First Time Doing Stand-Up Comedy

by Dan on July 16, 2007

Everyone has a list of things, either written down, or in their head, that they want to accomplish at some time or other.

Some of these are ones that neatly fit into various milestones of their lifetime.  “Visit Europe,” is one that an educated married couple will probably do, as long as they save enough.  Even if they don’t save but don’t mind getting in debt, it’ll happen.

Then there are some goals, however, that require a considerable amount of effort, and creativity to pull off.  Writing a book is one of them.  It can be procrastinated forever.  There’s always something in the way.

For me, stand-up comedy was the thing I wanted to do for years, but never got on stage for.  As proud as I am for having finally done it, I’m not proud of how long it took me to actually do it.

When I was growing up, there would always be some people here and there that found me hilarious.  One of my teen tour counselors at America’s Adventure, Nana, said at a meeting that she thought I’d be the next Woody Allen.  If someone told me that today, I’d probably be offended and prefer they said a good looking one like Joe Rogan or Dane Cook, but at the time it felt pretty solid.

I also had an ability to write very funny things.  People found my posts in forums to be very funny and witty.  I was also a Humor Editor for the school paper in high school, though my material was admittedly often substandard.  I had been given enough props to make me feel good, but not enough to really make me confident enough to something with it.

Sometime in 2003, I decided I had it, and was going to go on stage in two weeks no matter what.  I kept brainstorming for funny stuff, and had a list of material set for the last week in May, which in turn, was the last week I’d be in college.  I even had picked the comedy club that had the open mic night for that week.  I called to get my name on the list.

Open mic was cancelled.  I finished college without doing the show.

I was really, really disappointed.  I had it all planned out.  The whole list of funny things to say.  I figured, however, that I could do it another time, while I kept track of funny things that happened around me.  I figured that the set I’d written wasn’t that great so I could just wait until I had better stuff to really go on stage.

One year went by.

And another.

And another.

And another.

Finally, in 2007, I realized something about having comedic material to perform:  it is NEVER going to be good enough.   I just had to sit down for a couple hours, compile all I had, and go for it, whether it sucked or not.   I checked the listings in San Diego, and there were a couple different time limits for each club.  3 minutes, 6 minutes, or 10 minutes.

3 minutes was definitely all I could do.  I’d be lucky if I could fill that much with all the rapid talking.  I wrote out my routine list and timed it.

12 minutes.

What the fuck??? I was sweating about filling 3 minutes with material when I had all that material to work with??  It shows that it really is never to early to just do something like this.  Usually it’s past due.  Not too late, just past due, meaning you still have to do it.

I trimmed it down to 6 minutes for the Comedy Co-op.  I had emailed my friend Darren the written comedy sheet and he thought it was hilarious.  I practiced again, and again, and again.  I invited a bunch of friends to come.  No one but Darren came, but he brought video equipment, that more than made up for the lack of other people.

When you’re about to perform, you get this anxiety, and a hint of nausea.  I’ve felt that way before doing karaoke before.  This was much worse than karaoke.  While I was pacing, waiting to go on, I heard “Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas come on.  That was my karaoke song!  How much I wished I could get up there and rap instead of tell jokes.  I felt really uncomfortable.

But then the night went on, and I saw some other people get on stage first.  Some were pretty good, but I felt a lot better when I saw some were rather terrible.  Nothing like knowing you’re not the worst player in the room to boost your confidence.

When it was my turn, I confidently went up and took the stage.  I was actually surprised how much better I felt on stage than being in the audience waiting to go up.  The light was shining in my eyes, partially blinding me,so it took care of a lot of the stage fright.  I went through my set and heard a lot of laughs.  I felt like I rocked it.  I was sure I’d be voted in the top four, and was easily the best of the night.

Didn’t quite work that way.

Not only did I not get in the top four, but I didn’t even get compliments from anyone after the show!  In fact, I got things like “So this is your first time, were you nervous?” or “Your writing was good,” which really means ‘your delivery wasn’t’ .   In fact, after I got off, the host said “Now that was great, this was probably Dan’s first time.”  I’d never met that dude before; he shouldn’t know that.

See, there’s an illusion when you’re on stage, that when people laugh, they really think your jokes are funny.  It actually turns out there are 4 types of laughs you get at a comedy show.

  1. Genuine laughs from people that liked your jokes.
  2. Polite laughs from people that appreciate you trying, or just because they felt they were supposed to laugh.
  3. Nervous laughs from when you make an awkward moment and the crowd just needs to release the tension.
  4. Laughs from only other comedians in the room, not because your jokes are funny, but because the comedians are just so warped from doing this for so long, they find rather odd things to be hysterical.

I realized this while I was sitting in the audience and watching people perform after.  Laughs don’t mean you’re funny.  That was a real shocker for me.  I later saw my whole performance on videotape and realized that my delivery was off on a lot of the jokes.  I didn’t feel bad about this, because it was my first time.   I understood was that while my material was solid, I just needed more practice telling the jokes to the audience.

Oh well, there will be other shows to come, but I’m glad I just got the first attempt out of my system.

If you’re thinking about trying stand-up, don’t wait til it’s good, just do it!  Most of the time, if it’s your first time up there, your delivery will suck so the audience won’t even know if your material was good or not.  :-)

–Dan

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous January 5, 2009 at 11:32 am

Thanks for the tips. I’ve written over 10 pages of comedy and I plan to do my first attempt at standup in March. I’m pretty nervous about my delivery and timing although I feel the material is fairly strong. We’ll see how it goes. Which is why I’m listed as anonymous.

2 Michael C September 25, 2009 at 9:35 pm

yeah man i agree. thats kinda how i envision my 1st time. fortunately ive always felt comfortable in front of ppl and have been working on my delivery for months. its odd though…. one day i just decided i was gonna do stand up so after dinner around 7 i sat down and started writing material. it was special to me because every bit was personal…. about my life anyway. and i just cant stop writing. its like a disease. im glad for this though

3 Dan June 7, 2011 at 12:59 am

Wow, this is almost the same for me. I’ve been putting it off for years! I have a binder full of ideas and bits to work on…. my three minutes was about 10 minutes long, AND my name is Dan too. I’m your doppelganger!!!! lol

I’m gonna go up this or next week. Thanks for letting me know I’m gonna suck ahead of time :) takes all the pressure off!

4 Kyla July 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Thanks for the advice! I’ve been waiting for two years to do my first stand-up. I did the same thing as you did, write pages upon pages of material, but the material was just not good enough. The only thing that really helped me for waiting was “pushing the envelope”. At first, I was hesitant to say anything that would make someone in the audience mad. After a while, I stopped caring and that’s when my jokes became funnier. Now that I have confidence in my jokes, I’m going to do my stand-up. I know it won’t be funny, but at least I can say I finally did it. Thanks again for writing this blog, it does help to know that you’re not the only one.

5 Carolyn September 18, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Thanks for the advice :) I’m doing stand-up for the first time tomorrow night, and I’m super nervous about it. But this makes me feel better :)

6 Dan September 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Thanks for posting, Carolyn! Good luck and let us know how you do!

7 greg williams October 4, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I did a whole 30 min in July for my first stand up. They died laughing the whole time. I always wanted to do it i love it and can’t wait till next time

8 Matt November 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I’m 16 and I’ve been more or less building up a set for the last two years. A lot of what I wrote down was either funny thoughts or small segments I could build up. Today when I was writing in a new idea for a joke in my iPhone (where I write all my jokes down), I accidentally deleted the ENTIRE joke section! Luckily, I was able to remember some of the jokes that were the best (in my opinion). I have been really pissed off all day, but now I feel a lot better now after reading this and I know I can make my routine even better than before. Thanks

9 Max March 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Any chance you’d post that video of your first time up?

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