How To Be A Comedian-Actor and Book More Gigs

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?

Ricky Gervais On The Priciples of Comedy

Here’s another in my series on How To Be A Famous Comedian. (Disclaimer: if you’re in it to be famous, you’re in it for all the wrong reasons…you need to be in it because it’s in YOU–wait is that a Gatorade commercial? However, one of the ways to learn how to be a famous comedian is to learn from the comedians who are already famous so here’s an interesting clip from Ricky Gervais, one of my favorites)

In my classes I teach that the comedian has to be liked. You never put yourself above the audience. As the audience, we want to root for you. When you stand up there and you think you’re “all that,” you’re not going to get any respect from the audience and you’re certainly not going to get any respect from Ricky Gervais.

Take this approach into consideration when you’re writing your comedy material. When you pump yourself up for any reason, knock yourself down a peg. When I talk about my time playing soccer I say this: “When I was 20 I played professional soccer–for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill–“ Then I go on to tell this story of how I played on an all Latino team and was the only white guy. But boosting myself up by saying I played professional soccer, may sound like bragging to the audience, so I follow it immediately by “for a short period of time, as it was a game of skill.” It knocks me back down a peg.

Stand up comedy is not about being prettier, sexier or smarter than the audience, it’s about stumbling…and getting back up. It’s one of the oldest formulas in comedy…I’m just trying to get from point A to point B and I keep running into obstacles. Here’s the irony: the more you stumble and get back up, the more the audience roots for you to win. I hope you enjoy the clip from Ricky Gervais. Take a look at my other blog posts, there’s a lot of information about comedy and if you liked this video, please leave a comment below. Stay funny!

How To Be A Famous Comedian

king-of-comedyI 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.

Treating Comedy Like Your Own Business

The business of Comedy can be brutal. Here’s a couple of simple tips to get you going on the right track.

Have you ever set up a lemonade stand as a kid? You thought it would be great putting your portable table out with a pitcher filled with lemonade and some paper cups and you had a business.

But you sat there in the sun and your only customers were your Mom, Dad, and if you were lucky a neighbor’s Mom. And after a long day in the sun in anticipation of making money, you wound up exactly the way you started…broke. The only difference is afterwards, you were a broke with a suntan—except in my case, a sunburn!

How does this relate to comedy? In comedy without customers, you are not a business. You’re just a broke stand up comedian.

So, how do you remedy this situation? I’m going to give you the answer. It’s quite simple actually: HARD WORK!

Did you know that less than 2 percent of the comedians that start out in this business actually continue on to any level of financial success? That’s right. 2 percent! That’s a brutal statistic isn’t it?

The good news is that when you compare it to the other performing arts, the stats are similar. In the acting profession, according to the Screen Actors Guild, (the primary union that handles actors), the percentage of actors working at any given time is about 2 percent.

One of the reasons the failure rate in comedy is so high is because most people who get into this business—don’t treat it as such. They equate comedy with frivolity and thus, treat their profession, frivolously.

Most beginning comedians I run into also have day jobs and complain that after a day at work they have no energy to write or work on their act. I totally understand that dilemma. When you’re starting out it’s hard to balance your day job with building your comedy career. The good news is it CAN be done.

As a comedian, you should focus on three things:

  • Writing
  • Performing
  • Building relationships

But how do you do that when you have limited time? I mean you work after all!

“Show Business” is two words. You have the SHOW and you have the BUSINESS. You have to start thinking of your comedy career as a business—your OWN business and you need to start working it like your own business NOW. Not, “I’ll think about it…” NOW!

In most start-up businesses, it’s not unheard of for the owners to put in 18-hour days. You, as the owner, have to do everything. You work as the owner, the sales team, the accountant, human resources and the janitor. 18-hour days are pretty standard.

As a comedian, it’s very similar. You are the writer, the performer and the booker.

So, when you are starting as comedian, treat it like your own business. Put in the time. Build a schedule into your calendar. Give yourself at least a 2-3 hour period where you are working on your writing at least 4-5 days a week. Print a “DO-NOT-DISTURB” sign and post it on your door. Let everyone in the house know that during this period of time, you are writing and DO IT!

It may seem tough at first, but eventually it’ll become a part of your daily routine. But it is important to put it on your schedule. Treat it like you are reporting to work. When you do that, you train your mind to prepare for it. It helps you to follow-up and meet that goal.

You also have to plan to get mic time. Once you have 5-7 minutes of material, it’s time to hit the mics. You should be up at a mic somewhere in front of people at least 2-3 times per week, if you’re in a town where it’s accessible. If you’re near a town where comedy is accessible, then you should find ways to hit a mic at least a couple times a month. If this means getting in the car and driving to the next town…then do it! I remember driving 5-6 hours to do a gig for FREE just to get the stage time and make another business connection.

Sometimes I’ll tell a comedian that and they’ll say, “but that means you’ve lost money on gas!” I understand you’re frustration. I really do. But this is a business and in business you need to spend money to make money. You need to speculate to accumulate. You spent money to get experience and make a connection. Besides it’s tax deductible once you start to pursue this as a career. It’s training. It’s research and development. It’s travel.

Once you develop 10-15 minutes of solid material (by solid, I mean that it’s generating laughs every 18-20 seconds or so), then it’s time for you to become the sales team. Start hitting the phones, the email, Facebook and Linked In to make connections with comedy club bookers, club owners and talent coordinators.

Go to the clubs meet other comedians, find out who’s booking what and how to get in touch with them.

You should be at this point making no less than 10 phone calls per day for your career. That’s right, 10. But just having that number in your head helps you doesn’t it?!

Call comedy clubs, Rotary Clubs, Toastmasters, offer your services for free at local events, parties, annual banquets for chambers of commerce. Teach a comedy traffic school. It’s amazing how quickly you can hone your act when you have a captive audience!

Ultimately, if you study the fundamentals of comedy, you get to be a good joke writer and a better comedian with mic time and practice, you will find that doors will start to open.

Treat everyone with respect, over-deliver wherever you go, and be the guy who will do favors and help other people out. Be nice to everyone. Even the people you don’t like. Be nice! You never know when they will be in a position to help you!

This is only a summary of how to go about this there are many other ways to develop your comedy business. There are many tried and true techniques that I will go over in future articles.

In a nutshell, remember that people who start their own business put in around 18 hours a day. Think about the time you put into your comedy business and if you’re not treating it like your OWN business and you’re not putting in the time, then you might as well go to your kitchen, get a folding table and set up a lemonade stand.

“How Can I Be More Funny?”

How a comedian can use visual imagery in his comedy material to trigger stronger laughs.

By Jerry Corley | The Stand Up Comedy Clinic

Dan TobiasA young comedian came up to me at the Comedy Store the other night and said, “Did you see my set? I think I’m doing good, but how could I be more funny?”

I did see his comedy set. He had some pretty good jokes. Some structure was off, like not saving the punch word for the end of the joke, etc.

I didn’t have a lot of time to talk—and if you know me, you know I could stay up all night in front of the Comedy Store talking about comedy structure—then, when the sun starts cracking the horizon, say, “Wanna grab a bite to eat?”

But since my time was limited, I gave him one bit of comedy advice that I thought would help. I figured it was probably better to give him just one comedy tip, because I have a tendency to overload people with information, which in all honesty, just creates confusion…and since this comedian was confused anyway (and I mean that in a nice way! Smile), I just gave him this suggestion. I hope it can help you in your comedy writing too!

Go back and analyze your comedy material and find the jokes where you can put in more visual imagery.

Using strong visual imagery receives a more crystallized response from a comedy audience than a joke where the imagery isn’t clear.

IE: “I’m losing my hair. There are some times when it really bothers me. Especially, in the mornings, when my wife is running her fingers through my hair…but I already left for work.”

There is a clear visual perception of hair on the pillow in the mind’s eye. That concise visual elicits greater immediate response from a comedy audience than a more vague joke might, like:

“They say that the state of your apartment represents the state of your mind. Right now my apartment is experiencing a frontal lobe issue.”

Despite both jokes being funny, (both jokes have been time-tested in front of comedy audiences all over the country and have gotten consistent laughs), the first one has a clearer visual. One of the reasons might be that most people have never seen a frontal lobe and can’t visualize it clearly. They get the idea of the joke, but it takes a second.

But let’s look at another version of the second joke:

“I need to get it together. They say that your apartment represents the state of your mind. Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my purse!”

Did you get a clear visual there? Did the joke seem more crisp? Was the visual more crystallized in your mind and as a result, the punch more effective?

We’ve seen the inside of a purse. Even if you’re a male comedian you could structure that joke to say, “Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my girlfriend’s purse.”

…and as a guy, this joke now has a double possibility for some added comedy…

“Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my girlfriend’s purse… The worst part is, my girlfriend’s purse was just found by my wife!”

Now there’s two comedic visuals. The inside of a purse and the memories we have of the faces of pissed off spouses.

So add visual imagery to your stand up comedy material and your writing and remember If you can see the picture clearly, odds are the audience will be able to see it too.