After over 20 years as a professional comedian, I’ve heard about every story imaginable either first-hand or through others of how comics got their start.
If you’ve got the comedy bug, here’s how one becomes a comedian::
- Write down topics that seem interesting or odd to you.
- Of these topics, write down interesting info about each.
- Go back over what you’ve written and interject your comments or observations throughout.
- Repeat step three several times. TIP: Don’t try to be funny. Endeavor to be genuine and share your honest thoughts.
- Go over what you’ve written down so many times that you could literally rattle it off without looking at your notes.
- Take it to an open mic night at a coffee house or comedy club and see what kind of response you get. TIP: Make sure to at least record the audio for later reference.
- Listen to your performance and see where people laughed the most.
- Do this one or two more times with that same script.
- Toss out the parts that didn’t get a good response, and elaborate on topics that you now have new thoughts on.
- I know it sounds cliche, but “rinse and repeat.”
You may be saying, “Wait a minute! I want to know the business side of things – not how to develop the skills.”
Honestly, if you can put together an act that consistently gets laughs with strangers young and old, you’re about 90% of the way there.
In fact, Jerry Seinfeld once told The New York Times that up-and-coming comedians can make the mistake of focusing too heavily on marketing instead of developing their show.
Here are some stories of how a few comedians who you may be familiar with got their start:
Jay Leno, comedian and TV host
Jay Leno noticed his bent toward the funny business when in grade school. He made a decision early on that comedy would be an important part of his life.
Initially working as a mechanic, Leno started out by getting gigs at a local strip club outside of Boston where he lived. Yes, it’s a very strange venue to hone your comedy chops, but he used his strong work ethic to not let having a tough audience and awkward performing situation phase him.
It seems to have worked out for him!
He got his start in comedy clubs in Indianapolis. He joined Def Comedy Jam comedy tour in 1997, and that sort of put him on the radar of movie producers.
Epps has since become a movie star in his own right, and still performs much stand up comedy.
I’ve asked if he wanted to perform at Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, California, but his act is a bit too edgy for that audience (my words, not his). He does a great job connecting with his audiences and has a massive following.
Jeff Dye, comedian and TV host
If you’re familiar with Jeff Dye, although commercially successful, he is nowhere near the level that the formerly mentioned comic, Jay Leno, is; however, he has accomplished an amazing amount in a short time.
I ran into Jeff Dye at a now defunct comedy club in Seattle, Giggles Comedy Club, back in 2007. At the time, he was making peanuts (figuratively speaking, but literally only a few dollars per gig) around Seattle and even around the Pacific Northwest. I remember stories of him driving to Wyoming to entertain at some shady casino and making very little money for it. In fact, by the time he drove there and back, I wonder if it ended up costing him more to do the gig than to just sit on the couch at home.
But he was performing, which was key. I remember him mentioning talking to his modeling agent at Heffner Management in Seattle about getting modeling jobs, so I believe he was doing everything he could to make ends meet, including non-comedy things like using his looks to bring in dough.
While he was at what I believe was the Comedy Underground in Seattle, a scout for the NBC TV show Last Comic Standing saw him and asked if he’d compete on the show.
If I remember correctly, he placed third that season, which gave him enough TV exposure to begin getting a following (people who would pay to see him do comedy at comedy clubs throughout the U.S.), plus it opened up other TV opportunities like being on TV show Fixer Upper. He even created his own show called Money From Strangers and it aired on MTV for a couple of seasons.
He does a stand up set every night on his show, so you’d think he got his start in comedy clubs.
Interestingly, his background is actually in radio. He was on radio with Adam Corolla for years.
I’ve never been a guest on his show, but have visited with him and his wife a couple times because he lived part-time near me. He has a sharp mind and a quick wit, and he would probably say not to include his story of how to be a comedian here, where I’m including it. 🙂
Considered one of the ultimate comedians because of the length and success of his career, Seinfeld started out by performing at open mics at comedy clubs in New York. Meanwhile, he was working as a waiter at a restaurant.
There was a transition for him professionally when he realized that waiting tables was holding him back. People would see him at a comedy club and be impressed with his show. Then they’d be waited on by him at a restaraunt and said, “you do this too?”
He felt he had to make the leap and start living full-time off the money he was making from comedy clubs, which probably wasn’t much at the time, and leave the restaurant business.