SOME B ASIC T YPES OF J OKES
Performance Groups Comedy performance groups—sometimes known as comedy troupes—develop, perform, and publicize their own material. Most of the members maintain freelance or day jobs that allow them to pursue this career. They often schedule a weekly show, bracketed around rehearsal and workshops where they critique each other’s sketches and performances. Working in a group requires good timing, diligence, and the ability to adapt to unforeseen situations, such as a blown line or cue. A troupe comedian must respond to peers’ comments and take criticism well. The ability to work with others is also critical to success. Comedy troupes are often formed in major urban centers, such as Chicago or New York. They are more common in large cities, where many actors and comedians congregate because there are greater opportunities to find work. Getting Started in Comedy Comedians come from all walks of life. Some hold bachelor’s or graduate degrees. Others have not even graduated from high school. Although there are no formal education requirements, advanced learning is definitely a plus in this line of work. It gives you a much broader base of knowledge from which to draw humor. Course work in drama, communications, speech, theatre, English, composition, business, broadcasting, and public speaking are all advantageous (both at the high school and college levels). If you can find classes or workshops in comedy performance or writing, so much the better. Comedians need to be able to perform a variety of tasks, must know how to deal with people, and should have a pleasant speak- ing voice. In addition, a successful comedian must be quick- witted, able to think on his or her feet, dedicated, and lucky. A great deal of self-confidence is needed if one is to last more than
two years in this profession (and over half don’t). Failure, disap- pointment, and rejection are common. The Reality: Paying Your Dues The concept of paying your dues has been a long-standing one in the comedy world. Even the most successful comedians start out modestly, in most cases. Paying your dues may mean per- forming in dingy nightclubs before an audience of one and walk- ing away without a penny to show for it. Stand-up comedians have a more uncertain road than troupe comedians, going from club to club, writing material, practicing and refining it, and hoping for a break. It is not unusual for aspiring stand-up comics to log over two hundred days per year away from home,traveling from city to city, entertaining different types of audiences, and sharpening their acts in the process. To book these out-of-town performances, the comedians may call the club owners themselves or go through a booking agent. In medium- and small-sized cities, they often perform only one night and then drive or fly to the next city. While it can be a glamorous profession, comedy also brings many difficulties. Aside from being away from home for much of the year, comedians are also very vulnerable. Comedians go onstage alone, and if they don’t make the crowd laugh, they have no one to blame but themselves. But when the audience does laugh, comedians feel richly rewarded. Making It in the Comedy World While it can be difficult to succeed in the entertainment business, opportunities for comedians are more common than one might realize. Of course it takes an unusual combination of skills and hard work to make it as a comedian, but the possibilities are genuine. Comedy clubs are popular in cities everywhere. There are also a large number of opportunities to appear on television, whether it be on local, network, independent, or cable station shows.
Some comedians stop working stand-up and go on to perform in situation comedies or films. The long list of performers who have successfully accomplished this includes David Spade, Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Meyers, Robin Williams, Wayne Brady, and Adam Sandler. Other comedians, such as Joan Rivers and Jay Leno, have gone on to host television talk shows. Certainly, success takes an incredible level of perseverance. Comics must cope with rejection, criticism, and low pay while launching their careers. Comics naturally develop a style of humor that is suited to them, but finding the right niche can take years. Competition among comedians is intense, but new opportuni- ties are arising. Some companies, for example, now hire comedi- ans to speak at conferences or conduct seminars for employees. Compensation for Comedians Working stand-up comedians may either get paid by the show or for a week of performances.The headliner makes much more than the opening act. In large comedy clubs in the nation’s major cities, a headliner can earn from $1,000 to more than $20,000 per week, depending on his or her popularity. The comedian who opens the evening’s show might earn anywhere from $150 to $500 per week, while the middle comedian can earn from $500 to $1,000 per week. At the beginning, comedians often work just to get the experi- ence and exposure, as well as to make valuable contacts. They may also perform for "the door," which means they receive part of the admission price paid by the people who attended the show. For comedy writers, the pay scale is also very wide. Those who write jokes for famous comedians may earn a sum such as $50 or $100 for every joke used. Those who write for television get paid different rates depending on their experience, reputation, and the budget of the show. The writers of a network comedy show can be paid anywhere from $50,000 to more than $200,000 a year.
Secrets for Success Here are some tips for those who would like to pursue comedy as a career: • Take classes and workshops in performing and writing comedy. • Participate in comedy competitions, which are offered throughout the country, often sponsored by television stations, comedy clubs, or corporate sponsors. These programs are excellent ways to obtain exposure. • Offer to emcee any type of entertainment event you can find. Consider local talent and variety shows, telethons, charity dinners, luncheons, and so forth.
• Take part in local talent and variety shows.
• Perform as often as you can to hone your skills, gain experience, and perfect your act.
• Believe in yourself! A great deal of success in this field is based upon not only talent, but drive, determination, ambition, and perseverance. Don’t give up.
• Go to clubs and watch other comedians perform. Observe what makes their acts successful.
• Watch comedians who perform on television. Check out their styles, techniques, timing, and content.
• When you and your act are ready, try to get a paying job in comedy. Remember—make sure you are ready!
• Locate all nightclubs and comedy clubs in your area and find out the requirements for performing. Many have amateur or open-mike nights as well as talent showcases where new entertainers can try out material and hone their acts.
• Consider talking to local bands, singers, and other musical acts about opening for them.
• When you are ready, contact agents who specialize in booking comedy acts.
Training in Comedy It has been said that the best place for a comedian to learn this demanding craft is in the school of hard knocks. But it is also pos- sible to find classes and seminars on the art and craft of comedy. Such offerings are not available everywhere, but it may be worth- while to check on their availability in your geographical area. Or, if you are serious about pursuing a comedy career, you may want to consider traveling to a location where classes are offered. Here are brief overviews of two such programs. San Francisco Comedy College offers both introductory and advanced classes, ranging from a free introductory seminar to detailed classes covering a wide range of topics. Classes are held in four northern California locations (San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Sacramento), and performances take place in a wide variety of locations. The initial workshop introduces students to a tool called the Joke Diagram, a formula that illustrates the structure of virtually all funny stories and jokes. It also includes an overview of the workshops offered through the Comedy College, tips on rehearsal techniques, and more. The Comedy College’s more advanced Working Comedians Workshop is targeted to the needs of professional comedians. It covers week-to-week management of a comedy career, chances to define goals, and comedy assignments and exercises. Participants benefit from public performances, private writing sessions, group performances, and one-on-one meetings, as well as background information on various business angles of a comedy career. For more information on these and related classes and semi- nars, contact: San Francisco Comedy College 414 Mason, #705 San Francisco, CA 94102 www.sfcomedycollege.com
In New York, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCBT) Training Center offers the chance to study improv, or improvisa- tional comedy. Students start at an introductory level and then proceed to more advanced concepts. Offerings include intensive, two-week summer workshops as well as classes spread out over longer time periods. In addition to learning about performing comedy, students may take sketch-writing classes that cover the basics of writing comedy for the stage and television. Students and teachers in these programs have gone on to write, perform, or produce television shows such as "Saturday Night Live,""Late Night with Conan O’Brien,""The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,""Mad TV," and more. For information, contact: Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre 307 West Twenty-sixth Street New York, NY 10011 www.ucbtheatre.com
• How to identify comedic material
• What it means to be funny
• How to write jokes
• Basic types of comedy
• Improv techniques
• How to react to audiences
• Body language basics
• How to develop a stage presence
• How to build confidence
• Simple tricks of the comedy trade
• How to work with microphones
• How to work on camera
• How to work with a partner
• How to work in groups
• Business basics
• Self-promotion strategies
Words from the Pros Introducing Randy Judkins Before pursuing his comedy-related career, Randy Judkins received a bachelor of science degree in secondary education and mathematics at the University of Southern Maine and took some master’s classes at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He has studied acting, circus arts, and mime and has served as a part-time college professor. He now serves as an "EDUtrainer"—an inspira- tional speaker and performer. Things fell into place for Randy in phases. At first, he concen- trated on a one-man character comedy show. Then after about fif- teen years of such work, he discovered a technique for blending interactive entertainment with research on human-resource top- ics such as change, team building, humor, and self-esteem. "I actually love being onstage, making people laugh," he says. "Consequently, my mission has been to diversify enough to reach as many sectors of society as possible." Randy says that his experiences as a member of a large family from a close-knit neighborhood contributed to a playful attitude. He has applied this outlook to his work onstage and with people in general. He also cites his experiences in performing, both as a
young person and an adult, with organizations such as the Boy Scouts and the YMCA. Randy’s job has many facets to it. On one day, he may drive for several hours to put on a presentation for a group of teachers at a staff-development day. On a different day, he may hop a plane to another state to serve as a conference keynote speaker. He also spends time in his office following up on referrals, developing new clients, booking flights, and planning presentations to companies whose interests range from health care to manufacturing. "I spend from forty to fifty hours per week doing what I love to do," he says. "Most of my clients provide me with an outstanding working atmosphere. When the environment is subpar, I can usu- ally shift enough things around (including my own thinking) to produce a successful event." Randy says he loves the interaction with his audiences. He often creates sketches that involve audience members on different levels. "My advice to others would be to get out there and work, first for just the experiences and little pay. As your reputation grows, if it does (and you still love doing it), then it may be possible for you to carve out your niche, set some short- and long-term goals, and get some support for the skills you need to pull it all off. Go for it!" Here is your next birth-name challenge: Marshall Mathers III. For More Information Organizations To learn more about careers in this field, contact: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) New York National Office 260 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016 www.aftra.org
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) Los Angeles National Office 5757 Wilshire Boulevard, Ninth Floor Los Angeles, CA 90036 www.aftra.org