Neglecting to improve

As I’ve tried to share what I’ve learned from so many veteran comics to the newer comedians in the business over the last few months, it’s come to my attention that not everyone believes in advice.  Yes, nothing is better than stage time, but there are 168 hours in a week and you’re on stage for maybe a total of 30 minutes if you frequent open mics.  With comedy being one of the arts and very subjective, there is some gray area on what’s right and wrong.  Everyone is different in some way so not every rule applies to everyone (Gabriel Iglesias wears shorts on his Comedy Central special).  So can you give advice to someone who is an artist?  I say…yes.  Do great artists still go to art school?  Do great singers still take vocal lessons?  Yep.  When you stop learning as an artist, you put a ceiling on your abilities.  Great writers still read others, musicians listen outside of their own studios and so on.  I guess I understand not everyone believes in reading a book to learn something (isolate that statement and see if it sounds intelligent), but you have to have some other sources whether it be other comics, podcasts, blogs, etc.  No one becomes successful in comedy on their own.  Even if you don’t trust my advice enough to order my book, learn from others.  (For those who ask what gives me the authority to write a book on comedy, I would simply remind that I’ve been listening and learning from others better than me for over twelve years now.  I didn’t invent anything, I’m sharing what I learned.)  No one is trying to teach you funny, but if you happen to have the chance like the St. Louis scene did to hear Greg Warren talk about the lifestyle of a comic last month or the Ryan Stout/Jeremy Essig MC clinic you might overcome what’s holding you back from getting hired at a club.  It could be one or two little things.

I think the main reason comics don’t want to hear advice is that it makes them aware of what they’re doing wrong.  It’s kind of like going back and reading your first draft of a story or essay.  No one enjoys seeing all of the mistakes they’re making and having them pointed out.  The other reason a lot of us don’t like to correct ourselves?  We’re just lazy (me included).  I’ve listened to less than 10% of the sets I’ve recorded.  Some of them are only a couple of minutes yet “I have no time” for some reason.  This week I did listen and I noticed that I completely screwed up/replaced a key word in one of my punchlines.  (It was the stand-up equivalent of a bog typo.)  It was accidental but I had no idea that’s what I said.  I also noticed that after twelve years I still talk too fast which I’ve always known, but can’t seem to overcome.  See, it’s painful listening to yourself.  Watching a video is even worse.

The final reason I believe comics aren’t challenging themselves to improve more is that there’s no deadline.  No one says, “You’ve done this two years and haven’t earned a cent, you’re done.”  It’s like weight-loss or making money, you can set goals but without a deadline it doesn’t feel like failure when you never get there.  So week after week some comics plop down at open mic doing most of the same five minutes to random levels of applause based solely on how many are in the crowd, taking pride in an obscene joke they’d never get away with as a paid opener and saying, “This is what I’m going to do for a living!”

When?

This may sound like tough love (I love you, but I’m not in love with you) but if your set isn’t getting you work, you have to write a new one.  Let only your strongest jokes survive if you have any.  (Listen to your recordings)  Trying the same thing over and over will lead to you waking up six or seven years into your career and wondering why you’re only getting open mic gigs.  If you want to make this your job, you have to work.

For more information about Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage…The Stand-up Guide to Comedy click here.

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About Rob Durham

With an English Degree, three years as a doorman at the Columbus Funnybone, over a decade of stand-up experience, and a recent certification in teaching high school English class, writing a book seemed like the next inevitable step for Rob Durham. The son of a coach, Rob has an excellent ability to teach and explain things in the easiest and most direct way possible. His (often labeled ridiculous) memory allows him to think of every possible situation that a new comic might face because at one point he was there too. Rob gives an inside look at comedy that doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges every performer faces. Without ego and the myth that “anyone can do it” Rob gives the reader a true feel of what living the so-called dream feels like, from preparing for that first open mic night to touring the country. View all posts by Rob Durham

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