In 2019, Todd Phillips took a sharp turn in his career by presenting the character of Joker in a never-seen-before avatar. The dark psychological drama quickly stunned the box office and made Joaquin Phoenix the talk of the town. The movie is relatable in many perspectives, contributing to its global success: A deluded reflection on mental issues and sociopolitical outbursts, a glorification of incels, an antidote to “woke” culture, etc. To some people, though, “Joker” reveals some hard truths about being a comedian.
Just like Steve Martin once said, “comedy is not pretty”. It’s not all about making people happy, traveling the world, being famous, and earning tons of money – that’s a freaking long road. You have to be ready for the hardships behind the laughs, for all the time and effort it requires. You have to brace yourself for the complete mortification when your jokes fall flat, which will happen many times before you achieve success and recognition.
This is not to discourage you. But trust me when I say it is the reality of the business. If you decide you are OK with all this and still want to embark on this journey, if you want to make people’s lives better with laughter, welcome to the comedy world! This guide on how to become a comedian will set you in the right direction, helping you avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes newbies often make when getting started.
Table of Contents
So, What Exactly Does A Comedian Do?
The term “comedian” came from the French word “comédien”. According to Oxford English Dictionary, it has been used in English since the late 16th century. Initially, “comedian” only stood for a person who writes humorous plays. You might also refer to William Shakespeare as a “comedian” in that sense.
Over time, along with the evolvement of performing art, the word adopted another meaning of “entertainer”. Simply put, a comedian, also known as a comic, is an entertainer who writes and performs comedic routines to make audiences laugh.
Responsibilities of a comedian often include:
- Researching popular topics, audience preferences, and trends in comedy.
- Create witty, captivating, and humorous content that sticks in the audience’s mind.
- Conversing with viewers after your comedic performances.
- Doing choreography movements that emphasize humor.
- Memorizing the written and choreographed content.
- Performing lightly and heavily scripted plus improvisational content.
- Utilizing other talents to improve comedic performances.
Stand-up Is Not The Only Way To Do Comedy!
When someone mentions “comedian”, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably someone who stands alone in front of the audience, using jokes or stories to make them laugh. It’s called “stand-up” comedy, which is by far the most well-known form.
Stand-up is not the only way to do comedy – Source: SFGATE
Other than stand-up, though, there are many other ways to do comedy, such as character, slapstick, improvisational, and observational. Character comedy uses made-up characters, while slapstick comedy focuses on the physical antics of the performer. Improvisational comedy is a good choice for those with excellent comic timing since these performances are mostly spontaneous. In observational comedy, ordinary situations are dramatized to make people laugh.
Also, being a comedian doesn’t mean you always have to perform on stages. Some comedians pursue their careers as comedic actors (like Simon Bird and Sacha Baron), while others work as TV presenters (Graham Norton has always been my hero). Some people play hilarious songs (Tim Minchin and Flight of the Conchords), and of course, some excel at everything (e.g. Rob Brydon and Victoria Wood). Depends on your talents and preferences, you can choose the path that you want to follow.
How Much Do Comedian Make?
Finance is the thing many have to consider before deciding to become a comedian. In fact, the average salary of comedians depends largely on their skill levels and popularity.
What the earning potential is for comedians? – Source: The Boston Globe
The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically track how much comedians make per month. However, the average hourly wage for entertainers and performers was around $22.71 in 2017. As seen on other sources like The Career Project or New Balance Jobs, comedians’ income ranges from $30,000 to $85,185 annually.
If you are wondering, ‘How much do stand-up comedians make?’, it’s even more complicated. Most stand-up comedians are self-employed individuals. They get paid on a performance-by-performance basis. Hence, it is difficult to record specific data about their incomes. The only way is to look at the average pay rate of comedy clubs.
In a comedy club, a comedian hired as an opening act will typically earn between $25 – $50 for each show. For a feature (middle) act, they make between $50 – $100 per show. Headliner comedians generally earn between $100-$200 for a single 45-minute stand-up comedy performance, which is not too shabby.
Keep in mind that comedians who can only perform “adult” or profane acts can mostly perform in the comedy club markets and comedy club-style one-nighters. Shifting to other markets (events, parties, fundraisers, meetings, etc) will allow you to earn 5-10 times more for a single show, but the talent to execute clean performances is a must.
What Does The Future Hold For Comedians?
Since the rate of pay for junior-level comedians is not so ideal, you can expect the beginning to be challenging. Still, there is good news for aspiring comedians: Job openings in the comedy business are expected to rise in the next few years. Thanks to increased government funding in film and television productions, there will be more chances for new talents. Still, to rise to the top, they still have to use their network and promote themselves efficiently.
How To Become A Comedian?
If you are still reading, it seems that you are ready to take the first step. In that case, we shall discuss how to become a comedian.
You have got an idea of what you will be doing and how you will get paid. Now, what do you need to get on the stage and become the center of attention?
Hannibal Buress: Advice for Comedians
How To Become A Comedian – Start Writing Jokes
Get yourself a notebook and write every single day. You can start by noting down everything that you find amusing and why. Then, pick one of those ideas and develop it into a story.
You can get inspiration from your daily life – Source: Unsplash
Think about the narrative arc and flesh out your setup. Who are the characters? What’s the setting? What’s the situation or conflict? Who are the characters?
Include some punchlines. In comedy writing, the punchline is usually a twist that goes against the logical conclusion. Take this standout punchline from Steve Martin for example:
“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”
Sometimes it might lie in the first part of the joke you uncover. In such cases, work your way backward to the setup. If you are constructing a longer piece, throw in some jab lines – humorous moments in the body of the joke – so the audience doesn’t have to wait too long to laugh.
Keep in mind that humor is all about pushing boundaries. You are on the right track if you think out of the box and leave your comfort zone. You can also use this notebook to jot down your opinions from watching other comedy shows. Learn from the comedians you adore always help.
How To Become A Comedian – Take Classes (Or Don’t)
In fact, there is no degree required to become a comedian. However, taking a class might be cost-effective as it helps you process fasters, learn from others’ mistakes, and receive valuable feedback. It is beneficial to hone your skills on classmates and receive constructive critique from professors. It motivates you to learn and sharpen your skills.
Another benefit of attending classes is a network of friends and collaborators can stimulate your creativity and help you think beyond the box. Although comedians don’t need any particular degree, acting in front of classmates allows students to become less rigid and more liberated on real stages, as well as overcome stage fright.
You can apply for courses at the American Comedy Institute, Manhattan Comedy School, or Los Angeles School Of Comedy. Aside from stage performing, you might even be able to find programs that teach you how to write jokes, navigate the audition process, and book shows. Again, classes are not required. If you prefer to jump right in, it’s all good.
Build A Reputation On The Social Media
Nowadays, the greatest way to build your reputation and test out material is through social media. Creating accounts on all of the major social media sites (such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Youtube) and uploading jokes or funny videos will help you kickstart your career as a comedian.
For comics of all levels, having a strong internet presence is a must. It can showcase your work to the masses, help you approach and wide range of audiences, and build your own network.
Perform At An Open Mic
Open mics often consist of local talents. You can perform for 15 minutes or less. Each mic requires performers to sign up differently, so pay attention to the sign-up time and instruction. The most common ways including through website, texting, emailing, or calling. Sometimes you might be required to sign up at the venue before the actual event.
Performers should arrive 15-30 minutes early to register. The order of sign-up or a lottery will determine the order of your performance. Before the big night, keep all the rules in mind – from the check-in procedures and the length of your set to signal the club uses to indicate that your time is almost up.
The key is to step out of your comfort zone and experiment with new things – Source: Unsplash
Open mic is the best way to test your material in front of real audiences. On the bright side, everyone knows that it is an open mic. People won’t expect a George Callin or Paston Oswalt to step on stage, so you can be totally comfortable with your material. However, keep in mind the audience is mostly other comedians who are too busy focusing on their forthcoming sets to interact with yours. Even if you don’t get the reaction you expect, it’s not the end of the world.
How To Become A Comedian – Make Connections
Of course, open mics can help you get comfortable on stages and try out new material. Still, the goal is to get a paid position on comedy showcases. Make friends with the show’s organizer and other comedians whenever you’re at a comedy club or other related events. Ask for their guidance or feedback on your performance, and politely express your interest in performing in the next show.
Even if you choose the solo path of a stand-up comedian, you still need a comedy network. In most cases, your fellow comedians or club owners will recommend you for bigger opportunities throughout your career.
To All Aspiring Comedians Out There…
Starting out as a comedian demands a willingness to accept long hours and rejections along the way. It required a lot of trial and error to get consistent laughs from the audience. If you are dedicated to brightening up people’s day, though, the feeling of cracking up the whole room is worth all the hardships.
Interested in other jobs? You might wanna check out:
Deciding on a suitable career can be difficult, but we got your back! Head to our Job Overview section and receive practical advice from headhunters, researchers, and entrepreneurs.