Life is all about doing what you’re good at. If you’re the kind of person who likes listening to others and you’re pragmatic in your approach to consoling friends, consider a career in psychiatry. If you’re the eternal optimist who’ll give people in need the shirt off your back, consider the charitable, non-profit sector. And if you’re talented in the kitchen and have the uncanny ability to know the missing ingredient to complete any dish set before you, be a chef – or flip burgers at McDonalds. Whatever. The point is, if you want to be successful, do what you’re good at. At least, that’s what they tell us.
But what about those of us who excel in slightly less practical things? Clownery, for instance. What about those of us who just get comedic timing and know how to spin a good yarn? What about the little boy or girl or gender-fluid kid who won the award for “Class Clown” every single year in a row?
This is something I’ve thought a lot about, and I’ve come to two career-oriented conclusions: you can either pursue a career in sales, because salespeople need to be charming and know how to bullshit their way out of anything, or you can be a comedian, because, well, people who are good at comedy should be comedians. That’s how life works, right mom and dad?!
Anyway, since working in sales is soul-crushing, you’ve opted to be a stand-up comedian. Congrats! But making money as a comedian isn’t easy, and if you thought the lawyer business is packed with competition, go check out the mad house that is your local club’s Wednesday night open mic. Oof.
While being a working stand-up comic isn’t easy, it’s not impossible. Here’s how you can do comedy for a living:
Think of it as a Craft You’re Honing
That might sound like common sense, but you’re about to do something that seems nonsensical to a lot of your closest friends and family. Because, no matter how funny you are at Thanksgiving dinner, your parents will generally look at you crooked when you tell them you’re quitting your office job to be a stand-up comedian.
It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours for someone to truly become great at anything. Ten thousand agonizing hours, bombing in front of crowds; writing jokes that don’t punch nearly as hard as you first thought; honing a skill you never thought even needed honing.
If you want your comedy to be a business, you have to treat it as such. Dedicate time and effort to learning and strengthening your skills, and eventually, you’ll get better. It’s like going to the gym: training the muscles you know you have will only help bring out muscles and strength you didn’t know existed.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
I’m not saying that in the funny ironic sense; I mean it. Don’t quit your day job, because there’s absolutely no way in hell that you’re going to walk into this business and just kill it. In fact, the minute you take a step back to look at just how much time and effort it takes to actually get good enough at this to make it a career, you might just reconsider.
A lot of clubs pay locals peanuts or, worse, nothing at all. It’s not uncommon to hear of comedians “working” for drinks and exposure. In fact, don’t be surprised if you wind up outside the club with a stack of flyers in your hand. It’s just the way the business works, and like any other industry, be prepared to pay some dues.
Consider It a 24/7 Hustle
The truth is, a lot of people get into stand-up because they think it’s going to be an easy ride. They can go to the bar, tell a couple jokes to their friends and get some laughs, and think, “Why the hell should I work a square job when I have this god-given talent for making people smile?”
Well, that mentality might work on Tinder, but the comedy world is a lot colder than you’d think. Ask any working, up-and-coming comic where they’re getting on a mic on any given night, and don’t be surprised when they give you multiple locations and set times. You’re going to have to immerse yourself in this culture, go to the clubs, get friendly with promoters and owners, and get booked. Period.
A lot of people labor under the mistaken impression that a comic’s full-time job includes spending four or five days writing and tightening up material, and then another two or three days out of the week performing. In reality, a comic’s set is fluid, and they’re always on stage trying things out, making necessary tweaks (or canning jokes entirely, because for every good joke a comic writes, there were probably 15 duds), and molding it into something workable. You’re going to be working literally all the time.
Luckily, if you’re not a jerk, you’re putting in the work, and you’re out there hustling – and being seen hustling – gigs will come. And with those gigs, opportunity will hopefully follow.
Seek Out Opportunities Beyond Stand-up
As GZA once said, diversify your bonds! Why have you decided to get into stand-up comedy? The answer should always be: “Well, because I’m funny.” If you really are funny, there’s a surprising amount of work for you in writing. Through the relationships and networking you’re going to do in the clubs, you’ll hopefully connect with people who recognize talent when they see it. Find yourself a writing gig on a late night show, a sitcom, with an agency or anywhere else unfunny people need funny people, and you’ll do just fine.
Not only that, but you’ll also always be working on projects that’ll only help you be funnier. It’s easy to say funny shit from time to time, but learning the techniques and formulas involved in writing actual, real-deal, tried-and-true comedy is tough and takes time and effort.
Look into joining writer’s groups, any of the various guilds or groups, or even the National Writers Union (yes, those exist). It’s not a bad side hustle, especially when the alternatives are working in the grueling hospo industry or slowly rotting away in an office somewhere.
Have Realistic Expectations – but Keep the Hope Alive!
There’s the rub, folks. You can’t walk into this thinking you’re gonna crush stand-up for a few months and then Lorne Michaels is going to call you up and offer you an audition for Saturday Night Live. I’m not saying it hasn’t ever happened, but I am saying that’s not the mentality you should have. You should be prepared to work hard, hustle and be practical in your approach to the industry.
If you do work hard enough, and a somebody does notice, then yes, you’re on the come-up. The money is great, the parties are just as wild as you’d imagine, and you’ll finally be making enough money to do what every other comedian dreams of: picking up a coke habit. Good luck!
For more career how-tos, check out our guide to running a successful food truck business.
- Lead image: New York Comedy Festival