Comedy Tips

These tips are part of comedian and author Ian Coburn's site.  Click here to go to the site's home page.

Standup comedy is one of the most difficult paths in the entertainment industry. There are fewer venues for comedy than other forms of entertainment, such as music. True success often depends on the ability to travel and be available on the weekends. It is also one of the most rewarding paths and one in which an individual’s career can be managed by him or herself. Many other vocations in the arts do not lend themselves easily to self-management, such as writing or acting. Here are a few standup comedy tips.

Getting Started: It is best to perform comedy at comedy clubs. In a city, there is a good chance a comedy club exists. Find out if the club has an open mic night and how to get on. In more rural areas, a bar with a comedy night should do. Comedy has changed a lot since I started and some clubs actually require potential acts to audition in the afternoon before they will allow them to get on stage in front of a crowd. The best option is to find a club that has a simple signup—the first “x-number” of acts that signup, get on stage for 3-5 minutes each. More popular venues may require ample experience to perform even for an open mic.

Rehearse: Before the first performance, practice. Practice MANY MANY times. Why? Newbies often forget their material when they step out under the spotlight. I rehearsed over one hundred times before my first open mic performance. When something happened that would have distracted a lightly rehearsed act, I was able to shift into auto-pilot. I made a quick comment, got a big laugh, and jumped right back into my material. Had I not rehearsed, I would have been lost. It is only funny to say, “I forgot what I was going to say” one time; then, it’s heckler city. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Writing Comedy: There are tons of articles and classes about writing and performing comedy. Unfortunately, most articles focus on being funny instead of giving good tips on writing humor. Generally speaking, a joke should do one of two things: It should be relative and/or it should change logic. Crowds find humor in what they relate to and in a change in logic. Consider something like this: “I was on a big date the other night and I was really nervous about whether we would… you know… okay, have sex, I said it… I can say it, we’re all adults here. Anyways, I really went all out with everything; super expensive night, had the right wine, soft music playing on the radio, everything was perfect. Looked like it was going to happen and then BAM! I bumped into the parking brake and we rolled down the hill. Talk about a mood killer.” A simple notion here, not brilliantly written, but it contains the necessary elements and if told right, could get a big laugh. People often get nervous when discussing sex, so the comedian pretends to be a little nervous. The crowd can relate. People also know that anticipation of, “Are we… or aren’t we?” Again, they relate. Finally, the bit sets up a big romantic image in the minds of the audience. Then wham, turns out the comedian was simply fooling around in a car. Not romantic! Changes logic and quickly changes the image, which results in humor.

An act should ask if a bit does one or two of the two things. If not, unless it is an impression, it probably won’t get a laugh.

Timing, Delivery, and Stage Presence: The only way to get and develop ‘em, is to get on stage and get on stage often.

A Career in Comedy: To pursue a career in comedy, it is best to find someone who is a few months ahead in the business. For example, if one has been on stage only a few times, he/she should find someone who has been on stage fifteen or twenty times. Where has the other act been performing? What’s the best way to find open mics? And so forth. Keep following this process. Ready to emcee? Find someone who’s been emceeing. Emceeing and ready to feature? Find someone who’s featured a few times. How does an act break into THAT room? Ask an act who just broke into that room. It’s okay to ask headliners how to break in; just realize that they are far removed from the starting point and many things may have changed since they did open mic. They’ll have good advice in other areas but the best advice for an aspiring comedian will most likely come from slightly more seasoned newbies.

There’s a lot of advice I can offer, far more than I can type here. Generally, though, one of the best pieces of advice is the preceding and to treat comedy like a business; for club owners, bookers, and full-time comedians, it is. Why have someone on stage who is not going to act professionally? Be on time, be courteous and tip the wait staff, don’t go over the allotted time, don’t do another act’s material, and so forth. Sounds logical, but these things are often ignored.

I can also share my approach, which proved very successful. Clubs are often in need of emcees that are funny and that will do a good job making the necessary club announcements and introducing the other acts. After I had some gigs under my belt, I contacted clubs all over the country and offered to emcee. It didn’t pay much, but I got a place to stay, paid my dues, and met a bunch of other acts, who offered me all kinds of good advice. I block booked—worked Cleveland for a week, then Columbus, then Cincinnati, then Louisville, etc. Many emcees scattered their gigs. They’d be in Boise one week, Pittsburgh the next; can’t make money doing that. I then moved up the ladder quickly and returned to the clubs as a feature act.

For Women: IF YOU ARE A WOMAN AND WANT TO BE A COMEDIENNE, this is important. Many clubs put emcees up on the sofa of the club condo; this is part of paying dues. They are often not comfortable putting a woman in that situation. Instead of telling a woman this, they frequently will just not book her. Do some damage control. Let the booker know that you don’t mind, or that you can stay with a friend in the area, or ask for a week when the other acts are local and won’t be using the comedy condo. Don’t confront them; simply make such offers when asking for an emcee booking.

Be Prepared: Opportunity is ample on the road. I opened for big rock groups because I was in town and the venue director contacted the club, looking for a comedian to fill a last second cancellation. I broke into headlining with one big booker when a headliner failed to show up for a gig. I was the feature, they grabbed a local guy to come in and fill my shoes, while bumping me up to headline. I was ready with the mic time and material. BOOM! Had a great show, headlined for that booker from then on; lots of work, lots of money. DON’T MOVE TOO SOON, THOUGH. Had I not been ready, I would have told the booker. If I had a weak show as a headliner, the booker would never have given me another shot at it. He might have even dropped me as a feature. Better to pass and get a chance when the timing was right.

Loose Ends: Be tough. Be professional. Keep writing. Rehearse. Have fun. If an act is not having fun, the audience is not having fun. Finally, take all advice with a grain of salt; there are no experts in comedy and many comedians who were told they would never make it, have. Break a leg!

In addition to the advice here, Ian is available for seminars and workshops.