Performance Art

Adventures in Comedy, Part I

I’m technically a professional music historian, but I’ve been essentially unemployed since finishing my PhD thanks to the long and arduous process of landing an academic job (a process you can read all about over on School of Doubt). Finding myself with a very open schedule after moving to a new city, I decided to do the natural thing and start a second, equally non-lucrative career in the wild world of stand-up comedy!

I’ve been performing stand-up at open mics once or twice a week for almost nine months now, which means I’m still quite new to the art form. It has been a really interesting learning experience, though, and I thought it might be nice to share some of my experiences here on MAL for others who might be interested.

Today’s introductory post is mostly a collection of general observations, though I plan to go into more detail about certain topics in future installments. And so, without further ado, some observations after nine months in comedy:


When you’re just getting started, taking a class can be a big help.

Hey, plenty of very talented people get their start by just walking up on stage and holding forth, but I think the experience of taking a (good) stand-up class can be really valuable to beginners for several reasons. Most importantly, it gives you a chance to test and workshop your material in a friendly environment (and take advantage of a pro’s expertise) before you ever get up on stage. Most classes also culminate in a performance for friends and family, and the friendly crowd is a nice way to debut your act. Lastly, comedy is a bit like music in the sense that it has established structures and conventions, and common terminology to describe them. You don’t have to know these things to write and perform well, but knowing them can really help.

Comedy requires a ton of prep work.

Stand-up is meant to appear spontaneous and off-the-cuff, but it is precisely the opposite. There is nothing less funny or enjoyable to watch than a comic who is just rambling off the top of their head because they have nothing prepared. The people who know what they’re doing have not only planned out every word and gesture of their act, but also tested different versions of each bit in front of audiences to see which ones play the best. Even “improvised” bits like crowd work often involve significant preparation: if a comic asks an audience member a question, you can bet they have pre-prepared responses to a bunch of probable answers. As with improvising music, you often find yourself swapping and cobbling together preconceived structural units rather than just making it up as you go along.

The common knowledge-base of the general population is startlingly small.

There’s a reason a lot of comics stick to daily life stuff in their routines, and it’s this. Unless you’ve developed your own fan following or you’re performing at a themed show, you can’t rely on a random general audience to get references to anything but the most mainstream popular culture. Even the news is usually too obscure, unless it’s a 24/7 months-long event like the US presidential election (and even then, you can only rely on them knowing the broad strokes). Since time is often too valuable to explain a complex or obscure premise, it’s often best just to avoid the topics entirely.

Some comics seem to think that sports are among the few audience universals, but they are wrong.

Every straight male comic is required to inform the audience he has both a penis and a girlfriend.

Without this regular reassurance, it seems, their very existence might be endangered.

Diversity is still an issue, but there are plenty of people working to improve things.

My local comedy scene is still a whole lot whiter and male-er than the city in which it’s based, and from what I’ve seen in other cities this is still a problem pretty much everywhere. The good news is that a lot of comics and bookers in my city are doing their best to keep things inclusive and diversify lineups, which can even be a big help to underrepresented people just starting out and making the transition from open mics to low-level booked shows. The bad news is there is still a pretty big imbalance everywhere–including at the pro level–and there is still a lot of bad/gross/inappropriate behaviour directed at women behind the scenes and on the social circuit.

Representation seems especially low for queer comics and comics with disabilities, though in both cases it can be harder to gauge than with other under-represented groups due to the fact that neither trait is always visible. In my case it’s relevant to my current act–I have several bits about dating–but this is not true of everyone.

Comics still do need a space where it’s okay to fail, and to offend people doing it.

So here’s the bit where I talk about free speech. The most important part of building a successful act is testing things in front of live audiences to see how they work, and tweaking the things that don’t work until they do (or tossing them). For those of us who try to tackle delicate or controversial subjects in our acts, this means taking the risk that things might go awry in one way or another and end up crossing a line or offending people in the audience.

This doesn’t mean comics should be able to say whatever they want on stage with no consequences or criticism! I do, however, think that losing the goodwill of the audience, bombing, or getting heckled are the appropriate consequences when a joke or bit fails or crosses the line. Bombing is not fun and pretty much all of us can tell immediately when we’ve lost an audience. Bits can end up offending for a variety of reasons–including simply bungling the delivery by forgetting a line or getting mixed up while on stage (something that happened to me once). I am okay with losing an audience one night because of a mistake or miscalculation with a new joke. I am, however, terrified of something like that making the rounds on Twitter as somehow representative of my act just because one audience member thought I needed to be taught a lesson by 100,000 of their closest friends.

The chilling effect is real.

That said, in my nine months on the open mic circuit, I’ve only seen a few acts where a comic has really crossed the line on a sensitive topic and then deliberately kept it up for a sustained period of time. Of those, I’d say a majority were first-timers or at least very inexperienced. I’ve never seen any of them repeat such a bit, and I know one of them still felt bad about it months later.

It should be obvious to everyone–especially comics–that not all venues are appropriate for taking these kinds of risks. While I think open mics and small club shows should operate with a certain degree of understanding between performer and audience, public spaces like the internet clearly don’t, and by their nature never can. Which is not to say we don’t all forget this from time to time–posting an ill-advised comment in a public forum that goes on to cause problems–but we should always do our best to keep the lines clear.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I discuss the process of writing a longer bit about “political correctness” and how social justice actually made it funnier.

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Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.


  1. May 12, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Great introduction! I’m absurdly jealous, amateur nights or open mics once or twice a week? Back in  my day we were lucky to get one night a month! I did my stand up during the great Mid west comedy club die off of the early 90’s. Once a month if I was lucky (the club owners didn’t like seeing the same faces every week).
    It’s a great point you make about prep work. Even comics with a reputation for spontaneity are doing tons of behind the scenes work that the audience never sees.

    My takeaway has always been that Stand Up comedy is the most difficult performing art to master. There’s only one way to get better at it and that is live performance in front of an audience. That is one of the reasons that most performers come from one of the big four cities (NY, Chicago, LA or SF) where there are lots of stages to access. The 80’s were an anomaly, with distressed discotheque owners desperate to put something in their emptying venues across the country.  I wish I had started in 1988 rather than 1993, that 5 years might have made a huge difference and I’d still be doing it now.

    As an added bonus you aren’t just the performer, you’re also the writer and director of your act. And it has to be 100% original. Nobody I know learns to play an instrument without doing other peoples songs first, and very few actors write their own lines from the very beginning, but stand up comics are expected to be the whole package from the very first time up. There is no such thing as a “cover band” stand up comic.

    I always compared it to learning to swim but they only let you in the pool once a month and no peaking at how the guy next to you is doing.

    Can’t wait to read more!


  2. May 12, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    I am very lucky to live where I do. There are rooms every night of the week, though some don’t always get non-comics in the audience.

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