One of the hardest things about starting out as a stand up comic – besides, y’know, actually being funny, and not crapping your pants with fear every time you go onstage – is getting yourself stage time. It’s a tough business, but fortunately, legendary New York comedy promoter Andy Engel is here to help…
“You must get a lot of stage time. Did I say a lot? I meant to say, say goodbye to having your evenings free for the next five years. You have to get onstage every single night, several times a night, if you want to get the experience you need to make it as a professional comic. There are five ways a beginner gets onstage, and I’ve listed the pros and cons of each.”
1. Open Mics
Pros: You can do several a night and you don't have to bring anyone. You can start today, right now, and perform at them 365 days a year. It doesn’t even matter if you read your jokes from a pad – you can try your most outrageous, edgiest bits, and you have no obligation to the audience – normally just other comics - after you’ve paid the entrance fee (usually only a couple bucks).
Cons: If you’re into S&M or have a high tolerance for pain, then you’re going to love open mics. Some people use them as an inexpensive form of therapy, leaving you in the position of un-paid therapist. It’s a sad but true fact that performing in front of a brick wall would be more enjoyable and helpful than some open mics, plus you would get more feedback. But as soul crushing and tough as open mics are, they can be productive – whether it’s a good crowd that helps you figure out what works and what doesn’t, or just a way to get over your onstage jitters.
2. New Talent/Amateur shows
Pros: As a green beginner, you won't get a more positive legit audience to perform in front of than at a new talent show. It can actually take away some of the pain of an open mic, since it's a real, legit, large audience - which is often hard to come by when you’re starting out – since you're performing in front of actual people, instead of a roomful of other would-be comics. Most importantly, you can make a DVD that can literally launch your career, as well as networking with working comedians who have more experience and can offer advice on bits. Who knows, they may even book you for gigs with them!
Cons: You’re going to be asked to bring an audience for the privilege to perform. For unfriendly introverts, this is going to be hard, but it’s a good lesson to learn, since the reality is that you're in the same boat as every professional comedian: If people come and pay to see you, you get to perform.
3. Working For Stage Time
Pros: If you work at a comedy club, you quickly separate yourself from the hundreds of young comics who are something of an invisible mass. This work can be barking, answering phones, waiting tables or anything else required to help the club.
Cons: You can be thought of not as a legit comic, but rather as a helper. Once you get a reputation like that, it’s very hard to shake.
Pros: A lot of people make fun of classes, but nobody makes fun of Tiger Woods, Al Pacino, or Derek Jeter for having a private coach. Every successful comedian, actor, or athlete has someone giving them advice, and having a working pro give you a line-by-line critique of your set is invaluable when you’re starting out. Trust me, it's a lot more helpful than having some random guy you just met at an open mic give you his pearls of wisdom. The added bonus of a class is that you have 20 people who’ll support you at shows, give you smart feedback and have your back.
Cons: Not everyone in the class wants to pursue it as a career. Even worse, you're not allowed to drink in class.
5. Produce Your Own Show
Pros: Even if it’s at some rinky-dink little bar, you will be thought of as a producer instead of just another young comic clamoring for a show. Stage time is the most valuable commodity in the stand-up comedy world, and you can use it like currency: You can trade spots with other producers to get more stage time for yourself, you can book yourself repeatedly at your own show, hell, you’ll probably even get a few famous comics drop by just because they still need the stage time, too.
Cons: You can lose focus of your main goal, which is to perform – it’s easy to get wrapped up in the politics, instead of focusing on your craft. It's also harder than it looks – you’ll now have pressure from the venue to put bodies in seats and produce a quality show.
“So that’s it – the bottom line is, get out there! And remember – have fun, it’s not Kabul. If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be doing it. Be funny, be nice, and good things will happen!”
If you want to hear more words of comedy wisdom from Andy Engel – and more advice on how to get started in stand-up from a host of professionals - check out his free seminar at the Gotham Comedy Club on April 6th.