"How do I get started in stand-up comedy?" It's a question I get asked a lot, so I thought I'd share from my experience.
Your first big goal as a comedian should be to become a strong comedy club emcee. They are the act that goes up first before the feature act (typically 30 minutes) and headliner (45-60 minutes). Even if you don't aspire to perform in comedy clubs, they are definitely the place to hone your chops. To become a good emcee, you'll need to put together a tight 15-minute set of material that will work for most any audience. Here's how...
First of all, get on stage as often as you can, anywhere you can. That's really the secret when staring out - perform as much as possible. There were not a lot of clubs in Chapel Hill where I started, so I played at coffeehouses, bakeries, dorm rec rooms... anywhere that had a microphone. Look around town for "open mic" shows. These may be mostly musicians, poetry, or other types of acts. But if they'll let you do comedy, get up there. Starting out, you'll need the experience of standing up in front of a crowd reciting your routine. In fact, it may not be a bad idea to start out at non-traditional venues before hitting the comedy clubs. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so getting some stage experience before hitting a major comedy club stage could prove to be beneficial.
Stick with it. The first few times you do comedy, you'll probably have the high of being on stage and (hopefully) making people laugh. But after a while, you may feel like you're getting worse. That's just part of the natural growth. Keep at it.
Videotape your sets and watch yourself. I have always hated watching myself on video, but it does help. You can also audio tape your sets and listen to them if you prefer. The point is to really review what got laughs and what didn't. You won't be able to remember correctly if you don't tape your sets.
Carry a notebook to write down your ideas. This is a pretty classic piece of advice that you'll get from any comic. Basically, you never know when inspiration will strike. Make sure you have a paper and pen ready at all times.
Join groups of likeminded comedians. Hanging around with other comedians is always a good idea. But try to always be in a group where you're the worst act. This will inspire you to become better. I've seen too many cases of comedians just starting out and forming groups of other "open mic" comedians. A year or two later, everyone is still at the same level, still telling the same jokes at the same open mics. Some people are happy spending their whole life as an emcee. That's fine for them, but it won't help you grow.
Read books and go to school. This isn't for everyone, but there are some excellent books about stand-up comedy. Many comedy clubs also teach ongoing classes on writing and performing. Contact the club nearest you and inquire about classes.
Finally, get on stage as often as you can, anywhere you can. It bears repeating. Now get out there and make some people laugh!
Got advice on becoming a stand-up comedian? Please share it in the comments section.