5 Points of Advice For New Comics

From time to time, I get questions from newer comics–or from people who have flat-out never set foot on stage but are curious about it–whenever I’m in one of the dozens of cities in which I perform.  I’ve always tried to be the most honest person I can be when it comes to this business, and I rarely–if ever–offer generic answers to serious questions.  You will not hear me say “Just do it” or “Believe in yourself and it will happen” or any number of empty slogans that can be read on a motivational poster.  Instead, I try to be sincere and honest about what a new comic in this business can expect.  It’s not 1987 anymore, and our business is not booming like it did that year.  What follows are 5 Points of Advice For New Comics.  I’m sure my comedic brethren will agree on most, if not all, of them.

5. Do Something Else.  I remember taking an acting course when I was a teen.  The instructor came in and said “If there is anything on this planet that will make you happy other than being onstage or performing, go do that other thing”.  People thought it was harsh.  It’s brilliant, and it’s great advice.  Being a full-time performer is more than just a job or a career (which you will soon find out it is, despite the initial fun of entertaining others), it’s a serious commitment that delivers tons of rejection almost immediately…and then keeps delivering it for years after that.  Yes, stand-up comedy is a ton of fun and the laughter of the crowd is infectious.  Once you hear some, you want to hear more.  That said, it’s a brutal business, the competition is fierce, and less that 10% of those who try it will make a living at it.  Less than 5% will become rich and famous.  Bob Newhart recently said that professional comedians are the second-smallest group in the world, next to people who have been US Presidents.  Think about that.  I’m 38 and have been onstage since I was 6 years old.  I did my first open-mic at 18.  I don’t know how not to be a performer.  Unless you feel the same way, do not pursue this line of work.  It sounds harsh, but it’s good advice.

4. Take a Business Course.  My friend and fellow comic Davin Rosenblatt recently lamented “You know what this business lacks?  Business People”.  He was right.  Entertainers are often terrible when it comes to managing their business.  This includes comics who want to make a living doing stand-up to comics who open their own comedy clubs.  In fact, many comedians who open clubs wind up going out of business because they’re good at comedy and not good at running a business.  Comedians themselves often wind up broke because they manage their money poorly, schedule their dates horribly, and have no business skills whatsoever.  Here’s a statement that will get me a lot of shit, but I stand by it: Being a good businessman will help you more than being funny.  Why?  Because we’re all funny, to some degree or another.  We’re not all good at business.  Instead of spending that money on a comedy course at the local club, spend it on a business course.  Learn to negotiate, to manage your time and money wisely.  Even if all you learn is how sell shit on eBay part-time to pay for your gas, do that.  Even better: Take a PR course.  Being able to write a press release will help you more than being hilarious will in the long run.  Every comic is hilarious to someone.  Most comics, however, are not good at promoting themselves to the media.  Learn to be both.

3. Learn False Humility.  There are going to be times when you say “Thank you” and walk off the comedy stage to the sound of thunderous applause and laughter.  It is stupidly addictive and an amazing rush.  With that rush comes an understandable swagger.  And why shouldn’t it?  Why should you not have a bit of an ego after you’ve destroyed an audience of anywhere from 20 to 200 people in one fell swoop?  Well, because so many people who run the comedy business hate that, that’s why.  Having an ego is a sure-fire way to piss off comedy club owners, managers, and bookers.  You just killed onstage?  The club owner sees that all the time.  Acting like you know it just makes you look like an asshole in the eyes of those who work in the non-performance side of the biz…especially to those who never set foot onstage.  It’s like the guy in the Ferrari pulling up next to your Hyundai at the red light and winking at you over his Ray Bans.  He’s not trying to be a dick but, man, you think that guy is a douche.  So, until you have a name that draws people through the door, I suggest you learn from my mistakes and learn some false humility.  Nothing will serve you better than having an “aw, shucks” personna.  If you did well, it’s because of the club, the promotion, the marketing, or just the audience being that great.  Then, down at the end of that list, it’s because you’re a great comedian.  Got it?  Trust me, I lost a lot of work over the years because of what I thought was confidence but was seen as cockiness.  Oh, and drinking and having a drug problem is forgivable.  Being arrogant and sleeping with the woman the manager wants to sleep with will get you banned from clubs.

2. Get a Reliable Car.  This should actually be number one.  Find a used car that gets great reliability ratings and buy that car.  You can afford a flashy car because of your day job?  That’s great…if you’re going to keep the day job.  If you’re looking to be a full-time comic, however, skip the flash and go with what will last.  You will not, especially in the first several years of being a pro comic, be flying very much.  Unless, of course, you have that great day job or work part-time with the airlines.  If you’re a full-time road comic, you’re going to be in that car more than you’ll be in your apartment.  For 10 straight years, I put 65,000 miles on my car(s).  I had a sweet SUV that looked great and was fun to drive…and broke down every time I thought about getting it washed.  The mileage sucked.  It sucked all of my income out of me.  Trust me, noting will cripple your motivation like watching all of your money go into your car, over and over again.  While you’re at it, get a reliable mechanic.  I had one that was screwing me over for years and I didn’t even know it.  Find a mechanic you trust who won’t rake you over the coals every time you need a new alternator.  You’re going to be replacing those, by the way.  As well as tires.  You will be buying lots and lots of tires, so learn about them.  And believe me when I say you’ll want a car with a back seat.  There will come a day, like it or not, when you’re probably going to sleep in the thing.  That is when you will regret the Miata.

1. Get With The 21st Century.  I mentioned taking a PR class or Business 101 course.  In addition, learn to get with the 21st Century.  The last people to get with the times is always the stand-up comedy industry.  Clubs and comics were the last people to get fax machines, cell phones, and even the last people to get online.  There are bookers out there still not using email or watching demos online.  Just because others are slow does not mean you should be, as well.  I can’t believe how many people want to be (or are) professional stand-up comics who do not have a basic website.  Those who do astonish me more by never updating the goddamned thing.  Tour dates from 2009 and just a “Welcome” page that looks like it was designed by a Commodore 64.  If you don’t look like you’re taking the business of comedy seriously, why should anyone think of you as a professional?  You’ve got ideas, so learn to blog and do it often.  Update your calendar regularly, or just don’t have one listed at all.  Upload photos, have a video chat, learn to podcast…do something.  And put it online for the world to see.  You shouldn’t Google your name and find it five pages down.  Get videos of yourself and put them on youtube.  YES.  DO THAT.  If you’re so paranoid about people stealing your material that you won’t put it up for potentially millions of people to see…why even bother with this job at all?  Your goal is to be seen, so be seen.  Yes, it’s work.  But do not be fooled: This is a job, and it takes a lot of work to succeed.  No one is going to care more than you do whether or not you succeed, so you should start being your own best cheerleader right now.  And, by the way, if your  “Website” is just your old myspace, you don’t just need to take a business course, you need to follow the advice of Point Number Five.

There you have it: a simple, obvious, and brutally honest look at this business called “Show”.  I should point out, of course, that there are exceptions to every rule.  But those who are the exceptions never set out to be that way.  So much of that is dumb luck.  It’s best not to rely on dumb luck and to try and stack the odds in your favor.  Comedy is about being funny, but the comedy business is about so much more than that.  It takes a thick skin and a little brainpower to get the wheels turning in your direction.

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21 comments

  1. Fuck off…The club owner is gona be upset with you acting like a dick? Comedians are fucking dickheads. If you can’t take the heat of a young hot shot coming in running his mouth, well than your just a pussy and please get the fuck off the stage. I’m sure you are successful and your a funny guy. However, if you can’t convince the people you roast daily on or off stage that its a part of your act than your not good. And if other comedians dislike you because your “Cocky” or “Crossing the line” look them straight in the eye and say,”GET THE FUCK OVER IT.” Encourage them to call you out, who gives a shit. I will never be a stand up comedian because I hate the endless amount of comedians who contradict themselves. If your a dick to somebody or something, then by all means let someone else be a dick back. You can go ahead and add this in replace of #3…WARD

  2. Well, you just said it yourself: You aren’t a stand-up comedian. You don’t know our business. You don’t understand how it works. Club management and club bookers and club owners have a laundry list of reasons for disliking and not re-booking comedians. And, yes, being cocky is definitely one of them. It’s not about the act; it’s about how you behave offstage. And behaving in a way that others perceive as arrogant will certainly hurt you in the long run if you are not careful. Perception is reality, and they are not wrong. It’s a harsh reality in our business that what you do onstage is not the only thing that matters. In fact, to many in the business, it’s not even the biggest part of the job. And, sorry, I won’t be replacing #3. It’s way more accurate than you realize.

  3. Why not keep it on a professional level? Tell the owners you kill it every night…If you don’t like me, respect me. I’ll make you money for shit pay so lets just be business partners. I wouldn’t act like that but I wouldn’t care if someone else did. I would agree with the comedian and toss him up on stage (in an owners sense). I really want to know what you think? Thx for responding I’ll be at your next show if your coming to my town soon. I’ll probably talk shit to you though just to see what you got.

  4. A lot of this makes sense, except for the first part about how you don’t do this unless it is the only thing you can see yourself doing. That’s to me just comes off as romanticism about a “calling”. ya it is a brutally competitive business but you can be successful at it while also if you choose do something else with your life.

  5. Blammo!! Well said Ward this article killed.. I am doing those things right now to the best of my ability.. I got a website,on youtube,facebook,myspace.. I hope it will pay off like you said. I have faced rejections.I love comedy to much to quit.. but I am also looking in to acting..Podcasts haven’t done that yet..Thanks though I am willing to try it.. Great article.. P-Paul Pimpin comedian

  6. It’s not romanticism or about a calling, really, as much as it’s just brutal honesty about the nature of the biz. I find that those who are not committed to the biz and look at it as a “on the side” thing tend to ruin it for those of us who do not. One of the reasons the pay sucks in comedy is because of the lowballing all the guys with great day jobs do so they can get onstage. Granted, that’s not the point I made when I said not to do it unless you really, really have a passion for it. But the point stands either way.

    Thanks for the opinion!

  7. Great stuff as usual, Ward. If I could add in my 1½ cents, new guys also need to lose their sense of entitlement, which I guess could be the flip side of learning false humility. I see way to many open mic’ers who can barely put 5 minutes of coherent material (usually bad dick jokes) together before they feel like they have earned paid spots. The same can usually be said for, “comedy contest” superstars. Anybody can go on a stage and get their sycophant friends/co-workers to hoot and holler for them. You want to impress me, get that reaction and those laughs from 150 STRANGERS. Also, for the love of God, please learn the difference between grabbing a live mic and babbling for 15, 20, 25 minutes and having a tight, polished set of material with actual set-ups and punchlines.

  8. Awsome advice. I’m just starting out, I hate my name seems dull. Should I try a catchy name or am I lame for even asking this question?

  9. Well, Hector, the problem is supply and demand. There are way more comedians than there are places to work. Therefore club owners can pick and choose who they want coming to their club. Since they can easily find a guy as funny as the next guy, they often will go with the humblest, easiest guy to work with…who is just as funny as the guy who is neither of those things. You’d be surprised the hoops we comics jump through for no reason other than learning humility.

  10. Good stuff, Ward. I’ve blogged about a lot of these things myself. The only thing I would have a disagreement with is your math. I’m guessing it’s more like 1 out of 10,000 people who try it ever make a living doing it. Just think of all the open mikers you have met in your career who never got past that, let alone the “successes” who got some roadwork, but never really made a “living” at it. I don’t say this to discourage newbie comics, just want to be realistic about what is ahead. If you don’t ever rise to being a headliner you are going to struggle to support yourself, let alone a family.

    Once again, though, this is great stuff here. I plan on linking to it for other comics.

  11. The “I don’t know how to not be a performer” was the part I was saying sounded like you referring to it as a “calling” ya you don’t know how to not be a performer expcept when you are being a writer or directing a video etc. Its a romantic notion to think that you “have to be a comic” since its the only thing that you know how to do. And of course your statement that part time comics are ruiining it for others is complete bullshit that I will not even take the time here to break down for you.

  12. But I DON’T know how not to be a performer. Yeah, I do other things, from writing to directing, each of which came to a degree from my love of performance. To say I don’t know how to be a performer does NOT mean it’s the ONLY thing I can do. Surely a grown adult like yourself knows how to multi-task his career decisions? Because I take time out of my schedule to direct or write certainly doesn’t mean I’m quitting performing. Would you say a basketball player who appears in movies is somehow less a basketball player? Louis CK is an comedian, director and writer. I’ve heard him say he doesn’t know how not to be a comedian. Do you question that?

    As for my line about part-time comics that is “complete bullshit” (Which is 100% true to anyone who isn’t one)? Thanks for not “breaking it down” for me. Last thing I needed was more condescending shit from random people in my life, let alone on my own blog. Thanks for reading.

  13. Now it appears that you are talking in circles, of course you know how not to be a performer when you are being a writer or when you are directing. These things may developed due to your comedy but when you are doing them you are by definition not being a “performer”.

    Sorry for the condescension but it irks me to have full time comics blame non full time comics for the current pay scale. In my view it is often those trying to make it full time that will accept any amount of pay to just keep the lights on and those with other means of income on the other hand may be more likely to turn down a low paying gig since its not their only source of income. It just comes off as too easy of a scapegoat to blame those with other jobs as a main reason for the pitiful pay at most clubs. The reasons for the low pay are certainly more complex than blaming the comic who has another job to support themselves and their family.

  14. You raise an excellent point, and may very well be on to something. Perhaps it isn’t as simple as the comics who lowball. Perhaps the blame lies closer to those who put so little value on what bwe do, full or part time?

  15. Hector is a fake e-mail I made so I can write shit without people knowing my true identity. My name is NIIIII NIGHTTTTT…and if Chavez ends up stealing this name, I’ll take beat his face in. Your replys are appreciated and make for some really good advice. The only thing I would add to this part of the post is knowing when it is time to tell club owners your hungry and to make the statement, “(His Name), I Iove doing shows here and respect your decisions on who to book and not book but but to be honest I am extremely confident I have what It takes to make it. I will not disappoint you, the only thing standing in my way is the industry and opportunity. If you grant me an opportunity I will shine and I WILL NOT accept failure.” Again…When the appropriate time comes. I understand your first couple sound offs don’t mean shit and you must prove yourself. But countless comedians (my friends and people they know) kill a crowd by night and bitch and complain all day. Ive tried telling them to look the owner in the eye and make the statement mentioned above. I’m tired of comics who are truly passionate about what they do bitch and moan about not getting an opportunity. If a comedian wants it…then by all means go the fuck out there and get it. You can’t sit back and be a statistic in the industry. I don’t need the cliche response about me not knowing what it takes because I’m not familiar with the lifestyle. If a club owner doesn’t appreciate a passionate confident comedian guaranteeing him nothing but success then I wouldn’t associate with him because he is a loser- Bottom Damn Line. If your sick of me writing on ur shit feel free to contact me on email and tell me off something sick. I understand if you have to act/be level headed for all your sane fans.

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