Updated: Feb 11
Thinking about starting in comedy? I probably don't know you, but I can promise you this: You're going to get a lot of advice.
The advice will come from everyone you know and a few people you don't. Some of it will come from comedians who want to pass on their wisdom. Most of it will come from people who've never done comedy and don't have any reason to assume they know any more than you do. You've never known your family members and coworkers were all comedy authorities but you're about to find out.
Even after a year everybody's going to act like they know more about it than you do. I mentioned to a date that I do stand up and she spent the next five minutes giving me tips. I asked her if she's ever actually performed comedy and, shockingly, no she hasn't. Rather than ask her why she assumed she's in a position to mentor me I spent the next ten minutes telling her how to cut hair. She's a hairdresser, I'm not, and there was no second date.
Most free advice is worth every cent. People will tell you the importance of timing, even though they don't know what that actually means in practice - it's just something they heard somewhere. People will offer you jokes to use. They'll be awful and unsuitable, jokes you wouldn't want even if you really were as desperate for material as they think you are.
Sometimes the advice will be real legitimate information that you'd actually see in a book about the craft. Guess what? You still don't have to follow it. It's a good idea to acknowledge the recommendations and understand where they come from but a lot of the guidance is old-school and not always useful in a field that evolves and changes rapidly.
Sometimes the advice will be real legitimate information that you'd actually see in a book about the craft. Guess what? You still don't have to follow it.
A lot of the comedy advice I see is similar to what I read when I was learning to design websites in the 90's. The internet then was slow and the school of thought was that people won't wait for your page, so strip it down and remove everything unnecessary. Twentieth century internet became a brutal minimalist landscape of unattractive sites that treated it's audience like impatient infants.
It was pretty good advice at the time, but we've all grown since then. Technology has changed and our expectations are more sophisticated. If our current internet was designed from that advice we'd all leave.
Comedy evolves too, and quite drastically. A comedian from the seventies who woke up fifty years in the future would struggle to catch up - even though the advice hasn't changed at all. “Get a laugh in the first 15 seconds” they say. “Put yourself down to make the audience like you more” they say. “Don't go 30 seconds without a laugh” they say.
It's well-intentioned advice that's legacy from an age where audiences were relatively unsophisticated, one-liners dominated, and people's understanding of what comedy looks like was narrow. A lot's changed since then. Comedy is more nuanced and audiences are evolved. You're not going to have to rapid-fire cheap one-liners as long as you can keep everyone's attention and your material is going somewhere. And opening your set with a self-deprecating jab at yourself is so overdone it's hacky.
The efficiency thing is valid, but you'll work that out as you go. You'll realise that your challenge isn't to fill up minutes, but to complete your mission in the few minutes you have. You'll quickly see that an audience would prefer you told six good jokes in three minutes than the other way around. You'll have a chance to experience first-hand how word economy will make your jokes funnier and more effective. You'll work all of that out without needing armchair experts to quote outdated gospel at you. You will get better – especially if your understanding of effective comedy is developed organically through your experience.
What I will offer you is someone else's advice. Comedian (and magician, but I'll forgive him for that) Harrison Greenbaum is a brilliant comedy theorist with heaps of smart advice. One of his ideas is asking three questions of your material: Is It New? Is It True? Is It You? "Is it new?" It goes without saying that you're not going to get far with old jokes we've heard before. You might make it through your first open mic with “street jokes” because people are polite to first-timers, but you don't have any foundation for more shows and you haven't given anyone a reason to see them.
"Is It New? It It True? Is It You? "
But the “is it new” question is really about what you're bringing to a premise. When comedy started again after a Covid-driven hiatus everyone expected lots of jokes about Covid, but nobody actually did any. Sure, it's topical – but none of us felt we could bring anything new to the subject that wasn't already covered better in the 24/7 stream of Covid memes in our Facebook feeds for the last 6 months. Harrison says a joke has to “justify it's existence” by adding something to the discourse. You absolutely can take a tired premise if you bring a new idea or point of view to it.
"Is it true?" Obviously jokes don't have to be true. Even when our stories have a basis in reality, we're still taking lots of poetic license with them for comedy effect. There's nobody in 'Comedy Hogwarts' making us swear an oath to never lie when we do our joke-magic on stage. But we rightfully avoid false premises, because they cut the guts out of our jokes. A false premise builds a joke on an assumption that isn't true. If my joke starts with “You know how blondes only have one leg?” you're going to mentally interrupt me to say "no!", and you're not going along with me for the rest of the joke. The problem with false premises is they make people get off the train before it even makes it to the station.
"Is it you?" This might be the most important filter, especially when you're starting out. Beginning comics have a lot of decisions to make before they begin. It'll be a while before you “find your voice” and own your style, but you're going to have to make some choices at the beginning. Are you a storyteller, a joke machine, a musical act or an improv artist? Are you speaking as yourself, or through the voice of a character? And how close is your “stage you” to the you at home? Is your dialogue profane or pure? Do you deliver high energy or deadpan? Are you edgy or mainstream? Where are you on the political spectrum? What sort of things are you going to talk
about? You've probably settled on most of this without much conscious thought, but it doesn't hurt to be aware of what your “brand” is because your humour needs to be consistent.
For over a year I've presented myself as a left-leaning progressive with no patience for racism, misogyny or right wing ideas. If I dropped a sexist joke or a conservative opinion in my act, it wouldn't work. You'd be wondering how I forced that square peg into the round hole. The confusion would hijack the laughter, no matter how funny the punchline might be. Mixed messages are a cancer to comedy.
“Is It New? It It True? Is It You?” is, in my not-so-humble opinion, the best advice for any comedian, new or otherwise. The other principles will make themselves known to you as you go along, and the “rules” that others give you only work to make us all identical. Make sure you're bringing something that's unique and authentic and you're definitely on your way.
Written by Sean Cooper