What should you wear on stage?

Hi Dave – I was wondering what to wear / how to dress on stage. I notice there are not very many women in comedy. The ones that are maybe my favorites – Wanda Sykes, Paula Poundstone, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres, etc… I can’t help but notice, they dress like a man. Did you ever notice that?

So, should I wear a tie? Of course, I’m not going to wear a tie. I’m also too old to look hot in a tight pair of jeans. I have tight jeans, (lately all my clothes are a bit tight), but I don’t want to gross anyone out. I’m not fishing for compliments. I just wonder if I should dress up, dress down, look masculine, feminine, should I wear black, should I wear some color…? What I’m not going to be like is Phyllis Diller and dress crazy. Thanks – J.

Fashion Sense

Hey J. – I realize I’m talking with a woman of comedy and it’s not (the late and great) Phyllis Diller. And to make another point, I’ve never been known for my fashion sense. Keep in mind your question was not sent to Calvin Klein, which is the only name I know from the fashion design world. And that’s only because he designed my underwear – which is probably getting a little too personal for this FAQ and Answer session.

I also know there will be comedians reading this who will think it’s not an important question. They’re wrong. In fact I can’t remember doing a comedy workshop where this question wasn’t asked. It’s also been asked by working comedians I’ve booked for various gigs.

“What should I wear on stage?”

The answer depends on who you are on stage and where you are performing. You must consider both to find the correct answer.

When I started out on the club scene in New York City, I don’t remember stage wear being an important issue. For everyone starting out, writing and stage experience were the biggest concerns (and still should be for any comedian). We didn’t hang around the NYC Improv wondering what the comedians should wear on stage. It looked to me like whatever you put on that day before walking outside was what you wore on stage that night.

Off Stage Leisure?

But I also learned a lesson about what to wear on stage from another comedian I worked with at the NYC Improv. The look is best called successful, and the advice came from one of the funniest comedians I know, Rondell Sheridan. In fact, it was such good advice, he shared it in my book How To Be A Working Comic

“I think I only did stand-up three times before I passed the audition at The Improv,” he said. “I always had a good gift for ad-libbing, and a couple of things happened in the audience during my audition. Plus, I dressed up. None of the other comics dressed up for the audition. I sort of looked like I’d been doing this for a long time.”

This is a lesson in showbiz.

Of course, the number one factor is to be funny on stage. But your image can also influence an audience and talent bookers. If your material and who you are on stage – your comedy voice– says you’re successful, then what you wear should help convey that image. If you’re street – then dress street and not in a 3-piece suit (you punk!).

Whether you believe it or not, what you wear on stage also puts you into a category. In showbiz, they call it typecasting. I was surprised to go from a comedy scene in NYC where t-shirts, sports coats, jeans, and sneakers were referred to as the comedy uniform, to Hollywood where there were actual lists in talent booking offices categorizing (typecasting) comedians because of what they wore on stage. The ones I remember distinctly were:

  • T-shirt comics
  • Sweater comics
  • Sport coat comics and…
  • Suit comics

I’m being serious about this. It’s the truth – and anyone who has ever been behind the closed doors of the booking industry knows it. In fact, you can check it out yourself by going online and watching reruns of the classic stand-up comedy shows that influenced many of today’s comedians like A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, Caroline’s Comedy Hour, Comedy On The Road and others.

When it came time to book these television shows, the producers knew it was always good to present a variety of comedians. This would attract a wider range of viewers. For instance, unless it was a theme for a particular episode, not everyone would be interested in watching a line-up of only prop comics or of only political comics.

The great thing about these shows was if viewers didn’t like one style of comedy, chances were good they’d continue to watch because they might like the next one. It’s often the same when booking live shows. The headliners don’t want the comics before them doing the same act.

What you wear on stage should help define your comedy voice.

And to base this off what was just explained, not all television viewers will be interested in what successful comics wearing 3-piece suits have to say. Others would have no interest in a show featuring only comics in ripped jeans and t-shirts. Just like with music, comedy fans have different tastes. So, to cast these shows, it made the job of deciding who would be scheduled on what episode a lot easier for talent bookers by referring to the lists.

This way audiences would see a variety of comics during each episode.

What would you wear on stage?

This is also true for auditions set up through comedy clubs. For example, when I was working at the Hollywood Improv, I remember getting calls from casting directors for movies, sitcoms and talk/news programs like The Today Show looking for specific types. If they wanted to audition young guys in their 20’s for a role, we had a list of comics that fit that type. If they wanted to see political comics, we had a list for that also. We didn’t have to waste a lot of time going through our complete roster of comics.

We already had it narrowed down.

But getting back to today’s original question, here are some quick thoughts…

Dress for who you are on stage. If you’re upscale, dress the part. If you’re on the streets – look it. Don’t dress like a bank president if your material is about being broke. And if you’re not crazy, don’t dress like (the late and great) Phyllis Diller.

You need to give this some thought and make a personal decision about your image and how you want an audience to see and remember you. One of the greatest examples of stage clothes influencing an audience and enhancing the comedian’s material was when Steve Martin wore his white suit.

If you’re too young to remember, look him up on YouTube – or check out the cover of his book, Born Standing Up (which I highly recommend reading). He’s wearing a white suit… looks expensive… looks classy… BUT he’s wearing bunny ears or has a fake arrow sticking through his head. Then he’s acting like a “wild and crazy guy” and the perception works because audiences believe he is crazy because he’s so dressed up, but obviously not normal.

Many comedians and speakers fashioned a look their audiences would remember. Rodney Dangerfield – uncomfortable in a jacket, white shirt, and skinny red tie. Drew Carey – white shirt, skinny tie, and glasses. Kat Williams – pimp (I’ll say no more). Early Robin Williams – suspenders. Early Margaret Cho – Valley Girl. Later Margaret Cho – hip, rebellious. Dave Chappelle – street. Larry The Cable Guy – redneck. Pee Wee Herman…

Well, you should have a mental image by now for all these performers and others. What they wore on stage helped create that image. Again, the number one factor is that they are all funny. The look enhanced their comedy material and their comedy voice.

Another consideration is where you are performing.

I’ll make this fast: If you’re doing a black-tie event or a corporate gig, don’t show up in ripped jeans and a t-shirt. If you’re performing at a NASCAR rally – call Larry and ask to borrow one of his Cable Guy shirts.

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Just like your comedy material and promotional material, it’s a good idea to put some thought into what you wear on stage. Remember, it’s show-BUSINESS. And in the business world, packaging (a recognizable image) promotes sales (getting paid bookings).

And finally, to address one of your other questions, I never really thought about the female comedians you named all dressing like men. As I mentioned, I’m no Calvin Klein and my fashion sense is limited. If it fits the comedian’s image, then it’s fine with me.

But I’d also like to point out Amy Schumer, Rita Rudner, Loni Love, Sarah Silverman and… well, I could also make a long list of women that don’t dress like men. Does it make a difference from an audience point of view? Not that I’ve noticed. If the clothes fit the material and the performer – who they are on stage and where they are performing – it works.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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