Over the last couple of months, I’ve been taking a stand-up course. I did my first ever set in a small club on Monday, and I’ll be doing my grad show on Sunday (and then I’ll stop – it’s been fun but I don’t the time to pursue comedy seriously). Throughout the course it has struck me how much learning stand-up is like learning to write. Here are seven things that both comics and authors must do.
- You Need to Learn from Others, But Not Copy Them.
If you’re a writer, you must read voraciously. And if you’re a stand-up, you should watch all the comedy you can, figure out what you like and hate, and what makes good material work. But find your own voice and material. No one wants to read a second-rate Kerouac, or watch a bad Louis CK impersonator.
- You Must Practice, Practice, Practice, and Persist.
To be good at anything, you need to put the time in. Be it writing or stand-up, you have to learn the craft. It’s a lifelong process, and it’ll take years just to get a basic competency. I used to work at a comedy club, and sat through every open mic night for a year. I watched comics hone and improve their sets, getting more professional by degrees. It takes time and a huge amount of effort.
- You Should Cut As Much As Possible.
Beginning writers fill their first chapters with back story, and new comics spend too much time on the set-up. In both cases the writing needs to be stripped down. You have to get to the point fast. The longer the set-up, the bigger the expected payoff and the more likely you are to disappoint.
- You Must End Well.
You can often improve prose by finishing sentences with a strong word, and you can sharpen scenes and create cliffhangers by cutting away at the most dramatic point. The same principle applies to stand-up. Put the funniest word or phrase at the end of your punchline. Build up the laughs to the best joke in each section. Finish your set with your most hilarious material.
- You Need To Get Feedback And Rewrite.
Critique groups, books and courses help authors learn how to rewrite. Books and courses are also helpful for stand-ups, but their best form of feedback comes from the crowd. Which means, terrifyingly enough, that they need to get up on stage, try material, see how the crowd reacts, and re-write based on that.
- You Should Be A Part Of Your Community …
Being a part of the writing community means you get great feedback, the inspiration of seeing people get published, and the use of their connections. Your local stand-up community will let you know where the good open mics are, give advice, and be your audience in the half-empty clubs you’ll be starting out in. They’ll be the people who’ll commiserate when it goes badly, and celebrate when it goes well. Get to know them.
- But Don’t Compare Yourself To Others.
Don’t judge yourself against how others are doing. You might think you’re better than someone who is more successful, but so what? Getting bitter and angry won’t help. Be happy for others. You’ll get there and they can help. Compare yourself against where you used to be and be proud of your progress.