This list of tips can never, and should never be used as a definitive hand book to becoming a stand up comedian. It is intended as a useful tip sheet, and nothing more. I can’t even claim that the advice within is all my own, but is instead a collection of all the useful and excellent guidance I have been given along the way in my life as a stand up. For all those who have helped me already, thank you. For everyone else, I hope you find something here you can use.
Always go with the second thing you think of … I think this is the most insightful advice I have ever been given. It’s reference to responding to stimulus whilst on stage, either a heckle, or something born out of the audience … the first thing that pops into your head is most likely something that has already occurred to the audience … the second thing will be more of a surprise.
Listen to absolutely everything that is said to you on stage … I suppose this is related to being heckled again … if you listen to absolutely every word spoken to you, you will always find a hole there, and you can pick it apart and make it a gaping wound. Mmm, a pleasant image.
Open your mind, notice as much as you can … Speaks for itself really. I think good stand ups should have a very broad knowledge base to draw on. The best comedians are usually very intelligent people. On and off stage, keep your mind open, observe things, react to them, try and see the funny things, the contradictions, the anomalies. On stage, if you notice something, go with it, open your mind to it, and bear in mind the tip about going with the second thing you think of.
Let them like you … Even if you have a stage character that is unlikeable, bear in mind that you have to bond with your audience. Without that bond, they won’t want to listen to you. I’ve heard arguments that making them laugh with your first line is very important, but I’m not so sure. I think you need to make them like you with your opening few lines, get them to trust you, then they will follow you where you want to go. Something as simple as saying hello, acknowledging people’s presence, saying it’s stuffy if it’s stuffy. The sort of thing you might say to someone you just happen to be standing next to at a party. Just break that initial ice … you don’t have to slam through it with a Sharon Stone sized ice pick of a one-liner, but that can help.
Always give them everything … If you are not willing to work for your audience, they won’t be willing to work for you. Even if you have a low-energy act, give it all you have. I can’t imagine people walking away from a Jack Dee show moaning about how he seemed to want to be somewhere else. Even though his stage persona belies it, Jack works to keep his audience interested and focussed.
Try not to belittle yourself …This one is much easier said than done … we’ve all done it – a joke dies, we lose a little confidence, we say something like “Not doing that one again!” I think these kind of lines have their place, but should be used sparingly. If you show a lack of confidence in your material, then I think that rubs off on the audience. Just a well placed shrug after the joke has died is usually enough, and often gets a laugh anyway.
Don’t live in fear of the heckle … Studies by monkeys in lab coats have shown that the brain works ten times faster whilst on stage, and thus never fear a heckle. Just listen to it, and respond to it – you don’t even HAVE to be funny when you respond … but never be rude, that’s my philosophy.
Not everything you say HAS to be funny … It just has to be interesting. Don’t ramble, don’t waste an audience’s time exploring semes and arguments, but don’t feel that every sentence has to be the pursuit of a punchline. Once you can relax a little more on stage, and listen to your newly opened mind, alot of the time this will all come naturally. IMHO, the best comedy is conversational … just look at how many groups of people you see cracking up during conversations every night when they are stoically ignoring you standing on that beer crate in the corner with a microphone.
Try and create some “In-Jokes” … The best jokes are “in-jokes” … think of all the in jokes you have with your friends, how a single word can reduce you to fits of giggles. The technical name is Call Backs. If you can introduce some in jokes to your audience and refer back to them, then you generally will get a second wave of laughter. Something as simple as referring back to an earlier heckler, or someone you have been chatting to, ie, “Don’t you think Jean?”.
Play to your strengths, but develop your weaknesses … If you’re best at writing and delivering prepared material, do that, but bear in mind that in order to become a better act, you really should work on your weaknesses. If you cannot improvise, then try and do that atleast once during every set until you know you can do it. If you cannot seem conversational, engineer ways with which to chat to the audience. If you can’t write material, keep plugging away. Write something every day, you’ll soon become a better writer (see the writing side of this site).
Know what you want to say, but don’t feel you have to say it … It’s good to have your whole set prepared and written, especially for your first dozen or so gigs, and you should learn it off by heart. However, don’t feel you have to say all of it, in that order, all the time. If you are inflexible with your set, I think you will find it harder to deal with anything unexpected that crops up whilst you are on stage. Sometimes, the best material you can write will be ad libs and improvised whilst you are on stage with the adrenalin flowing.
You’re really the only one to blame … Now dying is something I am qualified to comment upon. And unfortunately, I am of the opinion that the only person you have to blame for a bad gig is yourself. It’s not the audience’s fault, it’s not the compere’s fault, it’s not the other act’s fault, it’s not the broken sound system’s fault … it’s yours. Pure and simple. Common excuses include:- “The audience didn’t get it, they’re stupid!” or, “There was no energy in the room!”. If the audience aren’t getting it, make them get it, or move on to something they will get. If there’s no energy, energise them. I find sometimes material dies because I am bored with it, and it shows. If I have no interest in what I am saying, why on Earth would anybody else? Turning over material is the simplest way of avoiding this. Have different versions of the same set, rotate them a little, write as much new stuff as you can. Play on stage a little, improvise, chat to the audience, just do something to make it feel different. It’s easier said than done, because once you are dying, all you really want to do is get off. Why not take it as a challenge to flex some comedy muscles. See if you can’t leave the stage having got atleast one big laugh.
Get as many gigs as you can … It sounds trite, but there really is no substitute for stage time. All the tip sheets and comedy workshops in the world are never nearly as useful as going on stage and just doing it. If you have a gap in your diary, try and fill it … and don’t ever get into the mind set that a certain venue or crowd are beneath you, because it’s not true.
Make their first glimpse be a cross section of your act … The first time you do a gig for a new promotor or venue, try and give them as broad a cross section view of your act as you can manage. If you go on and muck about for your entire set, the chances are someone will be questioning whether or not you have any material, or vice versa. Try and demonstrate your whole ability to them, show them what you are. A monkey.