Laughter may be contagious, but it’s hard to make an audience of strangers laugh night after night. Whether it’s telling jokes, doing impersonations, or sharing stories about their mother-in-law, stand-up comedians try their hardest to get the crowds to cackle. Mental_floss got in touch with a few stand-up comedians to learn more about what it’s like to try—and occasionally fail—to make people laugh for a living.
1. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS DEPRESSED.
Although many famous stand-up comedians have struggled with depression and substance abuse, the stereotype of an unhappy, insecure comedian is overblown. “There’s this pervasive perception that all stand-up comics are depressed, divorced, alcoholic losers at the end of their rope, but that's not the case these days,” explains Andrew Michaan, a comedian who lives in Los Angeles.
Michaan tells mental_floss that it’s possible to be a stand-up comedian while also being a happy and pleasant person: “Maybe [we’ll] … eventually be broken by impending emotional upheavals and the defeating nature of show business and the universe itself, but for now we’re defying stereotypes one well-adjusted smile at a time.”
2. DON’T ASK THEM TO TELL YOU A JOKE.
Although their job is to make people laugh, stand-up comedians draw a line between performing on stage and interacting with people in their daily life. If you discover that someone is a comedian, and your usual response is to demand a joke, you’re probably being annoying (sorry). Likewise, most comedians don’t want you to tell them jokes or funny stories, hoping that they’ll add it to their act. What’s funny to you may not be funny to a larger audience, and your story might not translate well to a stand-up act.
3. MOST OF THEM HAVE TO PAY TO PERFORM.
Unless they’re at the top of their game or have built a sizable following, most stand-up comedians have to pay for the chance to make you laugh. Beginning comics often practice their routine at open mic nights, where they may have to pay a cover and sit through hours of other newbie comics’ performances. After they’ve succeeded at open mic nights, comics usually perform at what’s known as “bringer shows"—events where they perform in exchange for guaranteeing the venue that they’ll bring anywhere from two to 15 friends (who will each pay for a ticket and drinks) to the venue.
4. THEY SPEND A LOT OF TIME WRITING.
Stand-up comic Chris Fairbanks says he’s often asked if he writes his own material. “All stand-ups do, or should,” he says, “unless they’re cheating and stealing from other comics. And if you’re having someone else write your jokes and doing them on stage as your own, then in my opinion, you’re an actor,” he explains.
But not just any writing will do: Comedians try to tell stories, particularly ones that will not only make an audience laugh but also connect emotionally. (One definition of a good story: it introduces a problem that needs to be solved, includes an element of vulnerability or fear, and concludes with a resolution to the problem.) Long before they ever step on stage, most comedians are putting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—drawing from their daily life, their family, or their romantic relationships to try and tell compelling, funny stories.
5. TO MAKE MONEY, THEY HIT THE ROAD.
Because some large cities have a surplus of comedians, it can be difficult to make money by performing shows in just one area. “We don't make any money doing shows in Los Angeles. Maybe you can make cab fare here and there in NYC, but LA comics have to leave the city and work the road to make an actual living,” Fairbanks explains. And because audiences in different cities have varying senses of humor and taste, some comedians alter their routine slightly to appeal to the locals—perhaps by referring to local sports teams, weather, or stereotypes about the city's residents.
6. THEY’RE PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION TO YOUR REACTION.
Until they try a new joke in front of an audience, stand-up comedians don’t know if their material will actually work. Even minor tweaks in tone and diction can elicit more laughs, so comedians have their ear fine-tuned to the crowd to determine what works and what doesn’t. And when a certain joke continually fails to elicit laughter from multiple audiences, comedians will remove it from their set.
Stand-up comedian Christina Lopez, who admits that it can take years to develop a killer 30-minute set, describes how she reacts instantly to what the audience is feeling: “As my act goes on, I feel the audience going in another direction and will literally switch jokes in my head to make my LPM (laughs per minute) go up. Kind of like some weird mind trick going on right before your eyes,” she explains.
7. THEY KNOW HOW TO GRACEFULLY HANDLE HECKLERS.
Audiences will sometimes include an individual so drunk and/or obnoxious they shout at the comedian and try to interrupt the show. But according to Michaan, it’s very rare to encounter someone who’s truly having a bad time and wants to ruin the show for the performer and audience. “What’s more common is someone who is enjoying themselves but doesn’t understand what’s expected of an audience member. They don't know the boundaries, and they talk too much and want to be involved,” he explains. To deal with that type of heckler, Michaan addresses the person, thanks them for being excited, and asks them to please stop talking. “I usually speak to them right on the border of nice and mean,” he says.
Jared Volle, a stand-up comedian who also trains other comedians at CreativeStandUp.com, adds that hecklers can give comedians an opportunity to improvise, be authentic, and add fun to the show. “Some of the greatest moments I’ve had on stage [were] due to some type of heckle … I see hecklers as an invitation to be real with the audience and to really connect with them,” Volle tells mental_floss.
8. IT’S STILL RARE TO SEE SUCCESSFUL FEMALE COMEDIANS.
Although comedians such as Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Tina Fey have achieved mainstream success, comedy is still largely a man’s world. Author and speaking coach Judy Carter says that when she was touring as a female stand-up comic in the late 1980s, the amount of sexism in the business always shocked her: “Most often I was introduced as an oddity—‘Are you ready for something different? We have a FEMALE stand-up!’” And she says sexism is still entrenched in the comedy world. “Still today I am shocked at the consistency of all-male lineups at comedy clubs,” she admits.
9. A SILENT AUDIENCE ISN’T THE END OF THE WORLD.
Although most comedians are terrified of the idea of bombing—performing to a silent crowd that doesn’t laugh or smile—a quiet audience can be an opportunity. “If you just plow ahead and do your normal material without mentioning [the silence and uncomfortable vibe], you’re going to continue to do poorly,” Michaan says. Rather than insult the audience, Michaan says he’ll start chatting with them to confront the silence head-on. Once he determines where the weird vibe is coming from, he can try to create a shared funny experience that brings the room together, then build from there. “Or I just run away crying. Either way,” he jokes.
10. DON’T TAKE EVERYTHING THEY SAY AT FACE VALUE.
To be conversational and topical, stand-up comedians often relate a story about something that happened to them recently, whether it was their dog’s trip to the veterinarian or their dishwasher breaking. But don’t take everything they say literally. When they’re on stage, comedians inhabit a persona, exaggerating certain qualities and glossing over others for comic effect. For example, comedians will often say that something happened to them recently when it really happened years ago—or may have never happened at all.
11. THEY’RE ADDICTED TO MAKING YOU LAUGH.
Struggling stand-up comedians put up with low (or no) pay, grimy clubs, and hours of bad open mic nights because they simply love to make people laugh. Being on stage, with the spotlight and everyone’s attention on them, makes them feel important and confident. And because laughter (or silence) is immediate and audible, stand-up comedians know right away whether they’ve been successful. This instantaneous feedback, and the sweet sound of laughter when their jokes kill, draw them back to the stand-up stage again and again.
All photos via iStock.