Here’s a list of fatal errors new stand up comedians make.
I am in no way qualified to be doling out advice. Only recently have I had my first set go better than expected. You can read the script for that here.
What I will say is that after five years off and on performing, I’ve made many of these mistakes so you don’t have to.
I’ve also seen so much stand up comedy over the years.
Time and time again you see stand-up comedians disappear down these pits. Not many come back out.
Keep in mind, many of these mistakes I’ve made too. Some I keep making.
Feel free to ignore this list. Some comedians have made a career out of their mistakes.
If you do manage to get past these mistakes, you’ll be well ahead of the pack.
Before we begin let me mention that there are secrets in her that will make you a better stand up comedian so it’s in everyone’s best interests if you stop reading now.
Fatal Errors New Stand Up Comedians Make
Race to the bottom
People who try to do stand up have probably been told by their friends they should give it a go. It’s what happened to me. New stand ups believe it’s better to get some reaction rather than no reaction. An excellent way to get a response from people is to be gross.
Gross-out comedy is okay and definitely has its place. One of the sad things is that when you are attending a comedy night it can all meld into one. When you’ve heard one story about making a fleshlight from a pringles tube and chopped liver, you’ve heard them all.
Getting bombarded with set after set of young men telling us about getting stuck to the inside of their boxers gets a bit tiresome. Maybe I’m being a prude.
I enjoy gross-out when it is well incorporated into am an overall story. Marcus Keeley is a great example of someone who has used gross-out comedy to augment his set. Even he has transitioned away from it and in my opinion, his comedy is all the stronger for it.
Stand up is not a competition to see who can tell the grossest story. Stand up is a contest to see who can tell the funniest story. If the gross-out is in service of the story, by all means, go ahead. If the purpose of the gross is to be gross, then cut it out.
I don’t know what kind of background most stand-ups come from. I come from a drama background. What I mean is that I’m used to learning reams of text.
From the number of sneaky glances at their wrists or in some case whipping out a notebook I would say I’m a minority. Many new stand ups don’t learn their set. The worst one is when they announce “I came up with this on the way here”. It’s disrespectful to your audience.
If you don’t care to prepare, then why should the audience care listen? You’re giving them a first draft? Let’s not kid ourselves 99% of first drafts are shit. A ten-minute stand-up set script can be anywhere from 600-1000 words. It will take you a grand total of two days to write and learn.
If you prepare for your set, you will put yourself ahead of 80% of other new stand-ups.
It’s true; therefore, it must be funny.
You’ve heard the expression, “It’s funny because it’s true”. Some new stand-ups believe “It’s true; therefore, it must be funny”. No, this is very much not the case. If something is true it doesn’t even mean it will be interesting let alone funny.
Merely recounting the story isn’t where your part ends. You have to embellish the story, heighten the emotion or the stakes. People want an emotional truth expressed in a funny way.
It’s not your job to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s your job to make people laugh.
Now go away and change that story until it’s funny.
What they are not who they are
The audience doesn’t care if you’re a straight white guy who has come from wealth and privilege. An audience doesn’t care if you’re a quadriplegic non-binary velociraptor from Alaska.
All the audience care about is you make them laugh.
I don’t know what the deal is with this. You’ve noticed that some of the best comedians don’t tell you what they are, you find that out later when you’re invested. The greats talk about who they are whereas the average talk about what they are.
There’s no one saying you can’t do this but make us laugh first at least.
Make it part of the joke.
Ross Mitchell has an opener “I have Aspergers, I don’t know how you feel about that,” That’s how it’s done.
You make it part of the act, it’s in service of the humour. Resist the urge to blurt out “I am XYZ”. You’d be forgiven for getting the two confused but stand-up comedy isn’t an AA meeting.
Unless you’re making them laugh no one gives a shit. Tell us who you are, not what you are, and for the love of God, make it funny.
There are some acts out there who have great material. They have great material that is let down by the fact they perform it with all the intensity and charm of someone reading an Argos catalogue.
Stand-Up is more than the words in your set.
While material is important, how you shape it is equally important.
There have been some people who’s jokes are distinctly average but how they tell them takes it to the next level.
Many new stand-ups believe that if they get up and say the material their job is done.
That is not the case.
You perform stand up, you don’t recite stand up.
Create characters, use your body, change the tone in your voice.
Give the audience a contrast.
If you want to see a great example of someone who has mastered the use of tone, try and get along to see Rory McSwiggan.
How he uses volume and tone to draw you in is fantastic. His sets have a rhythm similar to a horror film. He gets quieter and quieter. You lean forward to listen better then, the eruption of noise comes.
Don’t care if they’re likeable.
Now, you’re not going to like this one, but your audience has to like you.
One of the fatal errors new stand ups make is they don’t care how they come across.
You’re effectively letting the audience into your world for ten minutes.
Do you want to spend ten minutes with someone you like or someone you detest?
There have been some stand-ups who, are clearly the assholes. As in from their perspective, given free reign are the asshole. They’re the villain, but they can’t see themselves that way.
Make yourself likeable from the start. Get the audience on side from the off. You do that by being a likeable person.
How do you be likeable?
Watch It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. These are two shows about people who aren’t good but are at least honest. Honesty is a key to likeablity.
An example off the top of my head. You go to give money to a homeless person but they give it back because they only take card. Think of how you can make yourself the underdog. No one wants to hear about how right you are all the time.
My God comedians are a thin-skinned bunch.
Especially the new ones. For people who deal primarily in jokes they sure could do with a lesson in how to take one.
I understand that stand up comedy can be fierce. The politics that goes on behind the scene are a whole other level. I don’t think I’m telling tales outside of school here when you find out that the comedy scene is hard going.
Imagine a gender-swapped Mean Girls who have body dysmorphia with a coating of Cheetos dust.
If you want to stick this game out you need to be able to withstand the passive aggressiveness and pettiness of stand-up comedians.
Part of me wonders are female stand-ups in the minority because they’ve been through high school. They don’t want to go through it again.
Due to the passive aggressiveness, the one thing you need to be careful of is what upsets you. Let me get this straight I am guilty of this shit myself. I am attempting to do better. Some people lack impulse control and to be honest, the option will always be in the back of your head.
Take this guy for example:
Now he had a wealth of ways to react. He could have messaged me privately and say he didn’t appreciate the joke. He could not have responded, but he chose to go public.
If he thought about it for a second he’d know that A) He proved my point and B) The joke wasn’t a personal attack. But that’s the thing with new stand up comics, everything is personal.
Every slight is meant to cause maximum damage.
The faster your skin thickens, the better.
Don’t stick with it
Its understandable stand-up comedy isn’t for everyone. I’ve been doing it on and off for five years, and I still don’t know what I think. I know I’ve been enjoying playing around with characters. Attempting to tell a story with funny bits in it rather than trying to cram in as many jokes possible. I’ve also learned what I’m interested in doesn’t make for good comedy.
It’s taken me five years and only this year have I had my first “good” set.
For you new starts you have to stick it out. You will be shit for a very long time. You will die many times on stage. Your best friends who came to support you will deny you three times before the cock crows.
If you want to know what I learned bombing, follow this link here.
To the new stand up reading this, I say, keep going.
Keep honing your material.
Work out who you are not what you are.
You can make it funny but you have to put the work in.
If you’re going up there and not even getting crickets don’t give up hope. You’re learning way more quickly than your average comedian.
You are funny and here are a lot of people rooting for you. You just have to put the work in.
Fatal Errors New Stand Up Comedians Make: Conclusion
All you gotta do to avoid the fatal errors new stand up comedians make is as follows:
- Go for laughs instead of groans.
- Learn your script
- Vary your tone
- Use the stage
- Take a joke
- Tell us who you are and give us a reason to root for you.
That feels like enough to keep you going.
Let me know when your next set is, I can’t wait to hear what you have to tell us.
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