I was skimming through the Kvetch Boards (the forums of The Comedy Studio in Cambridge, MA) and I read a very thoughtful thread by Shawn Donovan about comedy contests and festivals. Here’s a quote from comedian Ira Proctor, a regular at the club that I work. I think he makes a great point.
“Comedy contests are fine if you go in with the right attitude. Obtaining the right attitude is the hard part. There is going to be some disappointment/anger when you represent yourself well and don’t advance (you should take pride in what you do, and shouldn’t be happy with a “loss”) But the facts are that after a loss in a contest you are in the exact same position as before you did it, and you must keep reminding yourself that going in. I think it’s very rare someone loses work by eating it in a contest. So, other than shame, there is no risk of anything bad coming from doing a contest… but the up side can be be high. The fact that people that don’t deserve to advance do, has nothing to do with you. You must learn to forget that noise and just do your best, then remember the world didn’t end and you’ll wake up in the same bed tomorrow as you today, losing, for whatever reason, changes nothing for the worse… but winning, or even just doing well could change things very much for the better.
Yes the judges suck, the industry is loaded with morons, but the only way to avoid being let down by comedy is to not do it. This town is loaded with guys that took no chances and avoided anything that might make them look bad or let down them down… lots of those same comics don’t seem very happy. You lose your chance for anything amazing happening when you get too jaded to throw your hat in the ring. The whole biz is unfair, but it doesn’t have to be fair, no one promised it would make sense or be handled by people we respect and who always make great decisions. Once you embrace that, and let go of the fear/anger of looking stupid because someone else thinks it matters that you didn’t advance, or because the judges get it wrong, there is nothing bad that can happen in a contest. I admit it took me all of ten plus years to get to that point, but that’s just it, if you keep at it you can get to a really cool place with how you approach comedy/contests/auditions/life.”
A little bit about success early-on in comedy:
In August 2009, I signed up for a Sunday open mic at a well-known Boston club. I went there and did my time. Although the response was quiet and forgiving, I thought I did great.
I got a big head, as many comics do when they haven’t bombed yet. Also, I physically have a big head.
I was eager to perform two more times that summer. When September came, I went off to college and quickly wanted to do more comedy. So, I set up my own open mic with students at school. I was so proud of my “abilities” as a comic that I suggested right away that I would be the host. And I was. It scared the hell out of me, but I still felt good; I was on my way.
My wake-up call came simply: an open mic at a bar. For those of you who haven’t been to a bar to do comedy before, go do yourself the favor. Some of them are okay, mind you; but this one, on this night, was bad. I stood on stage (while the techno dance club downstairs was booming bass through the floorboards and rowdy bar patrons were…being rowdy) and the table directly at my feet had three people, stone-faced, watching me stumble through my scripted material joke-by-joke and getting no response whatsoever. I was sweaty, upset, and dead-set on getting off and being done with it.
I went on to do another open mic that didn’t work out. And another. After enough of these, I was 100% certain that I was a failure in the world of stand up.
For a time, I felt terrible about my material, my presence, and I questioned my future as a comedian. I lost faith in myself.
In retrospect, it helped me tremendously to feel that way. The true test of a comedian, I think, is to hit a bottom when you honestly believe that the audience, the other comedians and club owners don’t like you and you don’t like yourself. The only way to become great is to defeat that and prove that you can be better.
So if you’re a comedian and you haven’t felt like shit on stage yet: Go do that.
I agree totally. I deal with 40+ year olds asking me weird questions and telling me that I could be the next Jeff Dunham all the time.
I’ve also been completely pummeled with the same phrase after every mildly humorous thing I say in a conversation:
“You should put that in your comedy act.”
And the also popular, “You’re probably gonna put this into your act, right? LOL”
The answer is literally always no, and it seems like only comedy-minded people can decipher the difference between “stage funny” and “just an offhand remark funny.”
I don’t blame people for not knowing the difference, but just don’t be offended when I look down and say, “yeah totally” and don’t bring it up again.
The worst thing about being a comedian is telling people you’re a comedian, and the worst people you could possibly reveal this information to are your parents’ friends. More broadly, anyone over the age of 40.
And maybe I’m speaking to my college-age brothers and sisters here, but I think young comedians in general, who have parents, who have friends have all been in the position I’ve just recently found myself in: the one where your mother tells her friends you want to be “the next Tina Fey” and then everyone stares blankly until Mr. Smith says, brightly, as if he is the first genius who ever thought of this, “So, tell us your best joke!”
Fucking pardon me?
Never in the entire history of the world (at least for as long as I’ve inhabited it) has any other person, who has chosen any other profession, been so mercilessly throw to the wolves.
As if, at the neighborhood pool, I’m going to whip out my classic line about lesbian bars, or one-night stands, or anime porn.
Furthermore, my material’s not the point. Even if I was a “clean” stand-up, even if my material had been personally endorsed by Ellen DeGeneres, what gives you the audacity to treat me like your personal court jester? Dance for us, plebian!
For some reason, everybody thinks they’re an expert on comedy. Because, you know, they’ve laughed once or twice in their lives, and that’s all it takes, right?
Nobody demands that astrophysicists prove themselves at picnics. Nobody asks advertisers to pitch their latest online marketing strategy at family barbeques. Hell, even professional dancers dodge a bullet by not choosing a career that requires a microphone and an audience.
I would thereby like to take this moment to heartily encourage every family member or friend or cab driver or teacher to kindly take a second and really think about what you’re asking me to do when you ask me to tell you a joke. Because I’m a regular person with regular thoughts and feelings who may have chosen an unorthodox career but that doesn’t mean that I feel like exposing my soul to a bunch of people I see only once a year (or that I’ve just met on a train, or in a bar, or on a plane…) and I shouldn’t have to.
Being a comedian may not be a regular job, but the next time you ask me to tell you my very best joke, I’m going to demand you perform open heart surgery right in front of my face.
Comic/Comedy Writer “rhymeswithchelsea” can be found on Tumblr here.
My intention with this blog is to post content from all comedians equally, but I must admit that I hold a complete love and admiration for the comedy of Louis C.K.
When I started comedy I drew all my influence from Demetri Martin and Mitch Hedburg because they were some of the only comics I was even familiar with. I wasn’t the type of child who curled up next to the record player listening to George Carlin or Richard Pryor for hours with stars in my eyes. I didn’t even want to do comedy until I was 19.
So, as I eased myself into the world of stand up, I was exposed to more and more great comics. I’m fortunate enough that my job allows me to listen to my iPod, which means that I can go through 3-5 comedy specials in a shift. I’ve been doing that for two years, and I now have a solid grasp of who I like and who I don’t like.
What I’m getting at here is this: I used to not like Louis C.K. after seeing only his Comedy Central half-hour. It just wasn’t my taste. But this past Winter I listened to Marc Maron’s interview of Louis C.K. and I liked the way he talked about stand up. I felt like I could relate a little. So, I got his first hour-long HBO special, Shameless, and I fell in love with it. I laughed harder than I had at any comic, and I suddenly had a different outlook on comedy.
Since then I’ve listened/watched/read everything I could about Louie and I just love his philosophy on the world and on comedy. I’ve drawn more advice from his bonus feature interview on Chewed Up than I have from anybody else in the industry. The guy is brilliant.