Time to move on…

In 2004 I had been doing comedy for four and a half years and was spoiled as far as early stages of a career go.  I was MCing the Columbus Funnybone on a regular enough basis with shows that often sold out in the middle of the week.  300 people on a Tuesday or Wednesday is not common, but it’s hard not to do well at a club with that much enthusiasm.  Later that year I found myself failing to even advance to the finals of the local contest.  Why?  Because I had hit such a comfort zone that I wasn’t progressing as a comic.  This was more than just not writing new jokes.  I didn’t feel the desperate need to improve.  Occasionally you’ll work with headliners with this same problem.  They have the same 45 minutes every year because “it works” for them. 

Moving from Ohio to St. Louis was the best thing for my career for a lot of reasons.  The first being that it gave me more life experience.  Second, it put me in a crowd of many more professional comics (no offense to my pals in Columbus, but when you’re sandwiched between comics like Tommy Johnagin, Greg Warren, and Andi Smith you have to up your game).  I was able to get a lot of great feedback as well.  The move was because of comedy so it made me take my career that much more seriously.  There were fewer distractions (friends) here so I had more evenings for open mic.  There were also more clubs here in 2005 (four within a half hour drive).  The open mic night options alone quadrupled my stage time.

I’m not saying doing this as a commercial for St. Louis (only one of those clubs is still open), but consider whether you’ve hit your ceiling in your home city.  It’s a well-known fact that your home club is the hardest one to get promoted in.  They’ll always remember how you used to be.  When you get to a new city and they know you moved there because of your career, it shows that you’re committed.  It also gives you and your reputation a fresh start. 

In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I discuss this option a little further including advice about L.A. and New York.  Moving aways can be expensive and stressing, but that’s what getting your start in comedy is all about.


Early in my career as my friends came to a lot of my shows (because it was still cute that I had a dream) I welcomed their feedback.  They weren’t comics, but I don’t think someone has to be a comic to give good feedback early on.  I’ll admit, it’s annoying when it comes from a non-comic sometimes, but it was more about my stage presence.

I said, “Umm,” a lot.  Listen to your recordings.  Do you say “umm” a lot too?  At all?  Do you have a different noise (uh, you know, sooo)?  My “umm” went away after a couple years without me even realizing it.  The reason?  I knew my jokes well enough that saying them became automatic.  In other words, it took years of a lot of the same routine to get the “umm’s” out of my speech.

One of the most enjoyable parts of comedy at this point in my career is getting a new joke to work.  Newer comics experience this too, but too many times some are quick to move onto new things before building a solid “umm-free” set.  Umms don’t sound like a big deal and as comics we probably don’t even notice ourselves saying them, but it’s the difference between building an okay set and an extremely solid, money-making one.  The people who book you notice the umms.

If you’re not getting enough shows to recite your jokes enough to put the wording into autopilot, it’s time to practice at home, over and over.  To gain another level of respect from an audience, they need to hear your jokes umm-free.  It’s okay to do the same jokes month after month and even year after year.  Professional comics do that.  The guys who have multiple HBO Specials like Chris Rock have multiple writers (not that you should be comparing yourself to them).  Build up your act and use the same jokes if they work (that last part is very important).  Once they work, stretch them out with other funny lines, callbacks, and other dimensions.

The important thing to remember this week is that you have to have enough repetitions of your jokes to make them come out without umms.  Stop worrying about boring your fellow comics that you see at the same open mic night.  It’s your act and career, not theirs.  Once your memorize your bits to the point of not having to think about what you’re saying, there’s so much more you can do with them.  These extra techniques are mentioned in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage so feel free to order a copy if you haven’t already.

Find a stage without fear

Saturday night I went to a local open mic that only had under ten audiences members there.  A few other comics were in the crowd but the room still had under twenty people.  I went there on a whim so I didn’t have much prepared.  I was chatting with a buddy after our sets and he said this is the one stage where he doesn’t have any nerves about performing.  He didn’t mean that he’s a nervous wreck at other venues, but I completely understood him.  Over the years there have been open mics that are much more relaxed.  Normally, it was the open mic nights at actual comedy clubs where I couldn’t relax which disrupts flow and sometimes new ideas.  The nerves at a club are natural, there is a chance for paid work there.

As a comic, especially one who is trying to find his or her voice, it’s necessary to take risks on stage.  Big risks, stupid risks, risks you want to forget you ever took.  Risks you hope your fellow comics will soon forget so they don’t bring it up for years to come.  “Remember that time you had that sock puppet read a love poem in Bill Cosby’s voice?”

Unfortunately a lot of cities only have one place for open mic night, the comedy club.  If that’s the case my advice is not to take such big risks that will permanently damage your reputation with the club manager.  Instead, find a place to experiment (that’s the word I’ve been looking for) even if it means starting your own open mic.

This also works for first-timers.  I’ve got lots of tips for first-time comics in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage that come from the mistakes I see every week at open mic (and the many that I’ve made).  So if you’re still on the fence about trying I’d say find a less formal venue than a comedy club and read my book.

You’re not a comic! (Semi-annual post to comedy fans)

Comics, please feel free to share this with your fans and followers…

In January I wrote an entry that was aimed more for the friends who support you.  This entry will address an issue that came to life at a one-nighter I did last Friday.  If you’re a fan of stand-up, let me first thank you for supporting the art, going to shows, buying books, t-shirts, CD’s whatever else we sell after the show.  We need that money to pay for things like food and life.  95% of you are great and we thank you for making our careers possible.  I also understand that most of the time at a comedy show you’re drinking and maybe not at your best.  We know you wouldn’t normally have the balls to yell something dumb out during a show, but even after just one or two drinks it doesn’t seem that hard.

For the past month there have been various controversies with comics vs. crowd members.  Tosh, Pescatelli, Eddie Griffin, etc.  Those were all big news to the comedy world, but a lot of us comics have seen or experienced worse.  There just wasn’t an iPhone there to capture it all, plus we don’t have television shows so no one cares if anyone throws a glass at us.  One of my friends had a guy threaten to take his life with a gun a few years ago, it didn’t make the news. 

I know none of you are the extreme crazies who are going to make the news, but there is still something annoying that comics have to deal with usually after the show, although a lot of times during.  You feel the need to be funny too.  When you go to a football game, do you tackle people in the stands?  Just relax and let us do the ha-ha’s. 

I bring this up because a lot of times crowd members, usually hammered, think they have a license so get away with certain types of humor.  I’ve written an entry on here, and a section in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage about the right and wrong ways to joke about race on stage.  The key words being on stage.  Here’s what happened the other night.  I was working with a black headliner in an all-white town.  When this happens a black comic must point out that he’s the only black guy around.  (I say must because it happens 100% of the time, I guess there are exceptions so I don’t need comments arguing this.)  The comic’s job is to be funny and that helps.  The audience doesn’t have that right to make racial jokes back.  Their job is to laugh.  Not to mention hangings, ropes, sheets, and lynchings.  Common sense to most of us (it was a rough gig though). 

I know (hope) most situations aren’t this extreme (yes, those words were actually mentioned in heckles on Friday).  However, after the show and the apologies by the bar owners and some audience members, one guy who was married to one of the apologetic, still felt the need to tell a black joke to the black headliner.  His logic was that he had just told me one involving a teacher who molested him (because I’m a teacher so I’d get it?), so he had to have one that related to the black comic. 

I realize I’m preaching to the choir on these obvious and extreme examples, but you’d be surprised at the number of black headliners who have to suffer through racist jokes after a show.  There’s something in a drunk redneck’s brain that says, “This is my one chance to deliver a black joke to a black man with no consequence!  Finally I get to feel what the 50s were really like!  Grandpa will be proud.”  No it isn’t.  I’ve heard the people on the Comedy Central Roasts have the same problem on the street.  People walk up and slam them with some low blow because they think that’s what those people enjoy.  It isn’t, the roast aired five months ago.

As for me…white guy who isn’t known for anything but the thirty minutes they just heard…I don’t really want to hear any jokes either.  Your breath smells like vodka, it’s loud, I can’t understand you, and you’re blocking my table of merch that I need to sell so that I can fill up and drive home from your ignorant-ass town.

One last thing, never suggest bits to us.  In twelve years I’ve never used anything from a crowd member.  It’s degrading when people start, “I don’t know, you can probably use this in your little skit…”  No.  We can’t.  Perhaps you’d like to try it on stage?  I know a good book that helps you get there.

I’m not mad, just stop suggesting and telling jokes to us after a show.  I can’t think of any comics who enjoy that.  There’s lot of other things to talk about and we’re happy to have conversations with strangers to prevent the road from being so lonely, but leave the comedy to us.