Standup Comedy Is Hard, I Am Learning

So one of my New Year’s resolutions was to get out and do more things and meet more people. I thought, why not combine that with a chance for public humiliation? So I’m taking the Second City Training Centre Standup 101 course. Three hours every Wednesday and a grad performance on Feb 13.

I’ve bene wanting to do this for years. A few years back my sister and I went an a combined open mic/Humber College night thing at an improv joint in Toronto and sat there aghast as unfunny comedian paraded their unfunny bits before us. Both of us walked out thinking “There is no way I couldn’t do better,” and I resolved to take the course.

It only took me five years to get around to it, but brother, it’s hard. It’s so easy to be the funny guy in the room (and in this course we have twelve funny people.) It’s not so easy to actually write standup material. Anything you think is funny when written down is too long on stage. Jokes you think are funny fall flat. Uneven tone confuses people. You’re talking to much, get to the joke. You need tags and need to know when to add them and when not to. You’re talking too much, get to the joke. You spend hours writing a bit and then realize you have no transitions in and out of your other bits. You’re talking too much, get to the joke.

This isn’t wholly surprising - I knew standup comedy was as hard as it gets - but it’s genuinely intimidating, The first week I found myself thinking, “I am not the funniest person in this room. I might be the LEAST funny person in this room.” Then this week half the class got to try some material on stage, all the ones I thought were funny went, and… well, most got us to laugh, but to say they were not quite ready to go on stage would be like saying that Poland was not quite ready for Germany’s visit.

I’ve got material written and I thought I didn’t have enough bits and then I dry-ran it and it’s seven minutes, easy. We have five. And I don’t think I have enough laughs.

Have respect for standups, folks. Have a LOT of respect.

I took improv with Second City in the '90s. It was a fantastic course taught by great people and, fuck, was it HARD!

Loved it, though.

Good for you for getting out there and doing that. I’ve often thought about writing some material down and doing an open mic, but I just wouldn’t be dedicated enough and I know it’s really hard.

That said, some stand up acts are just not funny, and it really annoys me when the unfunny comedian gets all pissy with his audience when he’s not getting the laughs. Hey, we don’t you anything, dude. That makes me wonder how I’d handle it if I totally bombed on a stage. Would I get upset with the audience? I’m curious if they address this situation in your class? How to handle the on-stage bomb?

I’ve done standup at open mic nights a few times and I often think about getting back to it. Yes, it’s hard. Writing something funny is one skill, delivering it in a way that’s funny to strangers is another. Commanding attention and getting people to follow along is very important and for most people it’s a tough skill to develop.

Some of the best years of my life were spent onstage at hundreds of open mike nights at the Comedy Store and The Improv in San Diego in the 1980’s.


You know, that sounds like fun. Unfortunately I’m nowhere near Toronto. I wonder if such classes are offered elsewhere?

“Move on to the next joke.” “Tell another joke.” “Keep telling jokes.”

RickJay, definitely let us know how the grad performance goes. Are you going to take your stuff to an open mic night after the class?

I had a friend who took a stand up class and discovered she wasn’t funny at all. I could’ve told her that for free.

Best of luck to you Rick. I’ll be looking for you at Yuk Yuks in Ottawa. :wink:

And that’s how you’ll acquire the nickname “B-52” :slight_smile:

What do you think your material will be about? Care to share lessons with us?

Congratulations! Although the idea of voluntarily going up in front of people on a stage is a little foreign to me…

Right now such bits as I have are mostly about being a Dad and about pets. It’s a relatively clean act, which will actually work for the grad performance because most of the men seem to want to do acts about screwing, whacking off, dicks, et al. Not that it isn’t funny stuff but being different might work well.

I’ll share lessons as we go. Basically, so far it’s been about writing material, not performing it. So far they shared as a basic framework:

  1. Be observant and wrote down everything you notice that could possibly make a bit - everything you see or hear, stuff you rememeber from the past, anything. Carry a notebook or a smartphone and record it immediately. Never throw anything away, ever. Then write bits based on what you collect.

  2. Create premises from your observations.

  3. Ask what is absurd, stupid, ironic, or amusing about something.

  4. Exaggerate it.

  5. A good place to start is self-depreciation. A performer is in a position of physical superiority and command - elevated above the audience, under a spotlight - so it makes you more likeable to self-depreciate, and anyway, it’s easy material to write.

  6. Most comedy comes from frustration or anger to which the audience can relate.

  7. Be topical and current.

  8. Keep writing. Refine, refine, refine. Create ideas, more ideas, and still more ideas, and then get rid of filler. Get to the joke.

  9. When you finally do perform, take notes immediately afterwards. Get feedback. Refine, refine, refine.

We have not yet gotten into narrative structure (e.g. how to links bits together; of course, some comics don’t do this at all) or heckler management. Next week we visit a major comedy club, Absolute Comedy, to learn the stage/clock setup, bcome familiar with the environment, and stay to watch the show.

That’s great RickJay! I’ve done quite a bit of stand up over the years, off and on. The first time was on a cruise ship vacation when I was 13, then in high school, a bit in college (got paid for that!), then open mic nights at local clubs. I never did it often enough to make a living, or even consider it a hobby, but I enjoyed it. Eventually I hooked up with a small improv group locally (they were nothing like Second City of course).

But you’re right. It is hard…but damn is it rewarding too, even if it’s just an amateur open mic night.

Good luck, and clean or dirty, find a style that suits you and go with it. Bill Cosby was one extreme while Lenny Bruce was another. Both were very successful onstage.

Ayup. My wife and I watch a lot of stand-up on TV, and have gone to a number of live acts as well. Have seen bad, good, and really good; the ones that can keep you laughing for an hour definitely have some kind of skill, whether innate, practiced, or some combination of the two. Anyone can come up with a joke to make their friends laugh, but to come up with an hour of consistently good material, and stitch it together so that you flow seamlessly from topic to topic, and then deliver it in a particular style, well…those guys are workin’ for a living.

Hey, I got a puppy and named him “B-52.” Then about a week later I had to change it to “P-51.”

Good luck, RickJay and let us know how it goes. I’ve thought about trying it before, used to know a ton of funny jokes, but my nuts were never massive enough. Our old head of IT and then CEO used to be a stand up comic and a good one. Man could that guy ever give an awesome, company-wide presentation. In other words, excel there and it’ll translate elsewhere extremely well.

So you’re saying you think you get very little of that? Maybe you could do some jokes about it. :wink:

I think the pointer you posted all sound good. The other item that I think is important - and maybe it’s one that should come later, because I see it as the difference between decent standup and the really good stuff - is the idea of really having a consistent perspective that having your jokes come from that.

The self-deprecation stuff can work pretty well. One of the stars of the Animal Planet show Pit Boss, Ashley Brooks, is trying to transition into stand-up comedy. She’s a little person or dwarf. She’s also not a well-known name, so people don’t realize when they see her name on the program that she’s a little person.

She takes advantage of both these things by opening her act, as soon as the initial applause dies down, with “You’re all thinking, wow! I didn’t know she was gonna be a redhead!”


don’t forget…


I did some standup years ago – even got paid for it a couple times! It was fun and it’s a great rush when you get laughs.
What I didn’t have was the dedication to keep my act fresh and to promote myself hard enough to get paying gigs consistently. It is hard work.

Have fun, and be sure to keep letting us know how it’s going!