How to Start Doing Standup
Everyone needs to start somewhere. Even stand up comedians that look like they’re just making stuff up on stage for fun. The truth is that behind the dick jokes are years of experience, telling dick jokes. Even world class comedians started in dive bars with a notepad trying to figure out if the weird thoughts in their heads were funny or better suited to therapy (chances are it's both).
You’ve seen comics do their specials and you think you want to have a stab at that but how do you start doing standup? Over 10 years ago now I was in the same position. I had wanted to do stand up for years but had no idea how to get into it. It took me a while but I finally did my first gig and that quickly turned into 2, 3 and 4. I’m 100s of gigs down the line and actually getting paid for it. Stand up is like most things - really hard to get started but then it gets rolling like customers visiting a Cinnabon on a hill.
So to avoid others having to wait for years like I did I’ve written this guide to getting you started and when you’re playing Madison Square Gardens or the O2 arena you can buy me a beer. And if you’re not then you can have your money back. Alternatively if you want some 1:1 guidance on how to start doing stand up and help me write your material then I also offer that service as well. But for now let's get into the guide.
Me having a jolly old time telling jokes. You'll have to trust that there's an audience as well.
Step 1 - Find a Night
If a stand up comic tells a joke in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Well yes probably but no ones there to laugh apart from a couple of birds and they’re not much interested in witty observations. As we found out during the pandemic an audience is quite important for a stand up night so without that it's going to be hard to get going.
You need to find a night that you can do your first gig at. Once you have and you’ve got a date in the diary you’ll be surprised at how a bit of fear will spur you on to get some material written (more on that later). You’ll want to find a good open mic night that’ll give you some stage time without any experience. There’s no point asking your local 3,000 seater theatre if they’ll give you a 5 minute spot.
The best way to find these nights is by doing a quick bit of research on google or more likely facebook. Most places have dedicated groups where comics can look for gigs in their area which is a nice change from all those local MILFS that seem to be cluttering the streets. Once you’ve picked out some nights that aren’t too far away then reach out to the organiser of the night through social media and ask if they have a spot. Or it’ll be a sign up on the night deal where you just show up early and stick your name down.
Personally I like to scout places out before performing there by watching a show first. This is a really good idea if you’ve not done a gig before. You don’t want your cherry popped by a couple of alcoholics in the corner who’ve just had their night ruined by needy open mic comedians. Find a nice room that seems friendly to new comics. Also, if you go there in person you can also talk to the promoter and ask for a spot which makes you stand out a bit from the 100s of white men in their 20s/30s that are definitely filling their inbox. Once you’ve got a date in the diary then it's on to step 2.
Avoid doing your first gig at the insomniac's meetup
Step 2 - Get Some Material
You’ve got a night booked in but it’s not going to go too well if you haven’t got anything funny to say (this still doesn’t stop a lot of people). You need to get some material written, I’ve got another article on writing jokes here so I won't go into a huge amount of detail into joke structure on this page. But you will need jokes, this seems obvious but one of the biggest mistakes first timers make is that they think they can blag a set because they see pros look like they’re chatting on stage. The thing is that they’re not, they have jokes but they’re so experienced they can cover it up to make it look natural. Most importantly, they know where the funny bits are.
Get yourself a notebook and write anything you think is funny in it. This can be stuff from your past or anything you might find funny as you go about your day. Take the notebook everywhere with you or take some notes in your phone, just make sure you write as much down as possible. It’s not going to be gold straight away but once you start shifting through all the disgusting dirt of terrible material you’ll find the funny nuggets eventually. The most important thing is that you’re disciplined with your writing and find time to do it. This is why booking a gig is useful because it gives you something to aim for and your brain will be screaming at you to avoid dying in front of a load of strangers on a weeknight.
Your jokes are going to depend on you and your style. You might be better suited to one liners, stories, observations or whatever it is you lean towards but just make sure you get it on paper and know where you expect the funny bits to be. Obviously there’s always a risk that they won't work and that risk never goes away but at least know where the punchlines are. If you look at a sheet of paper and it's all set up with no punch then it’s time to have a rethink which leads me nicely on to step 3.
Write about anything but this
Step 3 - Edit and Structure
At this point you should have a load of material like you’ve taken a giant joke dump in your notebook. Now is the time to polish that dump. As you’re new the chances are you’ve been given a 5 minute spot to start with. It’s important to remember it's 5 minutes and prep for this. It’s not your netflix special so leave the 50 minute story of your life at the door for now. As a general rule it’s best to structure your set like this:
Strong and Punchy Opening Introduction
When you go on stage the audience is going to judge you and wonder if you’re funny or not. Hit them with some strong and confident one liners out the blocks to show you know what you’re doing. A good rule of thumb is to comment on your appearance first off. It’s cliche but the audience has already made assumptions about you. If you use those assumptions to deal with any elephants in the room then you can get a nice easy laugh to settle you down. And if you are an elephant then even better.
More risky material
Once you’ve settled yourself and the audience you can start to do stuff that’s more of a gamble. So this could be jokes with longer set ups, stories with no clear punch or jokes with riskier subject matter. If you open with this kind of material then you might end up to losing the audience straight away. If you do it in the middle then it's a lot easier to recover if it goes wrong because the audience should already like you from your safer opening. Plus you’re about to deliver your…
You want to leave on a high if you can and you’ve done all the hard work to get to this point. Even the most seasoned pros tend to have a bit of banker material at the end of the set to leave on applause rather than a slow clap. This joke doesn't have to be about anything in particular, just one you’re confident in. Maybe it's one you’ve tried on your friends and they loved or maybe it's just one you have a lot of faith in but whatever the reason make sure you treat your set like a marriage - open and close with something solid to give you a chance to experiment in the middle.
In general when it comes to your set, be as ruthless as possible. Delete anything that you think is weak and write something else instead. Tweak jokes to make them as tight as possible and make sure you have a good joke rate throughout your set. They don't have to be showstoppers but just make sure you’re not waffling for 4.5 mins for a weak punchline. Think of your set like a road and the jokes are fuel stops, if your tank runs out you’re in trouble but top ups when needed will keep everyone happy.
Think like this guy and chop the crap
Step 4 - Practice Stage Presence
A good venue, killer material and great structure will all be for nothing if you don’t have a good stage presence. This is the bit that usually gets better over time the more you get used to being on stage but there are little things you can do to improve before you have your first gig.
When people do stand up for the first time they’re understandably nervous. After all, it's a crazy thing to do by crazy people. Because of this your body is wanting to tick all over the place and move about a lot. For most people this comes in the form of travelling, where you wander aimlessly around the stage or constantly rock move back and forth. Your audience will pick on this and unconsciously lose faith in you.
It’s totally fine to be nervous but you’ve got to try and mask it so you seem in control. The best way to do this is to plant your feet and stay rooted to the spot. This’ll give you one less thing to worry about and give you and your audience a bit more confidence. Plus it'll mean you don’t accidentally walk out the light or start talking to one part of the audience.
Practice so you hate it
You’re going to want your set to flow as much as possible so try and commit the thing to memory. Nothing ruins flow like checking a notebook or the back of a hand or the recesses of your mind. To avoid this I’m afraid it’s going to take repetition so your brain automatically knows the material and can focus on other things when you’re on stage. This will mean you’ll end up taking all the funny out of your material because you’ve heard it a million times but keep the faith and remember your audience is hearing it for the first time.
Stand up comedy is simple. It’s just you and a mic. And that mic can be your friend or your worst enemy on stage. Unless you’re a lady of the night, taking something in your hand and pulling it towards your mouth is an alien thing to do. So it's best to practise with something mic shaped in the mirror so it's not so weird when you have to use one for real. You can use a bottle, a deodorant can or a thick dildo it's really up to you. Be careful to have the mic at a nice distance away from your pie hole. Too far and we won't hear you, too close and it’s doing to distort more than Donald Trump’s grip on reality.
One of the key tells between someone new to stand up and someone experienced is what they do with the mic. New comics tend to leave the mic in its stand. The best thing to do is take it out of the stand as soon as possible and put the stand to one side remembering to put it back before the next comic. If that's a bit much then dont worry and leave it where you found it but if you can take it out it'll give you more control over the mic and you’ll appear more confident to the audience.
Mirror mirror on the wall who is the most insecure of all
So that’s a guide on how to start doing standup and entering the rabbit hole of open mic comedy. It’s not too late to back out but what’s the fun in that? Part of what makes comedy so good is the fact that you can do it your own way so don’t take these tips as gospel but hopefully it’ll help you avoid the mistakes I and many other comics make. If you’d still like some 1:1 guidance and help with writing then please get in touch and I can help you get started. If you’d like some tips on writing jokes then go here for my guide. Good luck!