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How to Start Performing Stand-Up Comedy

Updated on July 19, 2017
Regi Brittain profile image

A stand-up comedian and freelance writer, Regi Brittain loves life and wants to help you enjoy it!

I love to tell jokes in unique places.
I love to tell jokes in unique places.

It's Time to Jump into Comedy!

If you think you want to try your hand at stand-up comedy, then you should. It really is as simple as that. You may be 17 or 77. If the urge is there, listen to it!

I had the comedic urge from the time I was a child and my parents used to play Steve Martin's "Let's Get Small" in the car on long trips. Was that move dubious parenting? You bet!

More importantly, I did not listen to that urge for a very long time. I had other interests and limiting beliefs, and most of all, I listened to others -- people who made fear-based decisions -- who told me not to try it.

At the age of 40, I finally said, "I'm doing it!" And I have been glad ever since the first time I stepped up to a microphone and tried to make people laugh.

There is only one way to know if you should be performing stand-up. You have to try it for a while.

A wannabe comedian walks into a bar.

It's open mic night.

There's no joke here.

This is just how you get started.

Where to Begin in Stand-Up Comedy

While you might read forums or take classes, there is really only one way to start in stand-up comedy (unless you are famous, but this article is for the rest of us). Find an open mic!

In larger cities, you can likely find at least one comedy open mic that runs weekly. Attend one. Find out everything you can about it. Ask some questions:

  • How do you sign up for a spot?
  • How many minutes will you get to perform?
  • When will the host or house "light"* you?
  • Is the show a "bringer"**?

Once you have attended the comedy open mic and gotten a feel for how things run, you can return on a different night, sign up and perform stand-up comedy for the first time.

Possibly, you live in an area without a conveniently reachable comedy open mic. You have two choices. You can find like-minded people and start your own comedy open mic, or you can seek out a music venue or a bar that has a music open mic and ask them if you would be allowed to sign up and perform a comedy set.

No matter your open mic options, do one. Do several, at least! Open mics are where you find your stand-up comedy sea legs.

*To "light" a comedian means to communicate -- via a light at the back of the venue -- that their set has almost reached its time limit. At open mics, you will get the light with one or two minutes left. Make sure you know the given show's rules. Basically, when you see the light, it's time to wrap up your set.

**Bringers are shows -- most often, they are open mics -- for which you have to bring a minimum number of audience members to get a spot in the lineup. The bringer concept is bad for comedians and audiences. Do not do bringers.

Ways to Get Started In Stand-Up Comedy

Method 1
Method 2
Method 3
Method 4
Find an open mic.
Find an open mic.
Find an open mic.
See Methods 1 through 3.
Perform at that open mic.
Perform at that open mic.
Perform at that open mic.
 
Keep doing open mics until you have your comedy sea legs.
Keep doing open mics until you have your comedy sea legs.
Keep doing open mics until you have your comedy sea legs.
 

Should You Take a Comedy Class?

There are a lot of unnecessary "must-dos" around comedy. In my opinion, the only comedy must-do is starting with open mics. Many in comedy see continued performing in open mics as a must. I personally think that, once you are comfortable onstage, you should cease open mic'ing. I found improved stage confidence after I stopped.

Similarly, some folks say that you should never take a comedy class, while others are all for classes. I have taken two, but I now wish I had not.

So, should you take a comedy class? My advice is no, but if you feel that you need it, do your research, and pick one that doesn't feel corny or sketchy.

Develop a Set List

I believe that everyone has a different path to their funniest self, so we're not going to talk about how to write a joke. Writing a joke is very different from performing stand-up comedy, anyway.

Tony Robbins said, "Repetition is the mother of skill," and that definitely applies to comedy performance.

With that said, you should absolutely prepare material before you first go onstage. Open mic audiences are tough, and nobody wants to watch newcomers ramble.

Come up with ideas, jokes and bits that you think are funny, give your bits titles, put them on a set list and practice your set. Know the number of minutes you will have at your local open mic, set a timer, and run your set until you think you have it down.

If you want to really impress people who know comedy, do your very first set without a set list. This may seem difficult, but you simply need to put in practice at home before you sign up for an open mic. If flying without the help of a set list your first time up feels too dicey, make it a goal to drop using written-out, visible set lists as quickly as possible. They're unprofessional.

I'm either telling a joke or giving a revival sermon!
I'm either telling a joke or giving a revival sermon!

Make Yourself a Promise

I think that this section is the most important part of this article.

When I decided to finally jump in and try a comedy open mic near me, I made myself one promise. No matter what happened the first time, I would at least perform once more. Thus, I took a lot of the pressure off of myself for that first open mic.

Performing stand-up comedy should not be a one-time thing. If you want to really try your hand at something, you have to commit. Promise yourself that you will perform a minimum of two times. Go even deeper. Commit to performing as many times as you need to realize whether you want to spend a large portion of your life pursuing stand-up comedy as your career.

Watch Out for These Comedy Pitfalls!

I thought it would be helpful to provide a list of various things that might stand in the way of a comedian's success:

  • Bringer shows, which were mentioned earlier. Some clubs and promoters use these as part of their business model, and they only serve the needs of those businesses.
  • The open mic rut. Open mics are for beginners. The audience at an open mic is atypical. You can't trust the feedback. Once you have your comedy sea legs, find a way to move away from principally doing open mics. Some other comedians disagree with me on this point, but other comedians aren't writing this article, and everybody has to find what makes their heart sing.
  • Telling an onslaught of bodily function and sex-related jokes. Everybody experiences these subjects, right? But that's precisely the problem. When you are doing open mics -- and thereafter -- find ways to set yourself apart. Be the comedian who doesn't only talk about poop, drugs or touching yourself.
  • Getting drunk or high to perform. I'm not trying to be a party pooper. From my perspective, performing wasted is unsustainable.

Keep Going!

Once you have gotten your comedy start, the only thing to do is keep going.

Will you bomb some nights? Definitely. Everyone does, especially at first.

Will you know the joy of crushing a room? With the repetition of performing and evolving, that is very possible.

For more insight on the next step, read my article on producing your own comedy show.

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