With its origins in Vaudeville, stand up comedy is one of the oldest forms of entertainment . We all know one or two famous stand up comedians, maybe even more if you count the comedy stars on social media –and the art is only continuing to grow , as many creators begin to share their work on social media.
Stand up comedy is one of the easiest forms of entertainment you can try. You don’t need any special equipment, just a stage and an audience. Clubs and bars all over the world have open mic nights where you can leap onto the stage and give a routine, no matter the quality. But becoming a successful stand-up comedian – that’s another story. The crowds are tough, your jokes always need to be better, and you need to do consistently well in order to make a career out of performing on stage.
Like other forms of art in the entertainment industry, there’s a ton of skills and methods to learn if you want to make it big. And this is good news –it means there’s room to grow, and potential to reach the accolades of famous stand up comedians like Michael McIntyre and Trevor Noah.
Bestselling writer Malcom Gladwell coined the idea that you need to practice for 10,000 hours to master a skill. 10,000 hours is a long time. To break it down, it’s 5 years of a typical 40 hour work week, or the equivalent of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. This may seem like a long time, but this is what is required to reach a level of mastery. And it also doesn’t mean you can’t still find success on your journey there.
Keep in mind, few actually achieve massive success as stand up comedians. But it’s the ones who have the dedication and know-how, who will become the most famous in the business.
So, that’s why we’ve gathered some great advice from some of the top stand up comedians out there, to help give you the tips and tricks you need to successfully begin your 10,000 hour journey.
The pandemic has made this difficult in many countries, but, if you want to get in your 10,000 hours of practice, you need to practice in front of crowds. When starting out, that might look like going to open mic events at bars and clubs, volunteering to do entertainment, and taking a lot of jobs that aren’t very glamorous and pay very little – if anything at all.
The trick is to keep at it. With every failed routine, there’s an opportunity to learn. It’s better to fail as a nameless wannabe in this environment, than it is to fail as a big name comedian. Do your hard learning now, and reap the rewards later. As you practice and discover your style, you’ll get better at being you, and at knowing what will work with your audience.
Practice isn’t just performing in front of crowds. As you can probably guess, there’s a lot of work that needs to happen behind the scenes. If you want to be successful, you need to treat stand up comedy with the commitment of a professional.
Comedy needs to become your daily habit. You have to get used to sitting down at your desk and writing material for at least a couple of hours every single day. After writing, comes editing (which we will get into later). And after editing, comes practice in front of a mirror or camera. As with all art, comedy is like an iceberg: you only see a tiny fraction of the work that goes into it. Your audience sees the results of your work, but those results only happen after hours of practice and commitment.
Becoming a stand up comedian takes time and dedication. A comedian who stands on stage with no prior planning or practice, is not going to be successful – no matter how talented. Even something like improv takes practice to become a natural at. So, put in the hours, improve as an artist, and watch it pay off.
Getting on stage and speaking is often ranked as one of the top five fears people experience, and often ranks above the fear of death. Tied to that is the fear of failure. All in all, stand up comedy can be a pretty terrifying experience.
For those who have experienced success onstage, it can be exhilarating, and that usually makes up for the possible embarrassment of failure. Having your jokes fall flat in social settings is already humiliating enough — having it happen on stage in front of a crowd, takes it to a whole new level.
Despite the embarrassment, it’s essential to get over the fear of failure if you want to succeed as a stand up comedian. Failure is going to happen — it has to happen. It’s a part of the learning process, and all part of becoming an experienced comedian.
See every failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. Use your failure as a chance to refine and improve your routines. If you learn from your mistakes and learn to read the crowd through experience, you’ll find that your number of failures begins to gradually decrease.
Every comedian has their own personal style that sets them apart from other comedians. Trevor Noah, for example, is great at poking fun at the cultural quirks of the places he’s visiting, and it’s how he became so popular in South Africa.
Like any creator, the only way you’re going to establish your own style is to practice, and to be yourself. Emulating comedians you admire is fine at first, but you don’t want to still be copying them well into your career. The world already has a Trevor Noah; now we want you.
Establishing your own style is one of the most difficult things a creator can do. It can be intimidating when the industry is already so saturated with talent, and it can feel like everything has already been done. Though this may be true, the world is always waiting for fresh takes on known topics.
One of the great things about comedy is that it’s a reflection of the world we live in, and new material is always being made through politics, art movements, fashion, and news stories. Your style is what’s going to make tired topics fresh, and have you stand out from other comedians.
Style can be created in a number of ways. Editing, content, presentation, and even how you dress and stand onstage contributes to your style. Find what you’re passionate about, do your research, and focus on that.
Also, be mindful and pay attention to your content.You want to be an expert in what you’re talking about, so that your routines aren’t tired, generic, or offensive – all of which can alienate your audience. On the other hand, don’t write your content using jargon or esoteric, confusing vocabulary …like “esoteric”. Use a language your audience will know and connect with. There’s not much to gain from a skit if your audience can’t understand what you’re saying.
So, take a look at your content, how you want to present that content, and what it is you want to tell your audience. This way, your style will become your own in no time at all.
This tip may seem a bit obvious, but good public speaking skills are one of the most important points to succeed as a comedian. No one wants to listen to a person “um”-ing their way through an act.
As with everything, the best thing you can do is practice. Plan your routines and practice them in front of a mirror. Record yourself speaking and catch any filler words such as “like”, “um”, “so”, and “you know”. Filler words have a habit of coming out without us noticing – but your audience definitely will. Filler words will bloat your skit, take away the impact of your words, and make you appear nervous and unconfident. Filtering out the habit of filler words before you go onstage is something that takes conscious practice.
Practicing in front of a mirror will also help you identify any awkward body language or habits. Do you swing your arms around? Hold them awkwardly at your side? Do you bounce on your feet? Most of these movements are unconscious on your part, but they’re incredibly distracting for the audience. Learn to hold yourself with confidence while on stage, and consciously match your body language to your persona. Make sure you look like you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, even if you need to fake it at first. After all, the stage has no time or space for creators who don’t believe in themselves.
Remember Gal Gadot and friends’ cringey “Imagine” lockdown video? Or James Corden stopping traffic in a rat suit to promote a movie? These stunts were poorly received because of what they were: stunts. They fell flat because of a fundamental failure to connect with their audiences. No one wants to be stuck at home in a tiny apartment watching celebrities in their mansions singing about bringing the world together. Or being late to work because a rich guy in a rat suit was running around in traffic.
People relate to experiences and feelings. If you spent your week picking out a Ferrari for your hilltop mansion, people aren’t going to want to hear all about it in your comedy routine.You have to be relatable – and chances are, the majority of your audience isn’t basking in wealth. Talk about normal, everyday life. Chances are that if you’ve experienced something in your daily life (Ferraris aside), others have experienced it too. It’s an easy and natural way to connect with your audience.
Trevor Noah is an expert at this. In his routines, he pokes fun at the everyday things people do without thinking – but, when pointed out, they become funny. It becomes something silly that we can all relate to. So, take advantage of shared experiences that will make your audience feel like you are one in the same, and not all that different after all.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.” Take your failures and struggles and turn them into relatable moments that people can laugh at. Being open about yourself creates relatability and connection with your audience. They will appreciate your candour, humility and your ease at being able to laugh at yourself
This doesn’t mean you have to be self-deprecating (although this can be a form of humor). Your act can be a funny anecdote about being late to work, running into a stranger on the street, or even something as mundane as a printer refusing to work.
Two people can tell the exact same story to the same audience, and get radically different reactions. The trick? It’s all in the presentation.
There are many ways to tell a story, and chronological order may not always be the best way. Put the most memorable part at the end, so that it leaves an impression on the audience. One of the fundamental tools storytellers use is the three-act structure, which can absolutely be an asset to your own storytelling when performing comedy.
Adding structure to your stories and jokes gives the audience something to expect, making it relatable but also allowing you to subvert their expectations. Misdirection is a powerful tool in the comedian’s arsenal, and can be a source of comedy in itself. Misdirection means misleading your audience, creating an expectation, then subverting that expectation – often to something that is still true and relatable, but different to what they thought it would be.
In this regard, comedy writing becomes more about editing — you need to pay careful consideration to timing and structure, as it often dictates your acts’ success or failure. Use editing to create tension throughout your joke or skit, and leave the twist or surprise to the end.This will also make a memorable impact on your audience, and leave them wanting more.
Stand up comedy is intimidating – but, with enough preparation and research, it can be one of the most rewarding art forms out there. Laughter is always needed, especially in the world we live in today. Stand up comedy on social media represents a new era of stand up comedy, particularly on short-form platforms such as TikTok and Twitter, because the jokes have to be quick and punchy. It’s all a part of the experience– and you’ll only find success if you get out there and start doing it.
Despite new platforms, comedy rules stay the same. Know your audience, prepare and practice, keep your twist or surprise for the end, and be relatable. If you want to learn exactly how to do this, and start your career as a comedian , check out Smile Squad’s Academy on Nas Academy. Markovian, the mind behind Smile Squad, will take you through his process–from his successes to his failures–and how he developed a killer structure and relatability with his audience that made him big.