How Not to Be a Stand-Up Comedian
As a mediocre comedian myself, I think I know a thing or two about mediocre comedy. This gives me the ability to competently analyze it and inform young dreamers how not to do it. I also brought Andy Kindler along, just because I could.
Photo by Angela Chen
Stand-up comedy's pretty hot right now…am I right, guys? Ladies? Ladies, can you back me up on this? Yes, folks, it is hot...Hot with a capital H! How hot is it, you ask? Stand-up comedy is so hot, many people are currently attempting to do it, with varying levels of success! Watching the latest Louis C.K. special, reminiscing about how beloved your high school hijinx were (remember when you told Mr. Douglas you didn’t do your homework because you were too busy “doing” his wife? Classic!) and deciding, “Shit, I can be a comedian!” however, does not a comedian make.
As a mediocre comedian myself, I think I know a thing or two about mediocre comedy. This gives me the ability to competently analyze it and inform young dreamers how not to do it.
But don’t take my word for it! In the interest of adding an air of legitimacy to my claims, I’ve sought the counsel of thoroughly competent comedian Andy Kindler, author of the legendary “Hack’s Handbook."
Photo by Susan Maljan
His infinitely more articulate thoughts on the subject follow my Gen-Y friendly bullet points and snarky comments.
Do NOT assume everyone has the same knowledge of pop culture as you.
I—suspend your disbelief—do not have encyclopedic knowledge of the Dark Knight trilogy. Nor have I seen that commercial for dick pills you wrote a tight five about. I—again, suspend your disbelief—am not an anomaly. There are tens of thousands like me. That being said, reference-laden material will not make you a comedic legend (unless, of course, you’re Mort Sahl). If you simply must share your feelings about the latest Michael Bay abortion, might I suggest abandoning public performance and becoming a VH1 talking head? You'll get the attention you crave, from an audience that remembers, and is perpetually amused by, the existence of ABC’s T.G.I.F. line-up.
Kindler says: “In the 80s, it was, ‘What are you people, in the Twilight Zone?’ And in the 90s it would be, ‘What are you people, from Twin Peaks?’ And now, it would be… I don't know, a vampire reference? In a sense, the hackness does not change. If you look back at comedy in the 80s and 90s, you know that it's hack because everyone's doing some version of Seinfeld; some kind of observational, 'What's the deal with this situation?’ You could identify that it's terrible. But today, I think the insidious part of it is that people don’t use the old rhythms of stand-up comedy, but it's no better. It's not hipper because they're doing a Full House reference.”
Do NOT talk about your bowel movements.
Everyone shits. It’s a fact of life. Most people, however, have the good taste to keep their fecal history to themselves. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a grown-ass man tell a “joke” about shitting himself, I’d be knee-deep in fiber supplements.
Kindler says: “Talking about the bathroom, to me, is the hackiest thing I've ever heard of. People act under the guise of being honest—but if you tell a joke, and the only reason people laugh is because you've stretched it out to the hideous degree that people are forced to laugh, then that's probably a reflection that the joke's not amazing. I would invest most of my life in a PR firm that would keep the secret that I shit my pants from people.”
Do NOT bother going to therapy.
A common trope among modern comedians is the long, rambling soliloquy detailing said comedian's inherent shittiness and crippling depression. Comedians have made entire careers out of kvetching about their inability to date, live in their own skin, and relate to other human beings. Ironically these are the same comedians who, at length, talk about attending therapy. But you can't have it both ways, fuck-o. If your entire comedic persona is predicated on your emotional instability, the chances of you actually making a real go at therapy are slim to none. After all, if you were emotionally stable, you'd lose your "edge."
Kindler says: “If you are doing anything that looks like a persona, it just doesn't ring true. So, yes—maybe comedians do go to therapy, but they're going to therapy to look for material. It's not that funny, because they're either not really going to therapy, or it's boilerplate therapy. I think that people are exaggerating what kind of mental problems they have because they figure it will be a good angle.”
Do NOT berate the audience for "not getting it."
It might be—hear me out—that your audience "doesn't get it" because there's "nothing to get."
Kindler says: “Berating the audience is trying to set up a thing where you're a genius and they should be listening to you if they want to get your words of wisdom. It's just another way of distancing yourself and making yourself out to be better than the audience; to be in control of the show, to be cool. A lot of comics still want to be cool. But there's nothing cool about comedy.”
Do NOT shit on the room as soon as you get on stage.
Your material about that basic cable show in which people with weird addictions eat inorganic things may be the best in town—that, however, does not make your booking a compulsory one. Someone, out of the kindness of their heart, decided to put you on their show. Sure, said show might take place in a sparsely populated, unfinished basement, but, by God, it’s still a show. And your audience, regardless of its size, is just that—an audience, filled or unfilled, with people who toil away all goddamned week at their thankless jobs (e.g. running the cell phone kiosk in the mall, running the curling iron kiosk in the mall, etc.). Their lives are hard enough. All they want is to get loaded on a Saturday night and laugh at you, clowner. So why don't you put the kibosh on rippin' the room a new one, OK?
Kindler says: “It’s probably a symptom in general of comedians having an attitude more than having an act."
Do NOT "ironically" denigrate the disenfranchised.
You’re a white male, but one of the “good ones.” Being one of the “good ones,” however, does not give you carte blanche to speak in a cartoonish black cadence, call women that won’t fuck you bitches, or treat everyone from the south as sister-fucking, toothless morons. Your ironic posturing could very well result in you unironically getting your ass kicked.
Kindler says: “The general umbrella I would put this under is shock value comedy. There are comics who think that just because they've upset somebody, that that's good. It doesn't mean you're doing something brilliant. It doesn't make it right. The reason why a lot of this stuff can be insidious is that there are people, like my dad, who can be charming and say things that may not be politically correct. But you can tell when someone is genuinely sexist, and you can tell when they're really getting a laugh on the sexism, even though they might say that it's a comment on sexism."
Do NOT talk about how disorienting it is to be high on drugs.
Drugs alter your consciousness. That is why people use, and routinely abuse, them. This information is commonly known. Marijuana may now be legal, and get you a modicum of cheap applause, but talking at length about getting your weed card accomplishes nothing.
Kindler says: "It's an update of the 'I got my cat high' from the 80s."
Do NOT not write jokes.
There's no harm in relating an amusing anecdote, so long as it's, y'know, amusing. Quoting another person (or, God forbid, a commercial) verbatim, however, is not a joke. It’s stealing material from the woman behind you in line at CVS. If that’s where you get your material, the woman behind you in line at CVS deserves an hour special more than you do.
Kindler says: “I was with my parents last year, and my mother said, 'It looks like things are getting worse for Paterno.’ And he had just died a month before. I was like, 'Mom, he's dead. What more worse could happen? What, are they gonna yell on his grave?' I took what she said, but I added something funny about it. You’ve got to add something."
Do NOT assume that, because you are "big" on Twitter, that you are a comedian.
Congratulations! Your grammatically incorrect musings about gun control, celebrity deaths, and Justin Bieber's lack of tact, combined with your wholesome good looks and inoffensive profile photo, has netted you a few thousand followers. This, however, does not get you a Get Out of Jail Free card. And by “Get Out of Jail Free” card, I mean “Get Out of Doing Open Mics for Eight Years” card.
Kindler says: “Twitter fuels people's egos, which is understandable. A lot of times, I find myself going right to the interactions area; hopefully what saves me is that I'm aware of my own self-absorption and narcissism. But I think other people don't; they use it as a weapon. They think, 'I have however many followers, so I must be funny.' It's another way to create a fake persona. I see it as a dangerous trend. I would favor legislation on that trend.”
Do NOT go over the light because you need to "end strong."
Listen, boss—you can’t win ‘em all. Hell, you can’t win most. That being said, you will not always “kill.” There's a reason why you're flailing. It's because you’re flailing. Embrace the void, come up with some funnier jokes, and get back on that horse at a later date.
Kindler says: “You do not need to end strong. You need to end. By saying you have to end strong, what you're also saying is, 'I have to make sure that the people following me might not do well. Or might not have enough time. Or that the crowd'll just get tired.' Your desire to end strong stops at the person's nose who needs to do a set afterwards. So get off, is what I say."
Do NOT aggressively try to question your audience's belief system.
Sure, God's probably not real, but do you have to make such a big fucking deal about it?
Kindler says: “It's been covered. You don't have to go through every page of the Bible and say, 'Oh, yeah, right, OK. So Moses parts the sea. Oh, yeah, lemme get this straight... yeah, turned into a pillar of salt.' Why don't you go through poetry and start slamming different parts of classic poems? It really is preaching to the converted. And I find it sad, because it's like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It would be like saying, 'Yeah, comedy's terrible. You've got Carrot Top and Larry the Cable Guy. Comedy's terrible! There's no comedy.’ People take the grossest examples of things and treat them like the only example.”