Before we begin, I want to make things clear: I don't know what I'm doing. I've only been performing standup comedy for 10 months and most of the time I feel as scared and naive as I was when I started. I've killed; I've bombed; I've walked off stage with my tail between my legs swearing to the Comedy Gods that I'd never perform again.
I can't tell you how to get on "Letterman," and I don't know what it takes to get hired by Acme. The following is just a general outline for those looking to "break in" to standup. So please, don't come crying to me when your 10-minute Honey Boo Boo bit gets panned by half of Minneapolis.
1. ACCEPT FAILURE
Be prepared to bomb. Realistically speaking, that's what you're going to be doing for those first few months because (and I'll repeat this several times) you literally have no idea what you're doing. Just the thought of tanking might sound like a certified nightmare, but chances are if you're new and you suck, not a lot of people are going to notice, much less care.
It's important to acknowledge that fact because it's inevitable. But it's just as important to acknowledge that everybody bombs -- amateurs, semi-professionals, even seasoned road comics with television credits. I've seen all of my favorite local comics endure their fair share of awkward silences and tepid laughter. It's a reassuring thing to witness, but that very uncertainty can also be the source of a lot of anxiety.
Standup is unpredictable and there are myriad factors -- some of which are out of your control -- that will dictate your chances of success.
Just because you killed it at Acme's open mic on Monday doesn't mean you're going to have them in stitches at the Corner Bar on Friday. So it's important to always be working on something. Whether that's tweaking a punch line or adding a new tag, no joke is ever really finished and there's always room for improvement, especially when you're just getting started.
2. FREQUENT OPEN MICS
The only way you're going to get a handle on standup is by getting stage time. Since you're new at this, you can rule out local clubs like Acme and House of Comedy. You'll have to work to get their attention (best-case scenario is you'll get a spot every two months or so). As harrowing and unbearably slow as the process might be, you're going to need to grind it out and pay your dues like everyone else.
There's definitely a stigma attached to the term "open mic," and there should be. But comics of all skill levels frequent open mics. It's both a place for amateurs to get their feet wet and an opportunity for professionals to try out fresh material in front of what are oftentimes tough crowds.
Also, let's face it, you don't have a lot of options and, once again, you have no idea what you're doing.
Nonetheless, if you really think you have what it takes, and you want people to know who you are, you'll have to start frequenting these shows. Standup is, to some extent, a meritocracy: If you're good, someone is eventually bound to notice you.
3. JUST DO IT
I know I risk sounding like a robot spokesman for Nike, but I can't think of a single comic I've spoken to who would disagree. You can jot down a hundred premises a day, read countless how-to books (I'd strongly advise against this) or listen to "Carlin at Carnegie" on repeat until you have every last word memorized. But none of that really matters if you're not performing.
You just have to get out there. And that doesn't mean you have to obey any set of guidelines. Do what works for you. Write for an hour every day if you feel like that helps (this does not help me). But above all else, get on stage. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to go out six nights a week (I do a minimum of four), but stage time is the only way you're going to be able to develop a persona and test out material. It's only going to help you in the long run, even if it's painful at first.
• Record and listen to your sets.
• Carry a notepad with you.
• Stick to your time at shows.
• Don't steal jokes, please.
• Introduce yourself to other comics (open mic hosts, in particular).
• Watch the more seasoned comics regularly and learn from them.
• Write. Write. Write.
• Worship Bill Hicks.
• Hate Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook.
• Listen to the "Comedy Bang Bang" and Marc Maron's "WTF" podcasts, or you're not a true comic.