunity, be prepared and do a well-crafted 5-10 minute set. Afterwards, talk to people, see what it takes to get back to do another set. Once you mingle with people and develop relationships and a reputation for being a solid act, now you have all you need to get work. A lot of comedy talent bookers on the road require to see video. Some will take a chance on you if you have references from some headliners. It's a good idea to develop relationships with as many comedians as possible. Be nice to everyone, always act professionally. It's these relationships that can make or break your chances for getting work. Make at least 10 phone calls a day for your career.

Call comedy clubs and bookers. If you don't get them on the phone, always, I mean always leave a message. Keep accurate records on who you spoke to, who the decision maker is, the names of assistants and the best time to call.

If this sounds like you are a sales person...then well, you are. This is the business side of the equation of how to be a comedian and it's where most comedians fail.

When you do finally get a booker on the phone. Be polite and ask them if you can send them a video and if they prefer to see the video online or on DVD or E.P.K. (Electronic Press Kit). Believe it or not, there are still some bookers out there who would prefer to hold a DVD in their hand.

Some of these bookers are tough nuts to crack. When I run into that dilemma, it's time to make a personal sales call. I just email or call and ask them,

"I really want to meet you and play your room. If I can fly out there in two weeks or so, do you think you could find room in the line up for a guest set?"

For the toughest bookers in the country, this has always worked. But how do you afford that? Why your building your contacts and one-niter gigs, you make sure you book something in or around the area of the club you so covet. When you have that date in place and booked, call the club and see if you can drop in and do an audition set. Put in this extra step and you'll most likely get a guest set.

Once you do the guest set, send them a thank you card (and or something with your picture on it), to thank them for the opportunity and keep following up until you get a spot. Never follow up more than once a week, unless you still haven't spoken to the target person, then follow up every 3 days.

Calvin Coolidge said, "persistence and consistency trump talent any day." So be persistent and consistent. Be polite and keep following up. And if calling doesn't work. Pay them a visit. Let them know you're persistent.

When you start putting dates together. Use every opportunity to video tape. Try to get great sound quality, if possible. A great tape leads to more work.

If you follow these steps:

  • Write your comedy material
  • Hone and develop your material (your "set")
  • Get work.

You will be on your way to learning how to be a comedian.

About the Author Jerry Corley is a 25-year professional comedian and writer for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" He is also the founder of The Stand Up Comedy Clinic, the only full-time comedy studio in Los Angeles, located in Burbank, CA. For more information on How To Be A Comedian, visit: The Stand Up Comedy Clinic and sign up for a free comedy writing video lesson today!

Source: EzineArticles
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