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How to Break into Stand-up: 10 Tips for Beginner Comedians

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Starting out in stand-up comedy can be overwhelming and a little scary. Before you freak out, check out this helpful list of tips on improving your act and getting over failure for new and struggling stand-up comedians.

1. Get On Stage Now

Close up of microphone on stage in lights.
Gary John Norman/Digital Vision/Getty Images
No amount of helpful tips or discussion can take the place of experience, and that's pretty much all that counts when it comes to stand-up. It's a true "learn-by-doing" art form, and you won't know what works (and what doesn't) until you've gotten on stage in front of an audience. The more chances you have to perform, the more you'll be able to learn. Many comedians perform multiple times a night in the early years, hopping from club to club or open mic to open mic. There is no substitute for stage time in comedy, so make sure you're getting lots of it.

2. Don't Be Afraid to Bomb

You're not going to bring the house down every time you step on stage, particularly in the beginning. That means, from time to time, you're going to find out what it's like to bomb. That's ok; bombing can be very useful. You'll learn which parts of your act aren't working and possibly why. You'll quickly find out how you react in these situations: are you fast on your feet? Can you recover the set? If nothing else, the experience of bombing will be unpleasant enough that you'll work that much harder on your act to avoid it ever happening again. Fear can be a powerful motivator.

3. Keep Up With Your Old Stuff

Even if you're working up new material, don't forget to keep your old stuff fresh. Maybe you've got a great setup, but there's a punchline or tag that will make a joke work even better. There's always room for improvement; go back every once in a while and punch up older jokes with new tags or punchlines. This can also be a great way to break out of a rut -- it gets your creativity going without requiring you to generate new material out of thin air.

4. Don't Steal

Don't steal. Just don't. Don't even "borrow" or "rephrase." It's never cool, and it will end your career as a stand-up very quickly. If you ever think you might be lifting a joke from another comic -- even if it's unintentionally or subconsciously or whatever -- just drop the joke. It's not worth being labeled as a thief and a hack, which is ultimately what could happen.

5. Stick to Your Time

Always be sure to stay within the time slot given to you by a promoter, club manager or open mic organizer. It's rude and unprofessional to go longer than your allotted time; remember, there are other comedians that are following you, and they should get every minute they've been promised. Conversely, it's also unprofessional to do less time on stage than what you're expected to deliver. That puts an unfair pressure on the comic after you to fill in the gap and perform longer than he or she had anticipated. Even if you're bombing, you're expected to fill a certain slot and should fill it. You want to establish a reputation for yourself as being a professional, and sticking to your time slot is a good way to do that.

6. Tape Yourself

If you're able to (depending on where you're performing), take video of your performance. Think of it like a football team's "game film"; you'll be able to go back and watch yourself to see what worked and what needs changing. Were you talking too fast? Did you step on laughs from the crowd? These are things you probably won't be aware of in the moment, when nerves and adrenalin may get the better of you. A videotape will give you the opportunity to examine and reflect on your performance so you can make changes for the future. Just remember not to obsess over it too much; if you over-evaluate, you may lose so of the freshness and spontaneity in your act.

7. Hit the Clubs

Even if you're not ready to get on stage at a comedy club yet (and you may be better off starting at open mic nights), you should still try to get out and see as much live comedy as you can. With every comedian, you're going to be learning something new; study the ones you like and learn from the mistakes of the ones you don't (just remember: NEVER STEAL JOKES). Plus, you may be able to start making connections with promoters, club owners and -- most importantly -- other comics. Comedy is a community, and the sooner you can become a part of it the better off you'll be.

8. Make Nice with the Audience

Just because you've seen other comics (like, say, Lisa Lampanelli) insult their audience doesn't mean you should -- at least, not yet. And it may be tempting, particularly if you're feeling strapped for material or if someone is heckling you. Of course you should respond in that instance, but watch how far you take it. It can be easily to alienate your audience, and you always want them on your side. Plus, you never know if an audience member is going to take a joke the wrong way; many a comic has a story about someone from the audience waiting for them after the show. If they feel humiliated and have been drinking (which, given the nature of the comedy club, is likely), you may be bringing trouble on yourself.

9. Carry a Notebook With You

You never know when or where comic inspiration is going to strike, and it would be a shame to lose the moment because you have no way of writing your thoughts down. Always be ready to take notes or jot down ideas; before you know it, you'll have the rough beginnings of an act.

10. Be Yourself

A lot of comedy sites will offer tips about how you should imitate other comics, write in the style of established comedians or develop a persona for yourself. Don't worry about any of that. No one wants to see an imitation Dane Cook when the real one is out there, and you're denying the audience the chance to get to know you as a comic. You want to perform stand-up because you're funny and you love it, and those are the two most important things you need. Be true to yourself.
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