Stand-up Comedian  What They Do

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dotJust about anyone can make their friends laugh, but it takes a special talent to turn laughter into a business that pays. Most comedians spend years making their friends howl before they take the plunge -- scribbling down jokes on a pad and stepping up to an open mike.

"You have to find more and more places to practice," says Greg Schwem, a stand-up comedian in Chicago. Schwem turned to humor after years spent working as a reporter. The risk paid off and he's since appeared on TV. "Saying you're hilarious when you're with your friends isn't quite enough. You've got to get up on a stage. And don't do it in front of people you know, like 20 of your friends. Find a place where no one knows you."

dotIf you want to get into stand-up comedy, you probably won't get your first real shot at it until you reach drinking age. While some restaurants hold comedy nights for their patrons, most venues are in nightclubs, pubs and bars -- all of which require performers to be of legal drinking age.

Until then, your best practice time might be at your high school or charity talent shows in your community.

dotThe comedy boom first hit in the late 1980s. Since then, there have been many changes in the industry, as it was flooded with comics who then began to slowly abandon it for other career choices.

"Fifteen years ago, if you told someone you were a stand-up comic, they'd say, 'That's an interesting job.' Then, in the '90s, people said, 'Really? My brother-in-law does that too,'" says Schwem.

dotMany stand-up comics gave up early on. The positive side to that is that only the best are left. Schwem agrees: "The industry got way too big for itself and people got a little tired of it. But to say that stand-up comedy is dead would be like saying people don't want to laugh anymore."

dotRight now, the big trend in comedy is to find a niche, which is just what Schwem has done. He's targeted himself as a clean comic for a technologically sophisticated world. Some comics have adult-natured content in their routines and perform strictly to adult audiences. Others tailor their routine to a more family-oriented audience.

dotThere is more to this job than just standing on stage and being funny. Comics usually write all of their own material. It has to be revised periodically to keep it topical and to keep the audience from getting bored.

dotComics are often responsible for marketing themselves and finding gigs. When they are just starting out, the budget usually doesn't have room for an agent. Comics need to know where to look to find a gig. They need to know what kind of audience will find their routine funny and where to find that audience.

dotIt's a very male-dominated field, despite the TV and movie image of comedy as the land of equal opportunity. Women make up a mere 10 percent of stand-up comics, which is both a curse and a blessing.

Hopping from one small-town, gritty hotel room to another isn't fun at the best of times, and being female can make it downright dangerous. Some club owners also claim that men won't laugh at women. But the blessing is that with so few women out there, they tend to rise up the comedic ranks quite quickly.

"Women do have an advantage," says Julie Donoahue, a stand-up comedian who regularly performs at a comedy club. "A lot of clubs put on all-women shows. Being a minority isn't a bad thing. Ethnic comics get much further much faster. There are clubs that have East Indian nights, or all-black women comic nights."

dotTo stand out, many people combine other theatrical talents, such as tap dancing or juggling, with their comedy routines. Writing skills are important, as are strong drama and theatrical skills. Public speaking experience is also a must: comics can't freeze up when they hit that open mike.

dotIt is advisable to start doing stand-up comedy in addition to, rather than in place of, another job. "It's like an internship," says Schwem, who worked nights as a comedian for seven to eight months before he gave up his day job.

dotMost comics who have "made it" have spent 10 to 15 years getting there. "It takes months to develop five to 10 minutes of material," Donoahue says. "It's a very, very tough road. I wouldn't recommend it as a career decision, but maybe as a hobby. But the hope is always there that you're going to get discovered."

dotStand-up comedians have a path to follow. At first, they may get three to five minutes at the mike -- unpaid. Then they work their way up to a 10-minute spot. At 15 minutes, they are the MC for the night, and at 30 minutes, they're the feature act. The best comics become the headliners, and have to keep the audience rolling for 45 minutes.

dotWhile there may be some opportunity in rural areas, it is difficult to achieve any type of success without either traveling or moving to a larger urban setting. Small towns just don't have enough venues to allow a comic to achieve widespread recognition. Success and a well-known reputation go hand and hand in this business.

dotThere are often long periods of unemployment between jobs. While under contract, comedians are frequently required to work long hours and travel.

Flawless performances require tedious memorizing and repetitive rehearsals. Actors need stamina to withstand hours under hot lights, physically demanding tasks, irregular schedules and the adverse living conditions that they may encounter while on the road.

dotIn addition to all this, there is the constant anxiety of intermittent employment and regular rejections when auditioning for work. Comics need to be thick-skinned. There are lots of hazards on the road to success.

"Everybody had better be prepared to go off stage lots of nights with no laughter," says Schwem. "Everybody bombs. There's no comedian who's so funny that they can make an audience laugh every time. You don't know who's out there, or what kind of day they've had."

dotPhysical disabilities can almost always be accommodated in this career and, as weird as it may sound, they may even be an advantage. There are many comedians with disabilities who have built their entire routine on the day-to-day difficulties that they face.

At a Glance

Create, promote and perform a comedy routine

  • Travel is often required
  • Earnings can be minimal
  • There are no guarantees of success