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A No-Frills Guide to Doing Standup


People often ask me how does someone become a comedian? How do you write a joke, and in general how comics come up with their persona, material and so on. I’m not sure. It’s different for everyone, but I’m going to try and take a stab at some of the more universal elements. There are basically five things every comedian does at some point. I’ll try to list them. The rest is up to you.

1) The first thing you have to decide is what kind of comedian you want to be. There are seven basic categories—”The Surprise!,” “The Zing,” “The Flip-a-Roo,” “The Bam!,” “The Shit NO!” “Voicies” and the “Hmmm?-HAHA.”

Obviously, just like with colors, styles can be mixed to create variations. I mostly do “Hmmm?-HAHA-Flip-a-Roo-Zings.” While David Cross is a “Surprise!-Voicies-Shit NO!” comedian. Demetri Martin has popularized the “Hmmm?-HAHA-Surprise.” Dane Cook is known for his “Bam!” humor (sorry to those who thought he did “Flip-a-Roos.”) Robin Williams is a “Surprise!-Voicies-Zing-Flip-a-Roo-Bam!” comedian, making him at times difficult to follow (i.e. some of the radio-montages in Good Morning Vietnam.) The only exceptions to this are Jon Benjamin and Jon Glaser who exclusively do “HOLY-MOLY” humor.

2) How likable are you? Likability is a big part of standup. No matter how good your jokes are, people have to want to hear them. Where do you fall on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being as likable as Kim Jung-il and 10 being A Baby That Commands the Same Respect as Bono. You need to at least be a 6 to do it, and an 8 or higher for television, excluding Metro channel. If you are unlikable, you can do some of the following things to be more likable—sneak up on people and push them down—especially at your job, get a Bow Flex, take a cooking class, etc.

3) What makes you mad? Are you ready to go break some taboos (for instance—rape-shmape)? The government (full of bullshit makers!)? Girls (so tricky!)? Boys (simple and sex something!)? Catholics (guilty like Jews)? Those little things in the box that always don’t work and you’re like, “Thing?! Who designed this thing?!”

4) What will you wear? Your clothes let people know who you are. For instance, George Carlin always wears a hat, generally a golf cap, but sometimes one of those cool kangaroo hats. Paul F. Tompkins always wears a suit. Todd Barry performs in his lucky bandana.

5) Finally, what do you plan to do with your comedy? Do you want to brighten people’s days? Do you want to criticize a celebrity (some are spoiled, while others made music videos a decade ago that now seem outdated)? Are you going to use your comedy as a corrective tool for society or an individual? Choose one or two of those. Great. Good luck.

Now all that’s left is writing out some material, going to an open mic and trying it out. Have fun. The first time is usually great, because many audiences are supportive. There is one exception to these rules. If you’re an actor wanting a new avenue to be seen by the industry, you probably just want a “development set”—basically a set that spells out your sitcom for industry. In that case, here you go:

Your sister is gay, your brother is a robot, and your parents were hippies and you have to take care of everyone! But you’re a comedian! You’re not responsible. Your neighbor is a Shaolin Monk with mystical powers who helps you. Good luck. Make the stories real and don’t forget to act out all the characters.

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