5 Rules for the New Stand-Up Comic

For those pursuing stand up comedy as a career or hobby, it’s hard to know where to start. Although there’s no official rulebook for this particular performing art, there are certainly a few guidelines that can help you avoid embarrassment. Chances are, you’ll be performing your act without monetary compensation for a long time – or possibly forever. Here are a few tips to keep in good graces with the powers that be of the comedy world.

1. Use original material. Back in the days, before Carlin, Bruce, and Pryor, people who performed stand up comedy considered jokes sharable content. Using jokes from books and doing each other’s material in different cities was just part of the business. Today, using someone else’s material is absolutely unacceptable. If you’re not sure whether a joke has been told before, there’s something called Google.

2. Be respectful of commitments. No matter how big or small the performance, producers rely on talent to show up for the gig. Forgetting about your commitment or backing out at the last minute has effects on the entire production. Do your best to keep in contact with the producer, and let him/her know at the first sign you might not be able to make the show. You may be surprised how far this courtesy goes, and most likely, you’ll be rescheduled for a show in the future.

3. Pay attention to “the light”. When you’re doing a set, the host/MC who brought you up to the stage will flash a light when you have one minute left. This is your cue to finish the bit you’re doing and say goodnight. Having a very funny “closer”, under one minute long, to end your act with is a great technique to use. When you see the light, go to your closer, thus leaving the crowd laughing and wanting more. No closer? Finish your joke, thank the audience, and get off the stage.

4. Always handoff the microphone. If you find yourself having done the entire act you planned and have not gotten “the light” by the host/MC, but you can see him in the crowd, you can announce to the crowd that your time is up and hand the mic back to the host/MC. It’s better to end your act on a high note than scratch your head searching for the perfect laugh. But be very careful: if you do not see the host/MC in the crowd and did not see the light, do not abandon the stage. If the host/MC is out of the room, the stage will be empty and this will kill the show’s momentum.

5. This is a stage – not an octagon – so avoid fist fighting with the audience. Some comics do crowd work. Some comics are insult comics. Some audience members can get very drunk and take offense to this. If an audience member gets physically intimidating, just remind him that you’re only goofing around and it’s all an act. If you know you’ve gone too far in insulting him, offer to buy him a drink (and make sure you follow through and actually buy him that drink). If attempts to diffuse the situation don’t work, reach out to the host/MC to get security to handle the situation. It is never your place to physically engage an audience member. It is very rare that a crazy person will jump up on the stage and try to assault you. In that case, you have every right to defend yourself. However, law enforcement, promoters, producers, and club owners will not look kindly upon a physical altercation with an audience member, so do everything possible to calm the situation down.

To recap, do your own work, be responsible, don’t overstay your welcome, make sure the audience is always being entertained, and keep your hands to yourself. Anyone with a kindergarten education can grasp the basic etiquette of being a stand up comedian. However, these rules alone will not ensure success. For more helpful tips and tricks of the under glorified, rarely paid stand up comedian, check back for our next blog.

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 hosts the #Rothcast on BlogTalkRadio. 

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