Preparing For Your First Time On Stage

Hi Dave – First off, I am not a professional comedian. That being said, it is my dream to be one. I know that I am a funny person and I realize what it takes to pursue a career in comedy. I guess my big problem is that I’m afraid of taking the first step. I am afraid of going onstage and everyone just absolutely hating me. I am aware that bombing is a learning experience. But I always want people to like me. So, as you can guess, I haven’t really done much stage time because I’m scared to do so. I guess my question is, and this may sound stupid: Is it OK to be scared about taking the first step? Thanks for your time – SM

Hey SM – Let me give this some thought… (I’m pausing for dramatic effect) … YES – it’s okay to be scared about doing comedy the first time! It’s public speaking and to quote the much over-quoted Jerry Seinfeld bit:

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

There’s a great example of truth in comedy and why Seinfeld is a master at it.

Another fear factor for a lot of people thinking about going into this crazy biz is, as you so eloquently put it:

Bombing.

You’re right in saying that bombing is a learning experience. Every time you go on stage should be a learning experience. Once you accept that, it shouldn’t be a goal-stopping event. Another thing to remember is that anyone who wants to be a performer (and not just comedians) needs to develop a thick skin. It’s not always going to go as perfectly as you might imagine.

When (notice I didn’t say if) you bomb, you need to use it as a learning experience.

It’s like going to school. Record your set, listen to it and figure out how it could have been better. Make changes, continue to write and try it again. All the comedians I know have gone through this process starting with open-mics and free shows. If someone tells you that they haven’t then they’re not a great example of truth in comedy. In other words, they’re lying.

It takes nerve and determination to walk on stage the first time.

It’s not easy. If it was, then just about everyone would try it because… well, it sure looks like fun, doesn’t it? Standing on stage in front of an audience and making them laugh seems like a pretty good job. If all it took was to fill out a job application and lie about your work experience during an interview, a lot of people would be asking where they could sign up.

But it’s not that easy.

Along with nerve to go on stage and determination to continue, it takes a lot more to be successful. It takes talent and experience, and an understanding of how the business works. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about taking that first step on stage.

The advice I’ve heard from a many of the comedians I’ve interviewed for my books is that the best way to get started – and to get over being nervous or scared – is to be prepared. Know what you’re going to say before you go on stage and don’t just try to wing-it; hoping you’ll just open your mouth and something funny will accidentally fall out.

If you only have three to five minutes on stage, which is the amount of time beginning comedians are usually given at an open-mic, have what you are going to say – three to five minutes of material – prepared in advance. Write it and be familiar with it. Practice it and get used to saying the words out loud.

Memorize if you have to. BUT as you continue to develop through on stage experience, the key is NOT to ever sound memorized. But again, we’re just talking about taking your first steps here, so the goal right now is just to get on stage.

To help calm your nerves, it’s also acceptable to take notes with you on stage so you don’t forget what you want to say.

There’s nothing wrong with that because doing comedy is a step-by-step learning process that doesn’t happen overnight. When you’re just starting out, the first step is to get on stage and learn how to converse with an audience. That’s enough pressure, so you don’t need to add more pressure by worrying about memorizing your material word-for-word.

Like your stage presence and delivery, your material will also change as you get more experience. Doing an open mic is not auditioning for Comedy Central, so don’t be afraid to rely on your notes while you are still learning what to do. I’ve seen many big-name comedians take notes on stage when they’re working on new material. Want names? George Carlin and Jay Leno to mention only two – and you can’t argue with their success.

So, don’t let anyone say you can’t do that. You can.

Another way to make that first step is to have help in being prepared.

I don’t know where you’re located. But a lot of comedy clubs offer workshops or classes (if feel there is a difference). Pick the best club in your area, call and ask if they have workshops and who runs them. Look at their experience, credits and whenever possible, what other comedians in the area are saying about them. If they have positive reviews, you should find them posted on a professional looking website. If not, then keep looking.

In a good workshop or class you should get experience on stage and helpful feedback about your material and delivery. Also, to ease the fear factor, make sure you’re given an opportunity to work with a microphone and in front of the spotlights before facing a “real” audience.

It’s all about preparation.

The first step will always be a BIG one. If you’ve prepared it will still be BIG, but hopefully more fun(ny) than scary.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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Corporate Events, Colleges and Cruise Ships

Hey Dave – Is there a way to make a living as a comic without playing the comedy clubs? I know the only other major venues are colleges and cruise ships and corporate events. – KH

Hey KH – You pretty much ran all the comedy bases in that one. From first to home with one swing:

  • Comedy Clubs
  • Colleges & Universities
  • Cruise Ships
  • Corporate Events

I’m sure readers can suggest few more options that I haven’t included in that trip around the bases, such as private parties and various social and special events. I could mention being an MC at a fashion show or talent contest or doing comedy for an “after the high school prom event,” since I’ve personally scheduled comedians for these teenage laugh-fests in the past.

But those types of shows are not regular gigs and I doubt they would add up enough money to help make a living as a comic.

Since you’re talking about bypassing comedy clubs that knocks out the first market, which is working in comedy clubs. So, we’ll pretend that one was never mentioned and move down your list…

Colleges & Universities:

The college market pays good money. That’s no secret in this business. Colleges have Student Activities (or Campus Activities) departments that are funded by student tuition. That means if they don’t spend the money during the year that particular student is in school, whoever is paying the tuition would have a right to be mad. They paid into the department, but didn’t get to reap the benefits?

Nope, that’s not going to happen. So, the activities boards spend their student-funded money every year on a wide range of activities. For instance, entertainment.

But just like the other upcoming options, the college market is more specialized than what is normally expected in comedy clubs. From my experience as a talent agent in NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) you would have to follow one of the most important rules of performing – and therefore, comedy:

Know your audience.

Your audience will obviously be college students. We’re talking mainly between the ages of 18 to 22. Does your material work for that age range? Also (and be honest) are you still at an age the students can relate to? Here’s what I mean…

When I was writing the book Comedy FAQs And Answers, I interviewed comedian Bill Engvall about copyrighting material (you’ll have to read the book to find out what he says). It was a great topic for him because his hook – “Here’s your sign!” – is legally protected. It belongs to him, and you can’t use it – period. In fact, I think I might need to send him a royalty check just for typing it out here.

I asked him about working the college market and he told me he doesn’t. The reason? He talks about his wife and kids, being a husband, a father, and other family stuff. College kids aren’t interested in those topics. They’re more into sleeping late, skipping classes and… well, think back to what you wanted to do when you were 18 years old and that’s what the audience wants to hear.

Know your audience.

But to get back to your question, yes you can actually bypass comedy clubs by working colleges. Some of the most popular comedians on the college circuit are not really “club comics.” But you’ll need a college act (remember the audience) and on-stage experience putting it together. As usual, you’ll get that through open-mics and doing smaller (usually for free) shows. There’s also the opportunity by performing free gigs at local colleges – especially since they normally save their student activities budgets for already working college performers.

Once you have an act that fits the college market, I suggest working with a college booking agent. Doing this on your own is not cheap because most college work comes from showcasing at college booking conferences. Again, this is described in more detail in the above-mentioned Comedy FAQs And Answers book, but the agencies invest a lot of money in membership fees, conference expenses and promotional material.

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Agencies can better afford to do this because they offer a wide variety of entertainment that can fit what different colleges are looking for. This means the agencies have more opportunities to make money than a solo act going alone. Colleges don’t just book comedians, but also bands, variety acts, speakers, dance troupes, mimes, acrobats, and even inflatables that the students can jump on, slide down and bash into (remember the age of the audience we’re talking about).

The associations that run these conferences are:

  • NACA (already mentioned)
  • APCA (Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities)

Hook up with a college talent agency that is a member of one or both, have a GREAT college act (know your audience) and there’s a chance you can bypass comedy clubs until the number of candles on your birthday cake is a legitimate fire hazard that would scare off students.

Cruise Ships:

Most comedians I’ve talked with about working cruise ships say it’s the hardest market to break into. Depending on your status within the comedy industry it can be very lucrative or just another gig that happens to be on a ship. Let me explain…

Name headliners (celebrities and almost-celebrities) can work a cruise gig and get all the frills. They may not be paid anywhere near what they would get for a big college or corporate show, but the perks would include an upper deck stateroom and a regular seat at the captain’s dinner table. I know a (very) few that do this annually and consider it more of a vacation than work and bring their families along for the fun.

But I seem to know more comedians that work as a cruise ship contract-player. In other words, they sign on for a certain length of time, say three to six months, and share accommodations with other entertainers and staff in the lower quarters of the ship. There are no portholes to look out and meals are buffet food with other employees in the area off-limits to passengers, which again is in the lower decks of the ship.

The pay isn’t big time, but then again you don’t have to pay for anything. You live on the ship and watch your bank account grow.

Cruise ship comedians also have to be skilled at doing two completely different performances.

Usually in the early evening they’ll perform two shows. One is pre-dinner for half the passengers (while the rest are eating), followed by a post-dinner show for the other half (while the first audience is eating). These are CLEAN performances (G or PG-Rated) in the ship’s large theater for family audiences, meaning young children to grandparents.

Then the same comedians will do a later “dirty” show (R to X-Rated) in one of the lounges for the adults.

Know your audience.

I’ve worked with comedians that don’t even have houses or apartments anymore. They live on cruise ships and continue to sign months-long contracts. When they do take a month or so off, they’ve saved money and can live it up on a grand scale for a while, before signing on again when the money gets tight.

It could be fun, unless you have a family (that can’t go when you’re a contract entertainer) or want to be available for television and movie auditions on dry land. But it’s bypassing the comedy club option.

Corporate Events:

I think most corporate entertainers will agree this is the BIGGEST paying opportunity for comedians. I’ve even dedicated an entire book, How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian, on how to break into the corporate market. So, in other words, I have a lot to say about the topic. And like the others, it’s not easy (if it was, everyone would do it), but it also starts with the same rule:

Know your audience.

I’m not going to elaborate too here much, because I’ve already written a lot about the corporate market in these articles, my books and the online course. But to make a point, I’m going to re-use one of the best reader comments I’ve received on this topic. It comes from my online comedy pal Frank King at CleanCorporateComic.com (and yeah Frank, this is a test to see if you’re still reading in 2024 – ha!) who sent in this great Q&A for a long-ago, past article…

*

What’s the difference between the average club comic and the average corporate comic? Answer: $3,000 a day + expenses.

*

Thanks Frank, that pretty much sums it up. If you can break into the corporate market, you won’t have to work a comedy club unless you want to.

The best advice any working corporate comedian will tell you is to work CLEAN (G-Rated). You can’t live on edgy material as you can in comedy clubs, but you also don’t have to be all about business at corporate events. Keynote speakers, trainers and humorous speakers usually take care of the business-related topics in their presentations. Corporate comedians are entertainers just like on cruise ships, college campuses and in comedy clubs.

Not all comedy takes place in comedy clubs. As a comedian, where you perform can depend in what markets you want to work. Also, by remembering an important rule…

Know your audience.

Creative writing on the fly

Hey Dave – I travel a lot, which I often use as an excuse. But I will confess that my biggest hurdle is that it’s such a challenge to sit down and just be creative on the spot. Putting something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, although being funny on the fly is a breeze. Do you encounter that question a lot? – R.M.

Taking Notes!

Hey R.M. – Yeah, I do get that one a lot. But in a way, you’ve already answered your own question. You’ve creatively written out the solution and only need someone (in this case – me) to point it out for you. I could do that in just a few sentences, but that would make a very short FAQ and Answer for this week.

So instead, let me be creative for a moment…

I remember taking an advertising class in college. Everyone in the class knew when the final project – a creative advertising campaign – was due. But instead of working with the professor’s schedule, (come’on – it was college and homework wasn’t always on my schedule!), I waited until the night before to start the project.

Talk about having to be creative on the spot, that was the ultimate. I cleared my desk, cleared my head and sat staring at a blank computer screen most of the night. I came up with some nonsense that got me through the class, but it could’ve been a lot better if I had done it on the fly when I was truly feeling creative.

It’s tough to write when you have to. 

There are writers that can do it, and I’ve known a few in Hollywood. They’re called professional writers and get paid a lot of money for what they do. They can come up with a Tonight Show quality comedy set or a treatment for a sitcom episode almost on demand.

Working on new material

But notice I said a few. Most of the comedians and speakers I’ve worked with are better writers when they feel creative – not when they have to be creative.

There’s a great story in my book How To Be A Working Comic from a very well-known comedian about comedians taking laptops on the road to write new material. She did the same thing, but when she sat down in her hotel room at a scheduled time to write, the creative inspiration wasn’t there. That’s not how she writes. She lives – then writes about it. She closed the laptop, went out, and then wrote about it when she returned.

To use your term, she learned the best way for her to write was on the fly. So, to give your question a specific answer…

You’ve got it all wrong.

For example, when you travel a lot, you should be getting material by the plane load (or carload – whatever). Writers, whether comedians or speakers, carry a notebook or audio recorder at all times. When they feel inspired (creative) that’s when they write. It could be an experience, a thought, an overheard conversation, opinion from a magazine article, an observation – whatever. It could be an entire bit, a premise, or just a couple words.

Then later you would go over these notes. Do they still inspire you to write more about a certain topic? Can you combine some of these various ideas to make an outline for a story or comedy bit?

But even then, you’re not finished.

Creative writing, whether it’s for a comedy routine or a humorous presentation, can be an ongoing process. If you have a good idea, continue making notes about it when you feel inspired. You can add details, descriptions, punch lines or whatever whenever the ideas hit you. And the best part is that your material can be filled with truth and/or lies. It doesn’t matter.

It’s called creative license.

An expert example of this is in my book How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian. I’m not trying to make another sale (well… okay, maybe a little, but I took an advertising class in college and sometimes can’t help it). The advice comes from the legendary comedian George Carlin who practiced this method using notebooks, audio recorders and computer files. It’s truly genius stuff and as he told me during our conversation (which I recorded because I always carry an audio recorder and notebook):

“The material would eventually write itself.”

You can find it in the chapter called The Best Comedy Writing Advice Ever. And believe me, I wasn’t using creative license when I named it that.

Okay, so maybe I’m more long-winded than creative with this answer, but I’m sharing advice with you that works. You could be like legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys who once put his piano in a sandbox (in his living room) so he would be inspired to write songs about surfer girls and dudes.

Or you can just go out and live it.

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So, to point out the answer you already had in your question:

If sitting down and trying to put something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, then do it when you’re being funny on the fly. Take notes as you’re living it and write about it later. If it worked for Carlin and countless other creative writers, it could work for you.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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