Stand up comedy: harder than it looks

Stand up comedian performing on a stage.

I have long been a fan of stand-up comedy. Some find it boring and grow restless in front of the television, but I find it fascinating, and here’s my secret: I usually don’t even laugh! Most of the time, when I am watching stand-up, I am alone with my laptop, totally stone-faced, yet immensely enjoying myself. Here’s the thing about stand-up—it is incredibly difficult. I have read the books and watched the interviews of some of the greats, including Amy Schumer, John Mulaney, Chris Rock, Tig Notaro, and even Ellen Degeneres. What I have learned is that one 15-minute stand-up routine can take years to develop. An hour? That’s a lifetime of work. Stand-up comedians must practice often, and for years, before they are “any good.” Of course, some of us are more naturally in tune with comedy than others, but it still takes a sharp learning curve to one day effortlessly send a room full of people into peals of helpless laughter. Not only must stand-up comedians practice often, but they must practice in a harshly unforgiving environment: The stage, in front of (usually drunk and judgemental) people, for five to 15 minute intervals. Totally failing to make an audience laugh is such a common occurrence that there is even a well-known term for it: “bombing.” This term is used in multiple variations, including but not limited to: “I totally bombed last night,” “I bombed the stage,” “I kept bombing all week.” All of these variations indicate the same thing: stand-up failure. And yet, there is no failure in stand-up, because failing means learning. In other words, while you fail to make your audience guffaw, you learn what does not work, which brings you one step closer to understanding what does get the giggles.

As we have established, it takes years of bombing to make progress as a stand-up comedian, and only a few comedians ever enter the mainstream of people’s attention. Some of the more popular comedians, including Schumer and Notaro, have repeatedly stressed how important it is to be totally obsessed with stand-up—even addicted—in order to become really good at it. You must go to the stage again and again, and grow tough skin that can withstand even the most cringe-worthy of stage-bombings. Then, and only then, will you be ready for a bigger audience.

The pandemic has all but eliminated the world of stand-up. Though I suppose virtual stand-up is possible, it would not be the same. Stand-up is about laughing with strangers, the fear and bravery of the stage, physical humor, dim lights and drinks. I and many others are hoping for its swift return. Until then, there are many stand-up specials on Netflix on which you can feast your attention. Honorable mentions include: “Weirdo” by Donald Glover, “Alive From New York” by Pete Davidson, and “Growing” by Amy Schumer. Donald Glover I would recommend if you like “gross” humor, Pete Davidson I would recommend for “snarky, sarcastic” humor, and Amy Schumer’s recent special for pregnancy jokes and physical humor. Of course, there is a whole world of comedians I have not mentioned in this article. I encourage you to find your favorite, and then you will be able to enjoy watching their stand-up develop through the years. Pass the popcorn!


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