What do I mean by “comedian-actor?” Well in my years as an actor/comedian I’ve never seen the acting business be so competitive as it is today. My actor friends are constantly complaining—and rightly so—that they’re not working as much as they used to. Nobody is really. There are valid reasons for that: more reality television, less scripted, would be one reason. But another reason is competition.
Think about it, years ago we used to be submitted to jobs by our agents who used a messenger to drop off headshots and resumes at casting offices. We were usually up against anywhere from 100 to 600 other actors for one job.
Now, everything is done electronically. Submissions are done with the click of a mouse and we now find ourselves competing with 1200 to 1600 submissions and more. How do you stand out? One suggestion: Don’t just stand out, Stand Up!
That’s right. I studied acting for many years both in New York and L.A. My father was a successful character actor for 60 years and I learned that you could be out of work for a stretch. That was why I originally started doing stand up. So I could work when I “wasn’t working.”
I found that doing comedy kept me busy and also kept me on the radars of casting directors I had built relationships with…
Why? Because, for the most part, industry decision-makers revere comedians. They have enormous respect for what we do, partly because they fear doing it themselves. When a casting director, creative director or rep sees you doing comedy and having a good set, they equate that laughter to laughter coming from an audience in a movie theatre or a living room. It’s quite powerful…as Dick Cook, former Chairman of Disney said, “Funny is money.”
I’ve had several actors take my course and wind up getting some great traction in their careers. Several have booked jobs or gotten agents. One of my favorite stories is Michelle Gomez (above). She took my class, I helped her develop a 10-minute comedy routine that she performed at the Comedy Store. She had a lot of industry attend and she wound up booking 2 pilots. And in the year prior, she couldn’t get arrested!
After she booked the pilots she sent an email to me that said, “Jerry, thank you for single-handedly restoring my confidence…” That is a lovely compliment, yes?
What’s my point? Stand Up Comedy is an excellent showcase for an actor. It shows that you have confidence and poise and shows that you can deliver the goods and get laughs…and after all, funny is money, right?
Before I begin, it’s important to reiterate that “How To Be A Famous Comedian” is a series in my comedy blog dedicated, not to show how to be a famous comedian, but to show the path to getting work, which includes learning the craft of humor writing and comedy performance along with the trials and tribulations of the business that surround this art form. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you’re goal is only to learn how to be a famous comedian, you’ll have much better luck getting press by knocking over a string of 7-11’s, than doing stand up comedy. Comedy requires hard work, persistence and a bit of luck, but with the right combination of having a firm grasp on writing comedy, developing your comedy performance skills, as well as navigating the business, you can make a pretty darn good living pursuing a career in an incredible art form.
Wow! I am always amazed at where I find information that teaches me lessons that I can continue to apply as I move through this amazing business. I was reading an article on the rise and fall of the Dana Carvey Show, a show that was cancelled after like 3 episodes, (It taped 5). You might ask yourself how does this teach anything? It failed! And how does it apply to the theme of “How To Be A Famous Comedian?”
As comedians or we have to remember that show business is two words and we have to emphasize both words. Writing great material and learning to master performance are key skills, but the famous comedian (and Dana Carvey certainly fits that bill), also knows how to navigate the business. Do they make mistakes? Sure! This article helps us all learn from the mistakes that were made in getting The Dana Carvey Show on the air and why a show that could have survived, died a certain death. It also teaches us about the people involved and we get to hear their thoughts. It makes it a more human process and helps to light the fire in all of us.
We spend a good portion of our careers thinking that the executives and the stars are above us. So far that they are out of reach. Reading articles like this one will help to assure you that everyone started somewhere. Did you know that Steven Colbert was Steve Carell’s understudy at Second City? Did you know that Saturday Night Live often holds auditions for their show in the Summer?
This information is important to read. You get to see that some of the famous comedians that did make it also went through periods where they didn’t make it. They got passed on for roles. You get to understand that it happens to everyone. That’s all part of how to be a famous comedian. Try then fail. Back to work. Try then fail again. Back to work. Try, then succeed.
When you read the article, make notes. Learn from the article. Learn the names. These are important people to be familiar with. You should do this with every article you read. It will help in your journey to learn how to be a famous comedian. Or have fun and success trying.
As we stated in the earlier versions, the path on how to be a famous comedian can be tricky and evasive. Even if there were clear, concise, sure-fire steps one could take in learning how to be a famous comedian and even if you followed those steps to the letter, there is no guarantee that you would become a famous comedian. Believe it or not, even if the steps were known by everyone, only two percent of the readers of the steps would follow them and even less than that would achieve a level of fame that would fit our perceived definition of “famous.”
That being said, there are steps you can take to reach a level of success in comedy. In my view, when you reach a level of success in which you are supporting yourself in a comfortable manner by telling jokes for a living, you have become successful, or certainly reached a milestone of sorts, in your journey on how to become a famous comedian.
“Famous,” in this regard becomes relative to one’s definition.
You should be careful in setting your own definition of “famous.” Your desire for wanting to learn how to be a famous comedian should also be in place for the right reasons. Fame for the pure sake of fame is hollow. You wind up in the same category as “Balloon Boy’s” father, Tarek and Michaele Salahi, the White House party crashers or some wiry, crack addict who gets on a segment of Jerry Springer called, “Pimp My Bride!”
Becoming a comedian is a lot of work. It’s not easy. But it is thrilling! I’ve been a comedian for 25 years. I’ve reached a level of success where I am making decent living doing comedy. I haven’t worked a full-time day job in a very, very long time. I’ve almost forgotten what that’s like. I love what I do and everyday I get to wake up and say, “today I get to write jokes.” I love the challenge of finding something to write about everyday, soliciting work, selling jokes and getting up on stage and performing. I absolutely thrive in the work and the challenge.
If there were steps in learning how to be a famous comedian, they would go something like this:
Master the the techniques in crafting comedy material (CLICK HERE and watch in real-time as I write 15 jokes in 30 minutes!)
Write strong material, from a unique original perspective. Must have structure and regular solid laugh points (every 18-20 secs.).
Perform as much as possible. Get smooth. Get solid.
Get on television. (You do this by getting good and getting seen, either in clubs, festivals or submitting yourself to the shows and following up). and if that fails…
Set yourself on fire at the Oscars or throw a pie in the face of Rupert Murdoch!
In other words, if you are getting into comedy just to be a famous comedian, don’t! It’s a long journey and has to be done for the right reasons. You’ve got to absolutely love it and you’ve got to be willing to do the work for the sake of doing the best work possible. If you’re doing it for the fame and to get on T.V., it would be easier to build your T.V. appearances by impregnating your sister and getting a slot on Jerry Springer.
Being able to produce material on a consistent basis is one of the keys to succeeding in comedy. Whether you are a writer, or want to be a standup comic, you must be able to write material that has structure.
I’ve been asked time and time again to give a demo on how to write comedy. Since joke writing is the building block of comedy writing, as a whole, I am going to demonstrate it here.
The key to writing jokes from scratch is NOT to think of something funny, but to think of ANYTHING and make it funny.
This how to write comedy video is around 47 minutes. It shows the recommended prep necessary to take on the task of writing and some background information to get you ready. Also be warned, this is NOT for kids. There is some NC-17 stuff here.
When you are writing comedy you never, and I mean NEVER edit yourself in the first draft. You always save that for the second or third pass on the the material. So if you are sensitive to language (most of it written) and you are limited on time… then DON’T WATCH THE VIDEO!
If you want to REALLY see the joke writing process and learn one of the fundamental steps in learning how to write comedy, then grab your notebook, a cup of coffee and enjoy!
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NOTE: THIS IS ONLY ONE METHOD ON HOW TO WRITE COMEDY…
I was at the Comedy Store last night. I was talking to a young comedian about crafting a joke and the importance of writing everyday and this other comedian butts in and says, “I don’t give a damn about any of that, I just want to know how to be a famous comedian!”
What this comedian didn’t realize was that I just saw him do about an 10-minute set and not only did he run the light, (went way over his time), disrespecting the audience, the booker and his fellow comics, he also did a whole 2-minute bit about not putting kids on “time-out” but putting them on “knock-out,” (a bit that’s more worn out than a Vegas hooker on New Year’s Eve). When he said “I just want to know how to be a famous comedian,” I remember thinking to myself, not with that act!
I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years. I’ve written for Jay Leno for 8 years. So I try my best not to be negative when I’m around other comedians. I’m honest, just not negative. The truth is there is no direct answer to the quest of “how to be a famous comedian,” but there are guidelines.
Write, write and write some more!
One of the crucial keys to making it in this industry is originality. That’s one thing bookers look for when scouting for talent. They also look for how well you craft a joke. Most stand up comedy on late night talk shows is about well-crafted jokes and routines, not about big act-outs. The only way to develop that is by writing and writing a lot. Most comedians, I’ve noticed don’t actually write a lot. They wait for something funny to happen to them and they write it down or record it somehow. That’s a good way to get material, mind you, but it’s only one way. When you learn the fundamentals of comedy including joke structure and technique, then you can make something funny, rather than wait for something to be funny.
A comedian should be spending several hours every day writing. Most don’t. One of the problems is that most comedians and wanna-be comedians equate comedy with frivolity and they treat their profession frivolously. That’s one way NOT to be a famous comedian.
Stage Time is King!
Once you have a well-crafted act (I have a lot of posts on techniques) of 5-7 minutes, then it’s time to hit the stage. Writing is great for the crafting of the material and really sharpening your sense of humor, but nothing beats getting on the stage. A comedian who is looking for notoriety, (whether they are trying to get famous or not), should be hitting the open-mics at least 3 times a week. If you can’t commit to that, you might want to consider a different line of work. You have to develop your act, your timing and your comfort level on stage so you can learn to be yourself while standing in front of complete strangers and the only way to do that is stage time. Sure, open-mics can be grueling. The audience is usually notoriously comedian-heavy and sometimes they can feel unrewarding. But the mere consistent appearance and mic-work will eventually payoff. If you’re doing good work, you’ll gain respect and reach at least some level of fame with the other comedians.
When I was doing the open mics, I was up at least 4 nights a week, at least and sometimes several times in one night. I gained a reputation as a good writer. There’s a nice feeling that accompanies walking into a room and having people talk about you—in a good way! I was always nice to everyone too and if I heard another comedian do a joke and thought of a tag for the joke I would always write it down and offer it to the comic as a suggestion.
Some of the best advice I got from Jay Leno. He said “write faster than everybody else and your reputation will precede you.” It was true. I was “famous” within certain circles for being a really good writer and comedian.
Develop your act and hit the road!
Once you’ve written and honed an act of between 15-30 minutes of solid material, (“solid” meaning a laugh point every 18-20 seconds), then it’s time to hit the road and develop it. When you start working night after night, you really start to develop as a comedian. The beauty of the road is that you’re out there working on comedy 24 hours a day. You write during the day and perform at night. By the end of 4 months on the road, you should have the makings for about an hour of material. When you feel completely secure in your material. It’s time to start submitting yourself to T.V. talent coordinators. Some bookers take DVD’s, some like to see links on the internet and YouTube.
You can contact the bookers by getting the “Hollywood Creative Directory.” It lists all the shows that are on the air and their staffs. Be sure to check out the style of comedian that gets booked on each show. Fallon is different from Kimmel and Ferguson is different from Leno. Once you feel you fit a certain show. Send a DVD right to the booker with a note that says “I’m a regular watcher of your show and I think my act fits with what you do. Please take a look.” Be sure that your name and contact info is on the DVD and the cover of the DVD as they often they get separated.
There is no certainty of success only the joy of the work!
Other than working hard on both parts of the word show-business there are no rules or guarantees to success. My Dad, who was a successful character actor, once said to me, “You have to get into this business for the right reasons. If you get into it to be famous, get out now, because odds are that’s not going to happen. If you get into because it’s who you are and you stay true to being the best you can be and doing the best work possible, you will reach such a great personal level of success and gratification that the idea of how to be a famous comedian won’t be as important as being the best comedian you can be.