Nobody hates ‘suggestions’ and ‘advice’ more than standup comedians. Especially if the comedian has been on stage a grand total of seven times. Because we become experts on day three! I mean, that’s why it’s called the rule of three, innit?!
I have gone through the process of failure and introspection so often in my career I feel like it’s an on-off relationship with a toxic ex. And I’d never wish the same on anyone else.
So here are some of the most common mistakes comedians make when starting out. By no means is this a comprehensive list. Trust me, I’m still making new ones!
1. Using Foul Language or Being ‘Graphic’
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve sat in the crowd and watched a comedian not pull off a ‘masturbation’ joke.
When you’re new and the audience doesn’t know you, they are not on your side yet. Even if you have the skills to pull off a sex joke, you’re alienating half the audience. Let’s not forget that most audiences members are conservative, at least in public! So, until you build a rapport with the audience, they are not going to allow you to indulge in your deep seated perversions. Sex jokes must be earned. Before you take me on a graphic story of your ‘first time’, prove to the audience that you’re funny by talking about less taboo topics.
When you’re starting out, try to keep the material clean, simply because you’re more likely to remain likeable, even if a joke fails.
2. Trying to Stick to a Voice
Some of my best learnings came when I played around with voices that were not natural to me. In the initial years, you’re better off experimenting with comedic styles. Try dead pan, try one liners, try storytelling, try high energy, try low energy, try exaggeration, change your stage personality, try anger; but for goodness sake, give it the time it deserves!
There is plenty of time to figure out your voice. Some comedians have been playing for ten years and still haven’t found their voice. Yes, you may hit the jackpot of self-awareness in your first month. Good for you! But you’ll learn more about the art form by taking risks with different voices. You’ll be surprised by how many options you can have at your disposal with this.
3. Dissing the Audience
You think the audience is not smart enough for you? Congratulations, they now hate you!
Audiences have paid to be at your show, treat them with some respect (especially if you’re an opening act for another comedian).
Comics do think that they can ‘laugh it off’ and claim to be ‘just joking’. But the damage has been done. You’ve stopped being likeable. And I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but that’s pretty key to getting laughs. In the early days, the audience has to discover you, not the other way round. So every type of audience is a potential lifelong partner.
Instead of mocking the audience, learn to read the audience. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favour.
4. Playing to the ‘Back of the Room’
Okay, we all want the respect of our peers. And we can instinctively sense the comedians in the back of the room judging us. But honestly, if you’re going to write jokes for other comedians, then you’re not helping your career. Comedians laugh at your failure on stage because they know you’re not a threat. So before you write your next ‘edgy bit’ or ‘cool inside joke’, remember that comedians do not pay for tickets, the audience does. Audiences can smell your bullshit a mile away. They don’t care if you’re cool. They care if you’re funny.
A lot of upcoming comedians alter their set to be more sensationalist in order to gain the recognition of another comic they like. It’s a mistake. Instead, dig deep, figure out why you’re in comedy, and then bring that personality to stage. It is in that authenticity that you will find your audience.
5. Getting on Stage Too Little or Too Often
Unpopular opinion: Perfectionism is a brutal flaw, not a strength. Your set is never going to be perfect before you get on stage. So, poring over the same sentence on your Word document for weeks on end before you finally decide to get on stage is not as helpful as you think. Getting on stage is part of the process. Testing on a crowd is part of the process.
So get on stage, get the audience feedback, and rework the bit to make it better.
At the other end of the spectrum—just because you’re getting on stage five times a night for weeks on end, doesn’t mean you’re improving your set. Re-writing is a big part of the process. Go back to the word doc and review the reaction to your set. Make changes. At least get a recording of your performance to review later.
Yes, some comics do like to ‘write on stage’, by which I mean, add punchlines or tags while they are performing. Fair enough! But finding the right balance between rewriting and stage-time will get you ahead of the game at a more rapid pace.
6. Following the Herd
When the only content you consume is that of other comedians, you’ll find yourself sounding like them too. Stand up isn’t TikTok where you can pass off a joke as a ‘trend’.
If twelve seemingly separate individuals are going to pick the same topic to joke about on the same night, I’d rather listen to the repetition of house music. At least the bass drops at some point.
Yes, listening to other comics opens your mind, but if some topic is scraped on a cheese grater for 6 months, it might be time to get off the lactose. If you want the best out of your comedy career, be original, and spend a significant amount of time trying to be so, because audiences get bored of copycat behaviour a lot quicker than you think.
7. Dressing Badly
You want to be remembered by the audience? Then please, give a f*ck! Don’t come on stage with Bermuda shorts, unkempt hair and torn sandals you used to play football in. Perception matters.
The audience is not just listening to your jokes, they also happen to have eyes. Quite simply, dressing well is a sign of respect. And the audience will only take you as seriously as you take yourself.
Look, I understand that standup comedy is an art form and anything can fly. It’s good to take risks and listen to your inner voice. But if you’re not self-aware, you may just end up shooting yourself in the foot and shelving your entire career. Pay attention, watch others, have fun, but also show respect. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, you may start to love what you do!
In the words of Anton Ego: “In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Kunal Rao is a stand up comedian, writer and podcaster. His stand up comedy writing workshop for basic writing techniques is running on 29 November 2020. Click here for more information.