Thursday, July 20, 2017

Why become a stand-up

So revealed to the world on this week’s podcast is my attempt at stand-up comedy. (You can listen by just clicking the big gold arrow under the masthead or by clicking here) It was quite an experience, and I talk about that as well in this episode.

But what the exercise didn’t explain is a question I’ve wrestled with for years – of all the forms of comedy, who do some people gravitate towards stand-up?

Yes, it’s intoxicating to get laughs, but you don’t have to be standing all alone on a tiny stage surrounded by potential hostile drunk people to get the joy of producing laughs. As a writer, I get that feeling every time a play or show of mine gets laughs from an appreciative audience. Actors get the same rush when comedies they’re acting in work. Maybe they didn’t write them, but their talent and ability to deliver is what sold the material.

When I’m doing improv I have the safety net that I’m working with other performers (the comedy burden is not entirely on me thank God) and the audience understands that this is stuff being made up on the spot. So they give you a little more leeway (not much but a little).

And doing comedy on the radio is unique because you know going in you’re never going to hear laughter. You just have to assume you’re making the audience laugh. But you don’t hear that deafening silence if you’re not. Radio also affords you a certain level of anonymity. No one sees you. No one is judging you on your appearance.  They can't see you sweat. 

So why choose stand-up? Why subject yourself to hecklers, angry patrons, people who look at you with pity? Why risk embarrassing yourself in front of strangers?

Sure, there are funny people who grow up admiring certain stand-up comedians and want to follow in their footsteps. Their love of comedy stems from these comedians.

But what about the more general person who thinks he’s funny and just wants to express himself? Why take this particular path?

Here’s the reason I came up with – and this is based on nothing substantial at all – this is just my hare-brained theory.

Stand-up comedy is the most accessible.

Anyone can sign up for an open-mic night. If they bomb they can sign up again or sign up elsewhere. No one has to hire you. If you’re an actor someone has to hire you to be in a play or on a show. Same with radio. There are only so many openings and you have to beat out lots of people to get one. At five minutes a set, over fifty comics can sign up for an open mic night. And that’s one club, one night. Here in Los Angeles there are dozens of clubs. You can sign up for four open mics on one night.

You could always write and produce your own material and put it up on YouTube but that costs money and enlisting others' help.  No one pays you for open-mics but they don't cost you either.  

Obviously the goal is to get hired as a comedian, but at least you have a way in. You can showcase yourself. You can gain experience. You can fail.

And you can do it yourself. You don’t need to be part of a group. You can generate your own material. And get immediate feedback. One major frustration with writing spec scripts is you send them out and often times hear nothing back. Or just a rejection. You don’t know why. You don’t know what didn’t work. When you’re on stage you get your answers (whether you like them or not).

So there’s that immediate rush and opportunity to continue improving your craft. And as a bonus, there’s camaraderie. You’re alone on stage, but you’re not alone with your dream. Understanding that they’re also your competitors, these other stand-up wannabes are your support system. They get it. They probably have the same neuroses.

Okay, that’s my theory. What do you think? Now spoken from a fellow stand-up who has five whole minutes of experience.


Roger Owen Green said...

Just saw The Big Sick, which is, in part, about stand-up. Now that you're an expert, you should see it.

VP81955 said...

Ken, do you believe performing stand-up has helped you as a writer of multi-camera sitcoms, since you can gauge audience reaction to a funny line and adjust accordingly?

I'm surprised more of today's stand-up comics haven't followed the lead of industry pros such as Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, etc. and translated their stage experience into creating (either as a performer or writer) the next generation of multi-cams -- not necessarily as a subject matter (e.g., sitcom character Jerry vs. real-life stand-up Jerry) but simply as a starting point. Instead, they sadly seem to consider the entire format old hat, perhaps because of the overblown fear of "laugh tracks" cited in your entry the other day.

Dodgerdawg said...

Ken, my nephew is currently in Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood. Now, they won't even let parents send any food or packages in the mail, just cards and letters. YES DRILL SARGENT!!!

Andrew said...

Ken, did you ever see Seinfeld's movie Comedian? It's an excellent documentary (although not at all what I was expecting when I watched it). It has lots of behind-the-scenes insights into what stand-up comics go through.

It also has one of the best trailers I've ever seen:

VincentS said...

Great job, Ken. I think one of the things that made your set work was, as you pointed out, it wasn't like all the other comics' material. The other comics were the fastballs and you were the curevball, as it were.

Mark R. said...

Last year, I went to an open mic night at a pretty respectable comedy club in Scottsdale, with the intent of getting up for five minutes. It turns out there is a core group of neurotics that take the majority of their stage time bashing everyone else. "You've been doing that same act for the last month.....and you, just because you got some laughs at your Bar Mitzvah in 1997 doesn't mean you're still funny." This went on for a good hour with every person who went onstage. Very depressing. So much, that I left before my time came up.

RyderDA said...

As a guy with 6 months experience 30 years ago... accessibility is a part of it, but I wasn't trying to get hired as a comedian (I had a full time job). I thought I was funny. I kept coming up with funny stuff that was more than just writing a single joke or one liner. These easily evolved to killer 3-5 minute hilarious stories. String 4-5 of those together and I had a 20 minute routine. When I learned improve, the routines got better because my improv skill enabled me to turn a 1 minute story into a 5 minute monologue.

Why did I stop? It was work. I estimated that for every minute on stage, I would hone the material for an hour. To get that 20 minute routine tight and hilarious would take 20 hours. In my town, there were 3 clubs in those days, and people would come week after week, so I couldn't re-use material. So I was spending 20 hrs of my spare time making a 20 minute routine that I was performing (in 1983) for $40. The $2/hr pay rate got to me, not the hecklers or the drunks.

Now that was me. Guys I did stand up and improv with were just naturally better at it than me, and it flowed from them much easier. As a result, they went on to big things. Two co-formed the Kids in the Hall (Mark McKinney & Bruce McCullough). One became a writer on King of the Hill (Norm Hiscock). Others were similarly successful. I... went back to being an engineer because the pay was better.

Stephen Marks said...

Great job Ken. It didn't sound rehearsed or prepared at all. It's like you were just driving by and decided to pull in to The Last Door and go up to tell stories and jokes. It would have been great if you had encountered some heckler and to shut him up pulled out your Emmy and rolled it over to him.

It took courage to do what you did and you should be applauded for it.

YEKIMI said...

Back in the 80s/90s used to go to a highly respected comedy club [got in free since I knew the host/manager. Usually went on open mic nights where locals and that weeks headliner would try out some new material. There was a local guy in his early 80s that absolutely slayed every week and others that bombed so bad they never had the guts to try it again. Cannot believe some of the shit people in the audience yelled at the pros. One comic [an African-American] had to put up with racist insults from some hillbilly that got so bad he ended his show (you could see he was so angry that he wanted to go out into the audience and beat the shit out of the guy) after 3 minutes but everyone was too scared to say anything because he was with a large group of people who laughed at every insult he hurled. On the other hand, some of the pros used to hang out in the bar after their shows and people would go over to congratulate or tell them how much they enjoyed the show only to have the comic snarl "My show's over, get the hell away from me, I don't have to talk to you, this is "me" time, leave me alone" or some variation. Those are the ones that faded from the scene after a couple of years and you never heard from them again. Quit going to the comedy club when they had to bring in a cop to handle the assholes like the aforementioned racist because they went overboard on ejecting people who caused the slightest disturbance, creating an even bigger disturbance in the process to the point where the comic on stage had to stop his/her show and wait till the hullabaloo was over. Sometimes they were able to get back into their rhythm, other times not. The place burned down a few years after I quit going, whether some irate comic torched it was never discovered.

Frederick Herman "Freddy" Jones said...


I read your post and listened to your podcast episode with great interest.

Two points:

1. I think you sort of cheated at the stand-up gig.

You did not prepare a series of new jokes to test out on the audience. Instead, you spitballed a sitcom routine in front of an audience. That was a few scenes from a sitcom, and they were different sitcoms. It also wasn't new material since it's something that happened to you years ago. I'm sure you've told the story 100s of times and had the chance to hone it already.

Most stand-up comedians would never ask an audience to guess at a joke. That spells disaster, and when your answer (zero) doesn't match with theirs (50), then you have a discontinuity.

At best, what you really did was test out a couple of acts from your one-man show: "The Life of Levine" and, to me, it wasn't a pure stand-up comedy routine...

2. You are correct about why comedians try stand up. Through your partnership with David Isaacs, you found an outlet for your comedy. It's easy when you are established in one outlet to question the reasoning behind another.

I would imagine that when you are in the writers room and you are all searching for a good punchline, that it suddenly becomes each one of you performing stand-up. When it's time to release your joke to the others, hopefully they all laugh and collectively say, "That's it!"

For a stand-up comedian, that's the only way for them to get the "that's it" moment. They hear the audience's laughter.

blinky said...

What really amazes me about good standup is that the performer does an hour of material and has no notes. How can a person remember all that and in the right order?

Rich said...

Ken -- I made an unsuccessful run at stand-up in the early 80's. I was in the Groundlings at the time, and we'd go to the Improv after the show. Here's what I discovered about stand-up. It's all in the first 30 seconds of your act. That's when you either 'take over the room' or you don't. The crowd is skeptical, bordering on hostile. In that first 30 seconds, you have to let them know 1) you're a pro 2) they won't have that terrible feeling of pitying you because you suck 3) they better not mess with you because you'll destroy them. This is 90% attitude, 10% material. Having stand-ups as friends, I learned it takes about a year to nail this. That's a lot of failure. But once you nail it, the feeling of power you have is sublime -- greatest feeling in show biz.

I used to be a TV reporter for Ch. 13, and I interviewed Rick Reynolds when he was touring "Only the Truth is Funny." I aksed him what it takes to become a successful stand-up. He said -- without irony -- "A great sense of humor, and a psychotic need to succeed."

Jeff Maxwell said...

Nice debut, Ken. Who knows...Heeerrrrrrrrrres Kenny!

In my humble opinion, for males, anger and women are the driving forces behind the desire to stand up on stage and tell jokes. Their anger often stems from women not talking to them. Those jokes are small expressions of what angers the performer, allowing them to scratch their internal rage and get laughs rather than prison time.

I performed with a partner for seven years. After we went separate ways, a hotshot agent urged me to be a stand up. I gave it shot, was actually okay, but hated it. I missed having a partner but mostly I wasn’t angry anymore. I just didn’t have enough anger in the belly to devote the necessary time and commitment to the process. Maybe a bit of maturity. Maybe just grew past the anger.

And women started talking to me.

Think I'll poke around for a nice oaky Chardonnay and listen to Ken again.

D. McEwan said...

I can't tell you why one becomes a stand-up, but I can tell you what I got from being a stand-up 37 years ago: Confidence in my own stage self-reliance. I learned that I could entertain an audience all by myself with no help. That has stayed with me well after I stopped doing stand-up. I never had to fear any stage situation, because as long as I had me, I was OK on stage. Banished stage fright forever.

Ted said...

This week's episode had something I've never heard before on a podcast - suspense! I was sweating bullets when you got off to a somewhat mild start, but you nailed the punchline of your first story, and it sounded like you had the audience from that point on. Good job!

benson said...

Ken and all,

Off topic, but Levine-related.

A list of the 31 worst sitcoms, and almost all of them are from the past 10 years. But there's one...that may be familiar. No, it's not It's About Time, which should have been on this list.

Cap'n Bob said...


Diane D. said...

D McEwan
I submitted a comment answering your question about which book I bought, but it never showed up so I will try again here. It was "My Lush Life". Can't wait to get it!

Stuart Best said...

I'm normally not a stickler for typos, it's actually very humanizing. But in this case the essential meaning of your post is changed. You might want to correct who to why. "who do some people gravitate towards stand-up?"

Pat Reeder said...

I tried stand-up briefly long ago, but just couldn't stomach the drunks, smoke, etc., and hated having to hone the same material over and over instead of coming up with something new every day. I'm just geared more toward being a writer. Also, by the time I came along, club managers were giving me lists of requirements for acts (how many laughs per minute, etc.) that I thought destroyed originality and creativity and just made everyone into a joke machine.

I would like to hear your review of the new series about stand-up in the '70s, "I'm Dying Up Here." I tried watching it, but only got through two episodes. The characters were all horrible and unfunny and the situations were downright depressing. In other words, it captured my experience exactly.

My favorite thing ever said about the comedy club boom of the '80s, when everyone who wanted to be a TV actor tried stand-up to get a network deal, came from Dennis Miller, who said at least we won't have to listen to all the old comedians complain that there's no place to be bad anymore.

Steve Bailey said...

I listened to your stand-up yesterday, and here's my completely unprofessional opinion: I thought you were very good. On a scale of 1 to 5, I'd say it was a 3, which is good for a first-timer. I liked that you went with the anecdotal/personal approach instead of doing tired sex jokes as you mentioned in the post-critique. My only criticism is that there were a couple of spots where it seemed as though you were rambling a little and might want to tighten up the material. Otherwise, I give you huge props for doing a good job on something I wouldn't have the nerve to do at all.

Rachel said...

Stand up comedy is accessible...what a breakthrough discovery. Thanks, genius.

Brother Herbert said...

I live in a fairly isolated small-town region and somewhere most nights there's a weekly open-mic comedy thing. After seeing a few of these, what I've noticed is that, since it's more or less the same group of people who gravitate from one open-mic to the next, what passes for a set is much of the time just them busting on each other and making inside jokes, which is something they could just as easily do themselves in a Denny's parking lot at 2am. Supposedly there's a thriving stand-up comedy scene here, but I have yet to see it.

D. McEwan said...

"Diane D. said...
D McEwan
I submitted a comment answering your question about which book I bought, but it never showed up so I will try again here. It was "My Lush Life". Can't wait to get it!"

Excellent. Hope you enjoy it. If you do, there are two sequels out, Tallyho, Tallulah! and My Gruesome Life.

cadavra said...

I tried doing stand-up once. The audience stood up. And left.

Pat Reeder said...

One thing I've noticed when I go to comedy club open mic nights is that a lot of the young, struggling comics do nothing but jokes about how awful their lives are: how crappy their apartment is, what a junker of a car they drive, how they can't get a date because they're too ugly, fat, poor or whatever. After half a dozen five-minute sets of that, no matter how funny the jokes are (and they're usually not), I'm too depressed to laugh. I feel as if I should slip them each a fiver in the lobby so they can buy a burger and not go hungry tonight. However, it does reinforce my long-ago decision to become a writer, not a stand-up comedian.

My advice to young comics is that if you want to stand out, do material about something other than how it sucks being you.

Roger Owen Green said...

From that worst sitcom clickbait list referred to by Benson above: "AfterMASH": Arguably the greatest TV dramedy of all time, "MASH" successfully blended the horrors of war with the comedy that was essential for the beleaguered doctors and nurses to remain sane. But what happens when you take away much of the great ensemble cast and replace the horrors of war with the boredom of suburbia? Nothing, apparently.