A comic is a comedian; a comedian isn’t necessarily a comic. It’s the square and the rectangle argument (for nerds who remember geometry AND read this blog).
This entry is dedicated to defining and understanding the differences between a comic, which is short for stand-up comic, and a comedian, who performs comical material.
Stand-up comedy is the art of standing on stage and performing material to elicit laughs from the crowd. Someone who does this same thing, but does not necessarily elicit laughs from the crowd, is called a spoken word artist. Their intention is not to get laughs, it is more like a political speech or professor’s lecture.
Examples of comics are Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, and Lisa Lampanelli. An example of a spoken word artist is Henry Rollins.
“Comedian” is a much broader term. A comedian is someone who performs comedic material in order to elicit laughs. This can be accomplished through acting in movies. Examples of movie actors who are comedians would be Bill Murray or Tom Hanks. It can be accomplished through funny songs, such as done by artists Weird Al Yankovic or Dr. Demento. A comedian can host a variety show, like Conan O’Brien or David Letterman. It can be established through a radio show, like Howard Stern. Comedians can also perform team improvisation/”improv”, like on “Who’s Line is it Anyway?”. It can even be accomplished by doing stand-up comedy. Here’s where the square/rectangle argument comes into play.
You’re considered a comedian if you’re doing any performance that gets a laugh, including stand-up comedy. However, you are ONLY considered a comic if you do stand-up comedy.
It is important to understand the difference between these two terms because of a lot of misconceptions about stand-up comics. Something I’ve addressed in past blogs is that many people who are not stand-up comics don’t really understand the process. They might think that comics use each other’s jokes or get jokes from joke books, or at the other end of the spectrum, they think that comics make up absolutely everything in their act on the fly and are just “naturally” funny. It’s also important to point out that not just anybody can be a stand-up comic. It is a very specific skill.
Another misconception is that since a stand-up comic is just one person on stage, anyone who has the confidence can simply get on stage and perform a stand-up comedy set. When people try stand-up for the first time, they quickly realize it’s not that simple. Often, many hours go into prepping sets and practicing on stage before a big show. When Tom Hanks, an academy-award winning comedian, was preparing for his role in the movie Punchline, he performed stand-up comedy in order to get into character. In an interview, he was quoted as stating that stand-up comedy was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
Even someone as accomplished as Tom Hanks did not find stand-up simple. Given his comedy background, you would think that those skills would automatically translate into greatness. However, there is a huge difference between being one person with a live microphone and being part of a scripted production. This truth isn’t limited to the comedy/comic world. There are some singers-turned-actors who have great success, like Justin Timberlake. For Timberlake, being charismatic was something he was able to translate from the music world to the film world. However, not all singers share the same success (see: Mariah Carey).
The Mariah Carey complex has happened to accomplished comedian Charlie Sheen. He was on one of the most successful comedy sitcoms on television: Two and a Half Men. Yet, when he was fired and tried to have a stand up comedy tour, he fell flat on his face. The skill of being a stand up comic is so specific that no matter who you are, to even be average at it involves starting from scratch and putting in hundreds of hours of work.
To summarize, stand-up comics develop unique skills in order to prep and deal with the live-audience environment. While being a comedian also involves a lot of skill and practice, the difference is dependent on having a cast, a script, and, often, being able to reshoot/re-do scenes that don’t work the first time. Ultimately, as a stand-up comic, if you fail on stage, the only person you have to blame is yourself. The flip side of this, of course, is that when you succeed on stage, the only person responsible and deserving of praise, adulation, and the great things that come with success is yourself.
Author Brian Roth has performed at Gotham Comedy Club, Broadway Comedy Club, Stand Up NY Comedy Club, New York Comedy Club, the People’s Improv Theater (PIT) and other clubs in NYC. He books the Wednesday night Open Mic at the New York Comedy Club, hosts the Friday night Open Mic at the New York Comedy Club, and hosts the #Rothcast on BlogTalkRadio. Reserve your spot at an open mic in advance or direct questions to Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org, or sign up in person at 5:00PM. The mics cost $5 for 5 minutes of stage time and feedback from your peers.