Time spent doesn’t always equal experience earned

You will meet an endless amount of people whose biggest credit is that they’ve “been doing comedy for (some number) of years.” This is information to be taken with a grain of salt. The amount of time someone has done comedy does not solely speak for their ability and someone’s ability does not always reflect how long they’ve been doing comedy.  Appreciate the people who have put in the work for a long time but do not bow to anyone just because they’ve been around forever.
When I started doing stand-up someone told me that I wouldn’t get booked on anything that mattered for at least a year and I believed them. That seemed like a reasonable amount of time to have to work on being good enough for something, especially when someone who had done comedy longer than I had said so. But what ended up happening was that I worked really hard and I asked for opportunities instead of waiting for them. (More on that here.)
When I was around 7 months into stand-up I booked a gig doing 8 minutes of material to open for a national headliner at a club. I came home proud of myself for my accomplishment but within days I felt like I had done something wrong. People asked me, “How did you get that?” with a heavy inflection on the “you”. One person accused me of having a romantic relationship with the male comic that was hosting the show and said that must have been why I got the spot. The same thing happened the first time I got booked to do 20 minutes. I think I was about 2 years in at the time and once again this accusation of, “How did YOU get that?” made me wonder if maybe I didn’t deserve the things I had been given.

I spent a lot of that first year letting comics that had been around longer than me give me bad advice because I assumed they knew better. Once I posted a clip from an open mic set that I was proud of (In hindsight it wasn’t really that good but I was proud, damn it!) and another comedian told me it was stupid to post that on my blog because if anyone saw it they would think I was being too cocky for a new comic and wouldn’t like me. I had people tell me not to make a website or market myself because I wasn’t good enough to have a website or be marketed. All of these people were people whose opinion mattered to me greatly because I wanted “in” but none of those people are people who ended up actually affecting my career. You know what did affect my career? Having a website to refer people to. Having a clip available to send out when I wanted to book shows or submit to festivals. Having the ability to look at the results I was getting as a performer and to decide for myself what my value was without waiting for someone to tell me.

While you try to find your footing as a comic,  you’re going to have a lot to learn. If you're any good you will never stop learning new things. Don't underestimate your own experience or let anyone make you feel inferior just because they’ve been at open mics a year longer than you or some other inconsequential qualifier. Every single comic is in a constant state of growth and anyone who tells you they’ve reached their final form is a liar. The probably aren’t very funny either.

 

Don’t date other comics. Or do. Who cares?

I didn’t start doing stand-up until I dated a comedian. I was a theater actor that had always loved comedy but had no idea how to go about starting to do stand-up. I knew absolutely no one in that world and frankly, the idea of finding an open mic and trying it out was really intimidating. Then I met this guy on OkCupid that was a local comic. Let’s call him Kyle. We started spending a lot of time together and he introduced me to the world of local stand-up. I had only ever gone to see big names at clubs and seeing a show full of young people giving it a go in the back of a bar really inspired me. A few weeks into dating Kyle I decided to write my first set. I went up at two different open mics my first night and I loved it. I was incredibly proud of myself and so inspired by the experience that I went to another one a few days later. I remember going to Kyle’s house afterward and telling him how well I thought the set went. I remember him not seeming very excited for me and asking, “Do you think you’re going to like...be a comic now? I don’t want to date another comic.” I had flashbacks of theater kid hookups and how no one had any privacy during the plays I had done and decided it was a valid concern. We decided to keep quiet about being an item and not hang out at open mics.

    I kept doing stand-up and he kept away from me at shows and we would only really hang out in the bedroom of his basement apartment. We honestly never even talked about comedy when we were together. A few months into us dating he went out-of-town for some shows, something he had done every few weeks. This particular time, he text me to tell me he wouldn’t be coming home as planned and had to cancel our plans. When I pressed him about his reason for it, he admitted that when he had been out-of-town over the past few months, he had actually been visiting another woman. She was a comedian too and he liked her more than he liked me, so we broke up. I was upset enough to eat an entire pizza and dye my hair purple, but life goes on and so did I.

I kept doing stand-up, did my best not to get too embarrassed or cry when I saw him at shows and tried to forget about him. Three weeks after Kyle and I broke up I went out to a showcase that I had been hanging around at every week. I was starting to feel like I knew some of the other comedians and was really excited when one of the producers of the show invited me to sit with them to have a beer afterward. While we were hanging out, another one of the producers, who happen to also be a good friend of Kyle’s, came to sit down. She was pretty drunk and ribbing everyone the way that comics do when she noticed me sitting there. She stared at me for a second with a scowl on her face before saying, “Aren’t you that girl that was fucking Kyle?”.

I felt my stomach drop to my feet and my face flush. Everyone at the table looked at me with raised eyebrows as I stammered, “Um...yeah, we were dating for a while but we broke up.” She rolled her eyes and said to the table, “Why does every new female comic have to fuck the first guy she makes friends with?” and that was the end of our conversation. I spent the next few weeks scared to go to open mics because I thought if Kyle had told her, maybe other people knew too.

I imagine if you’re reading this you’re thinking, “Wow, that is a dumb reason not to go do something that you like to do.” You’re right, it was dumb. But boy, oh boy, if it didn’t feel incredibly valid. Starting stand-up in general is very intimidating. You’re making yourself vulnerable to a room full of people (or you know, a room with SOME people in it) who probably don’t care about what you’re saying more than they care about writing down what they want to say when their spot comes up. Doing stand-up as a woman is that plus the hyper-awareness that you are a woman in a room full of men who probably will go up there and tell a joke about some girl they fucked or a crazy bitch they broke up with. Doing stand-up as a woman who was romantically linked to another performer is that plus the illusion that you must like having sex with other comedians so much that you are doing stand-up just to fulfill your comedian dick quota. I dealt with so many drunk propositions and accusations of, “What, you liked Kyle, but you don’t like me?” from men and disapproving side-eye glances from women in the weeks following our breakup. It made me feel very stupid and I kept having to leave shows to take a walk around the block and fend off panic attacks before my sets. It sucked, but eventually it passed.

Two years later, I am in a relationship with another comedian once again. This time he doesn’t want to keep me a secret, we write together all the time and we go to shows together almost every day. Not one single person has made me feel bad for choosing him and choosing to be a comedian. The moral of this story is that choosing to hook up with or date another comedian is no different from choosing to hook up or date any other person. Some people will be good for you and some will be bad. Some people are going to judge your decision and others won’t care. More than having to decide whether or not you should date another performer, you have to decide whether or not you should date that person. In hindsight, Kyle never was that great to me in person and clearly wasn’t very good to me when I wasn’t around. People who build you up don’t have friends that put you down, plain and simple. There is nothing wrong with dating another performer if you just remember what I said about comedy being like a job. Before you start anything, think about if you’ll still be comfortable working with that particular coworker after things are said and done.

At the end of the day, you have to use your judgment to decide what is healthiest for you.  Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for who you like and do your best to like people who don’t make you feel bad.

Other comics are your coworkers

Comedy is a job, even if you’re just getting paid in beers. It is also very social, especially when you’re getting paid in beers. The boundaries between personal and professional relationships are complex and much like comedy itself, highly subjective. What you think is friendly might be business to someone else and vice versa. This concept is something that I really struggled with my first year and still messes with me now. Stand-up differs most from other types of comedy in that it is an individual form. In improv and sketch your comedy relies heavily on collaboration and trust in others. In these forms, the group mind thrives and in my experience, it lends itself to closer relationships. Stand-up is much more isolated. You spend a lot of time with other performers but you don’t necessarily spend it together. Writing is done by yourself, performing is done by yourself and the goals you have are ultimately, for yourself. I’m not saying there is no community in stand-up, because there is and I have been very lucky to be part of it, but there is a little bit of a disconnect. You can spend hours a week talking to someone at mics and shows but have no idea who that person is when they aren’t a comedian. You definitely will make close friends in this industry, but most of the people you meet are just going to be colleagues.

When I started doing stand-up I felt very aware of how little I knew my peers. For a long time it felt like everyone was friends except for me. It took me months to process the work friend-personal friend dynamic, mostly because of the weird blur between the two in comedy. Like in any other part of life, I think social media puts a filter on the relationships you form. It’s easy to feel like everyone is buddies but you when you constantly see a feed of group photos and statuses tagging friends.

On the flip-side, I think it’s easier for performers to take relationships for granted. When you see people night after night for open-mics, writing groups and shows, friendship can start to feel kind of assumed. I think the quantity of time we spend with each other starts to replace quality and we reach out to each other a little less than we would if we were “regular” people.

I had to learn to make the conscious effort to reach out to the people in comedy that I care about and not worry so much about all the people I wasn’t close with. Just because you don’t hang out all the time doesn’t mean another comic doesn’t respect what you do, you’re just co-workers and that is okay.

    A lot of comedy can feel like it is contingent on making friends with the right people and I won’t deny that friends book friends sometimes, but in the end being funny is what is going to matter the most. To anyone that is feeling like they are being held back by not being “in” with the right people, I have two suggestions:

  1. Be pleasant and present. This is the attitude that will attract friends and make you someone people want to work with, like I said when I talked about the best way to get booked.

  2. Say hi to new people. Remember how awkward you felt the first couple times you showed up to a mic without knowing anyone? For all your know, your newest lifelong friend is going to be on that open mic list, so make the effort to acknowledge faces you haven’t seen before and engage with others. Your friendly face could give someone new the courage to keep trying.

  3. Don’t measure yourself as a comedian against how many drinking buddies you have. Being popular isn’t the same as being good at your job and being good at your job might not always make you popular.

Put jokes in storage, not the trash

Comedy is a lot like cheese in that it at first, the tastiest things can also seem like the stinkiest. Your jokes are not all going to be good right away. Taking a new bit to an open mic and watching it die in front of your eyes is brutal and the urge to never say it again is tempting, but you have to resist it. I set a standard for myself where I run a brand new bit as it for 3-4 mics before I start tweaking. I firmly believe that you can’t make a definitive decision about the quality of a joke based on one set alone. It is important to run the experiment of that new joke a few times so you can track the results before you start looking for ways to alter it. Most of the time it is during that 2nd or 3rd run through that I come up with a new tag or find myself riffing in a direction I hadn’t thought of the first time around. Don’t be afraid of a joke being weak at first because open mics are like going to the gym and if you keep working out, that joke is going to tone up.

If something still doesn’t work after a few rewrites, you will once again have the urge to forget you ever tried it. Don’t do that. If something isn’t making progress don’t destroy any memory of its existence. Just put it away for awhile. Keep a document or notebook of stuff that you haven’t quite figured out just yet and revisit it from time to time. Think of these jokes as spare parts, like that weird bag of screws you’ve moved to 3 different apartments and still aren’t sure what they are for. You could throw them out, but you never know when they might come in handy. I can almost 100% guarantee that 5 months from now you will be writing a new bit and suddenly find a way to connect that joke about being really afraid of flushing the toilet as a kid in a way that is funny and not just weird. Good writing takes time and the sooner you accept that you’re not going to write anything groundbreaking on the first try, the sooner you will begin writing good comedy.  

“Ask not what the booker can do for you, ask what you can do for the booker”

    “How did you get that?” is probably one of the most commonly asked questions in the comedy community. In the last year I’ve gotten booked way more than last year and it's no coincidence that this last year is also when I started asking about the shows I wanted to be on instead of waiting for them to notice me. I know asking isn’t always a popular thing to do because when I was starting out a lot of comics told me not to ask for stuff, which part of me understands. When you’re new and untested, it takes a certain level of hubris to demand to be booked before you’ve shown that you have the skills to back it up. But I also was confused by it because in my experience, asking for what I want professionally has always yielded more better results than not.

Before I did comedy I worked in the music industry interviewing bands and reviewing albums. Before I worked in the music industry I was a person that wanted to work in the music industry but wasn’t sure how to break in. I started by writing an email to a local radio station that played the kind of music I wanted to write about and asked if they would consider me for an internship. I was 15. There wasn’t an actual internship that I was applying for, but I knew that I wanted to be part of what they were doing at 98.3FM so I politely explained what I wanted to do, why I thought I would be great at it and when I was available to begin doing it. I got lucky and the right person read my email and over the next several years I worked my way from intern to full-time host. Once I had honed my industry skills a little, I knew I wanted to interview bigger bands and review major release albums. When I was 19 I started a blog that next to nobody read but I just kept writing. Eventually that blog became the portfolio of writing I submitted to major publications and by 21 I was freelancing for publications that were big enough to grant me access to the major names I wanted to sit down with. I’ve approached comedy pretty similarly: I decided I wanted to do it, I found ways to practice and once I felt confident, I started asking the people that could afford me opportunities if they thought I would be a good fit for what they do. As silly and fun as comedy is, if your goal is to do it at any level beyond open mics, you have to treat it like a job and it is pretty rare to get a job that you don’t apply for.

If you have been doing the work and consistently developing your act at open mics, but haven’t gotten booked on a show, more than half of the time it is probably less because you’re not funny enough and more because they person running it just hasn’t thought about you yet. Even in the smallest comedy scene, there are a lot of faces that cycle in and out. It is ridiculous to expect anyone to pay attention to the trajectory of your growth so much that they know when you’re ready for a show.  It is important to be social, and visit the rooms you want to work in because how can you know you want to do a show if you’ve never seen it before? Going to shows even when you’re not booked is not only good manners but it will probably benefit you. In my experience the people that books rooms are much more likely to consider you if they’ve seen you watch the show before. Sometimes comedy is a give and take in that way but it is important to remember that attending a show is in no way a bargaining chip. You don’t get to say, “Well came to your show so now you have to put me on.” but you do get to say, “I think your show is great and I would love to be part of it. What can do to be considered?”.  Try striking up a non-booking related conversation with the person running the room and then send a polite message expressing your interest. There is a huge difference between putting a showrunner on the spot and asking, “When are you going to book me?” and submitting your work for their consideration.

Final recap: Be present and pleasant. If you're actively trying, are funny and cool to work with, you're going to get booked- eventually. It's always nice to be invited to do a show but if you sit around waiting for people to discover you, you’ll be doing a lot more sitting than stand-up.