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.