The Evolution of the Stand Up Comedian


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I’ve noticed an evolution of sorts, in the way stand-up comedy is honed. I suppose that you can say the same thing about most any occupation? If we all have to “Start somewhere”, then it stands to reason that, with the passing of time, you are never the same as when you started. For those of you that have taken an interest in performing stand-up comedy, or know and support someone who does, then read on as I explain what I believe to be a decent interpretation of the evolution of a stand-up comedian:

Starting Out

This period can last for quite some time. Every aspiring comic will start out at an Open Mic show, where a club, promoter or bar venue will offer an opportunity for anyone to get on stage and try out a set of stand-up comedy material. Anyone who has dared to attempt this feat will undoubtedly agree that, putting together a 3 to 5 minute set seems easy at first, but soon becomes incredibly daunting as the premises and jokes, that have been playing in our heads for years, all of a sudden don’t sound as funny when said out loud. But, we’ve committed to perform, so we will write and rewrite our little 3 to 5 minutes. Taking the stage for the first time is as nerve raking  as having the police run your driver’s license during a traffic stop. You’ve memorized the order of your set. You’ve memorized each and every word and have rehearsed your set in the shower, over and over again. Heck, you’ve probably showered at least 6 times on the day of your first gig!

This is actually  the way things will go for a while. Every set will sound rehearsed. The success of every set will hinge on the memorization of the order of your jokes and heaven help us if we have to deal with a heckler! That will throw us completely off! It’s not until you’re set sounds less and less rehearsed that you will be able to take the next step; Thinking you’re funny…

Thinking You’re Funny

Oh yes, you’ve perfected your 3 to 5 minute set and have increased your time to 10 minutes now! You’re on your road to stardom! How is it possible that other people aren’t jumping on your fan bus yet? You’re only a few months in, but how much longer is it going to take before the masses recognize the prodigy they see before them? You are now confident enough to invite your friends and family out to a show and you’ve even updated your Facebook occupation to “Stand Up Comic”.  Never mind that you have a degree, licenses, or a job that would make others salivate, stand up is what you’re proud of! It won’t be long before the comedy clubs hear about you and burn up your phone for booking information!

Then comes the “bomb”… Yup, that bomb that is in everyone’s deck of cards. You can’t avoid it. It’s there. It’s the card that no one wants, but comes with the deck. Ironically enough, it’s the “Joker” card. Oh, and you will soon come to find out that there are plenty of those in your set. This is the time that you realize, there are no short cuts in stand up. This is also the time when some comics face the reality that it is just too hard to continue and certainly not worth the heartache. Some “Jump the shark” here and others keep plugging along to the next step; Punching it up

Punching It Up

You’ve got your nice, little 10 minutes of decent material. It’s funny, but it could use some more laughs. By now, you’re about 1 to 2 years in and you are now starting to realize that you might need to put in a little more work before you’re invited to the Conan O’Brien show. Although you have several ideas to other premises, you realized that you need to work a little more on the material you have now. You reluctantly go the open mics around town but you are still being humbled a little more often that you would like to be. It’s tough to do the same 10 minutes in front of the same audiences night in and night out, but you continue to do them in hopes of saying something off the cuff on stage, that will result in a new punchline or new bit. It’s about this time that co-workers, friends and family ask you, “Are you still doing that comedy thing?” Endure this level and you’re ready for the next one: Learning to Write.

Learning to Write

You’re going on 2 to 3 years now and you’ve realized that there is more to stand-up comedy than just writing a clever one liner. In fact, you now realize that you still have a lot of work to do. You’ve learned about “Act Outs” in the past, but have been too hesitant to do them, after all, your jokes are great without the need to make a fool of yourself and act anything out on stage, right? Well, after a few years of watching other stand ups and comedy shows, you now see how the Act Out portion of a joke is the real money-maker! That’s where most of the laughs happen. But, where can you find places in your set to act things out? It’s gonna take a lot of trial and error, but what the hell, you’ve already bombed enough times to really care about looking bad on stage. “Efff it!”, you say. All of a sudden, something magical happens; as you’ve been working on your act outs, you’ve stumbled on other premises and other jokes that you know will go great on stage! Shoot, you’re getting almost 20 “Likes” on Facebook every time you post one of your witticisms! Now that you’re getting it, you’re ready to move on to the next step: Getting paid to perform.

Getting Paid to Perform

Chance are, by now, you may have gotten an opportunity to host or open a show at the comedy club or other venue. You’re not quite where you want to be yet, but you’re making progress. You have a nice, tight 10 minutes and maybe a few minutes to sprinkle around. There was a time when you actually claimed to have 30 minutes to an hour worth of stuff, but if you’re really honest, you’ll understand that only 8 to 10 minutes of it is actually funny. You’re 4 to 5 years in now and now realize that you were way off thinking you were ever ready for stardom. This may take a decade or two! At this point, you’re getting really annoyed by other young comics, who are just starting out and think they’re the next Richard Pryor, Louis C.K. or Bill Bull. You have promised yourself that you would not get too cocky and that you will always be realistic about what you’ve accomplished so far. When you think you have an hour’s worth of good material, you really only have 15 minutes. When you think you have a half hours’ worth of good material, you actually only have 10. Once you have decided to be completely honest with yourself, you can then take the next step: Learning to sacrifice your children.

Learning to Sacrifice Your Children

Don’t let the title of this section fool you. I’m not saying you’ve got to abandon the real children you took part in co-creating. It’s bad enough you’re already having to pay child support. That investment may pay off one day when one of your kids makes it big while you’re still plugging along at open mics. What I’m referring to in this section is learning to dump the material that is just not working. Sure, you got a few chuckles that one time at a bar called Ernie’s, but it was from a couple seated in the back that was laughing at a meme on their phones. You should be a good 6 years in by now and are starting to realize that not everything you write is gold! In fact, what makes you laugh, isn’t necessarily funny to your audience. By now, you’re learning to read an audience and are taking more risks now. Some of those risks pay off and others crash and burn like the dude from “Jackass”. (No, it’s not too soon. It was only a matter of time before one of those dudes earned the Darwin Award.) You are now very realistic about stand-up comedy and are in no hurry to get famous anymore. As long as you’re constantly coming up with new material and honing and developing your set, you’re happy. People are taking notice that you are not only a good comic, but you can actually write a joke! Now that you’re no longer self-deluding yourself, you’re ready to move on! Showing them the real you.

Showing Them The Real You

When you get here, man, you’re just scratching the surface! But, it feels great! This is when you are about 7 to 8 years in. Now, you’ve been on stage so often that you are not afraid of being You. Many young comics don’t realize this, mostly because no one ever tells them to their face, but, there was a time when you weren’t you on stage. That’s right, you weren’t. You were Dane Cook, Bill Bull, Bill Hicks, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. You were anyone but YOU! This happens without much realization. It’s just that you were influenced by those comics mentioned above and others. It’s almost like a husband and wife when they start looking like each other and acting like one another. It’s almost inevitable. But, now, you’re being You on stage. The real You. The You that your friends and family like. Your personality is really pouring in to your jokes like never before. No longer does your set sound rehearsed. It sounds smooooth! Even when you are trying out new stuff, it’s almost as though you’ve been doing it for years. If a joke tanks, you just plug along and your personality wins the audience over in the end! Some comics may reach this level sooner than others or even later. Whatever the case may be, once you get here, the journey has just begun. Hang in there and keep plugging along!

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