Your First Year In Standup Comedy

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   There is no more singly important year in a person’s comedy journey than the first one. There’s a whole lot going on in a lot of different areas, and trying to sort it all out as it unfolds can be the most difficult task of all. I had no clue what to do in my first year (and a lot more after that), and I think it’s important to bring up a few key points that can help make it as productive as possible.

As strange as it may appear, one of if not the least important parts of your first year in comedy is your actual act itself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely important to always work on making it better – but there’s only so far anyone can go in a year. There are other things that rank higher.

You’re basically back in first grade – or if you’re Canadian ‘grade one’. Is the actual content of what any kid writes with that big fat blue pencil important? Not in the least, but it’s not the point. The point is to learn how to get used to the process of what it takes to accomplish the task later.

Those first few attempts of anyone learning to write are pretty similar. They’re horrible, but it’s expected. Everyone has to start somewhere, and that’s why we have schools. ‘Art’ is even worse. Look at the pathetic attempts we all make in first grade to draw a picture of anything. It’s brutal.

Still, these beginning attempts often become placed in a position of exalted prominence on the side of the refrigerator. Why does this happen? It’s a matter of love. Parents don’t care about the art itself, they care about the one who did it. Unfortunately, entertainment doesn’t work like that.

Comedy or any other performance genre can be a very cruel business in a very cruel world. It’s cut throat, nasty and not for the weak of heart. I wish it weren’t like this, but it absolutely is. That shouldn’t stop you from pursuing it, but you need to know it’s a jungle out there. You need to get yourself ready for ultimate survival, and that requires an extremely thick skin and a set of tools.

The thick skin will come eventually from consistently getting on stage, but it won’t come in the first year. There are going to be some lumps, and there’s no way around it. If you don’t panic and just accept that it’s part of the process everyone must endure, it won’t be as scary as it may seem.

I keep referring to ‘the process’ – but that’s exactly what it is. It’s the step by step accumulation of individual firsthand experiences that grow to become one consistent body of work. That’s how a craft is learned, and that’s what standup comedy is. No one single event makes one a comedian.

Little events, strung together over years, add up to the collective. I’m trying to offer insider tips from someone who has been down that path, in order to prepare future travelers to make the most of their journey. There will still be hard work required, but it will hopefully pay more dividends.

That being said, I want to offer up a list of useful tools I wish I’d taken full advantage of when I started. Some were at my disposal, others weren’t. These are all things I highly recommend for anyone’s first year in standup comedy. It will lay a solid foundation on which to build upon later.

BOOKS TO OWN (AND READ – NOT JUST COLLECT DUST)

1)      ANYTHING BY GENE PERRET

New comedians of any era need to know who Gene Perret is. He was Bob Hope’s head writer for years, and if you don’t know who Bob Hope is there’s another assignment. ‘Old school’ can have a tendency to be looked down upon with disdain by young comics, but that’s a huge mistake. It’s something to be revered and learned from. I read Gene’s fantastic book ‘How To Write And Sell Your Sense Of Humor’ before I ever stepped on a stage, and I still have it – personally signed by Gene. He is a wonderful talent and an even better human being. He has several books and a very informative newsletter called ‘The Round Table’ which is affordable and packed with insight.

Other great books by Gene are ‘Successful Standup Comedy’, ‘Comedy Writing Step By Step’ and ‘Become a Richer Writer’. His focus is mainly on comedy writing, but he’s the master in my opinion – and a lot of others share that opinion. I get nothing from recommending him so highly other than I really mean it and know that if you study his works like I did you will improve a lot.

Gene’s daughter Linda is also someone you should know. She handles the subscriptions to The Round Table and has a website at www.comedywritersroom.com. Tell her I sent you, then order a book and get started. I still refer back to my library of Gene’s books to brush up on my skills.

2)      ‘COMEDY WRITING SECRETS’ by Melvin Helitzer

   This is another book to get your hands on early. There are a lot of easy to follow nuts and bolts concepts in it with excellent examples of great jokes to study to get a feel for the process. It’s not hard to find, and will serve you well for a lifetime. That’s another one I go back to over and over.

3)      ‘COMIC INSIGHTS – The Art of Standup Comedy’ by Franklyn Ajaye

Can be a challenge to find, but well worth it. This is a combination biography/how to book and packed with interesting and informative content. Ajaye himself is a veteran comedian with many TV and movie appearances to his credit and is a passionate student of the standup comedy game.

4)      ‘BRAIN DROPPINGS’ by George Carlin

   Basically, this is George’s comedy notebook printed into book form. There are bits and pieces and scraps of all kinds of ideas, and I dare you to open it randomly to any page and not find one or two things to make you laugh out loud. There are two more books following this one, but this is the best in my opinion. Also, his autobiography ‘Last Words’ is another recommended read.

5)      ‘THE COMEDY BIBLE’ by Judy Carter                                   

   I don’t know Judy extremely well, but I know her and respect her effort for decades to keep up with the pulse of standup comedy. Like Mel Helitzer’s book, there are excellent snippets from all kinds of sources compiled and put together in one place. It’s an excellent reference guide for contacts.

6)      ‘JOKE SOUP’ (and several other titles) by Judy Brown

   Judy has compiled the best jokes from a vast number of comedians ranging from the famous to the obscure, and put them into bite size digestible nuggets. Not only that, she arranged them into categories by subject matter. There are several of these books, and every one is a fantastic source of study for aspiring comedians or anyone else looking to dissect and analyze the joke process.

7)      ‘FINDING THE FUNNY FAST’ by Jan McInnis

   Jan comes from a corporate background, but has been doing standup comedy and doing it well for many years. This is yet another packed full source of practical tips or people starting out on a journey in comedy. Jan is on target, and this is a reasonably priced gem. www.theworklady.com.

8)      ‘THE SERIOUS GUIDE TO JOKEWRITING’ by Sally Holloway

Sally is a very nice lady from the U.K, and she approached me to ask if I would mind looking over her book and telling her what I thought. I’m recommending it on this list, so you’ll be able to correctly guess what my reaction was. This is a well written and helpful book and worth tracking down.

9)      ‘COMEDY AT THE EDGE’ by Richard Zoglin

   This is a biography of many of the comedians that made up the comedy scene of the 1970s and how it changed America. It has a lot of back stories and off stage information, and is a must read for anyone who wants to know the history of standup comedy – which should be all comedians.

10)   ‘COMIC LIVES’ by Betsy Borns

   Another one that can be a challenge to find, but I come across copies from time to time. When I do, I loan them out to other comedians to read and learn. This is also a biography, but about the next generation of comedians from the 1980s. Again, a must read for students of comedy history.

11)   ‘GREAT COMEDIANS TALK ABOUT COMEDY’ by Larry Wilde

This is probably the granddaddy of comedian biography books, and covers comedians a lot of people today have sadly never heard of even though they were giants in their day. There is also a series of audio recordings available at www.laugh.com.  Get the book at www.larrywilde.com.

12)   ‘IF I STOP I’LL DIE: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor’

   This is a warts and all biography of Richard Pryor, and I discovered it in a used book store. It’s a bit intense, but very interesting. Comedy is not for the squeamish, that’s for sure. This is a very real portrayal of a very complex human being – something most if not all standup comedians are.

This is not close to being a complete list by any means, but it’s an excellent starting point that will help lay a rock solid foundation on which to build in the coming years. Enjoy these books!

RECOMMENDED STANDUP COMEDY AUDIO AND VIDEO TO STUDY:

1)      ‘LENNY BRUCE – Let The Buyer Beware’ (CD)

This is a 6 CD anthology of the audio recordings of Lenny Bruce. Every new comedian should know who Lenny Bruce is, and what his place in comedy history is. It doesn’t mean anybody has to like his style or think he’s funny, but his place in history is unquestioned. Study his life story.

2)      ‘WOODY ALLEN: THE NIGHTCLUB YEARS 1964-1968’ – Rhino Records (CD)

Again, personal opinion about someone can taint the objectivity of their work. Woody Allen is an unbelievably prolific and multitalented performer, writer, director and musician. If there’s any other performer in the 20th Century who equaled his output of quality work, I can’t think of it. He is well worth studying on many levels, and his standup comedy is simply some of the best ever.

3)      ‘JOHNNY CARSON – The Best of The Tonight Show: Standup Comedians’ (DVD)

This is an amazing compilation of the first Tonight Show appearances of some of the very top names in standup comedy from Jay Leno to Jerry Seinfeld and many others. It’s an education in itself to watch the first television appearances of so many big names, and see how they have all evolved into what they’re known as today. Again, it’s always a process, and this is revealing. It can be ordered from www.johnnycarson.com and is an excellent investment in comedy study.

4)      ‘NO RESPECT’ and ‘WHAT’S IN A NAME’ – Rodney Dangerfield (CD)

   Rodney is a fascinating study on many levels, and these two audio recordings are proof. He put in his time and paid his dues and then some. The ‘No Respect’ recording is him just as his hottest period was kicking in during the early ‘80s. ‘What’s In A Name’ is him many years before, and a very different product. It’s educational to compare the two, and see how a superstar evolved over a significant period of time. I play these in class and rarely does anyone know it’s the same guy.

5)      ‘BRIAN REGAN LIVE’ – Brian Regan (CD)

   Brian Regan is quite simply one outstanding comedian. His style is his own, and his comedy is able to be enjoyed by anybody. I always preach in my classes “clean makes green” – as in money – and it’s true. Clean comedy done well is extremely difficult, but Brian Regan nails it. If you’re not a fan, I will hopefully turn you into one eventually. He delivers high quality product. www.brianregan.com.

6)      ‘EAT OUT MORE OFTEN’ (and others) – Rudy Ray Moore (Adults Only) (CD)

   For every yin there’s a yang. Brian Regan is ‘squeaky clean’, and Rudy Ray Moore is about as XXX rated as there is. He along with Redd Foxx and several others produced ‘party records’ for many years from the 1950s through the ‘70s. Richard Pryor rose from this pedigree and started a pedigree of his own. Again, this is not for everyone and is VERY adult in content. Still, it’s part of the big picture of standup comedy and historians of the game (you) should be aware of it all.

7)      ‘RODNEY DANGERFIELD – The Ultimate No Respect Collection’ (DVD)

This is a packed 3 DVD set of Rodney’s TV work, including classic ‘Tonight Show’ shots and his young comedians specials from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s  that featured the debuts of major names like Jeff Foxworthy, Tim Allen, Jim Carrey and others. There’s a lot to study with these.

8)      Anything by RICHARD PRYOR  (CD, DVD)

I must admit, I have never found Richard Pryor’s standup comedy funny. For whatever reason, he has just never done it for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect his influence, as I totally do. I also find him to be an extremely interesting case study – and so should you. He influenced a very large number of comedians, and comedy is always a matter of taste. He has my absolute respect.

9)      Anything by RICHARD JENI  (CD, DVD)

   I’ve been a fan of standup comedy all of my adult life, and I have never seen any comedian get as much from any one premise as Richard Jeni. He was an unbelievably proficient comedic mind and he left us way too early. When he digs into a topic, he DIGS IN. He’s the man when it comes to bearing the gold standard of fleshing out a comic premise. His technical skills are impeccable.

10)   PHYLLIS DILLER interviews (You Tube)

   This is a link to a wonderful series of interviews with the great Phyllis Diller. Old school? Yes. Relevant today? Absolutely. Phyllis Diller’s greatness lasted forty plus years at the elite level of the entertainment business, and her influence lives on today. http://youtu.be/Ma0FbWLSOcU

11)  ‘COMEDIAN’ – Jerry Seinfeld

   This is an excellent and all too accurate documentary of how the standup comedy game works, and I admire Jerry Seinfeld for having the guts to do it. This is a must for any aspiring comedian. Jerry Seinfeld is a master comedy technician, and there is a lot to learn in studying what he does.

12)   ‘DOBIE MAXWELL – The Dented Can’ (DVD) – ‘Hard Luck Jollies’ (CD)

   The only reason I’m including myself in such elite company is that I wanted to prove I am not just some babbling schmucko pontificating on something I know nothing about. I’ve practiced all I am preaching, and here’s some of my work to be hopefully enjoyed – but learn from it as well.

These are more than enough leads to get you started on your comedy journey, and will all serve you well as time passes and you can review them again and again. These are meant to inspire and educate, even if you don’t find it all funny. That’s ok. It’s your first year, just soak everything in.

I tried to list some more obscure and/or ‘older school’ sources, as those are not what everybody else is looking at. There are many places to learn and grow today, and I need to stay current with my own study. That’s great, but for educational purposes I wanted to give you a list of the classics to get started.

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“The Fundamental Fifty”

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   Taking the plunge into standup comedy is much like throwing a rock into a body of water. It begins the ripple effect process, and each one of those ripples has a separate identity. The same holds true in standup comedy. The first time on stage is a major step – then it’s over. Then, “The Dirty Dozen” is the focus. Getting those first 10-12 times on stage out of the way is key to one’s development.

After that comes what I call “The Fundamental Fifty”.  It may not be exactly fifty times, but it’s close. It could be more, but it’s rarely if ever any less. Basically, I’m talking about the process of what boils down to roughly the first year or so of being a comedian. It would be the equivalent of the time period between an infant’s birth to when it can walk alone. It’s a time of major growth.

This growth however unfortunately does not come without high risk of pain or even bloodshed. How many cute little babies have taken a nasty tumble while learning to walk and nick their head on the sharp corner of an end table, splitting it wide open? Too many to count. It’s a part of life.

The parents might launch into an immediate panic, but rarely if ever does it kill the baby. They take it to the doctor and the wound gets stitched up – often leaving a noticeable scar that lasts for a lifetime. Sometimes the scar is covered with hair eventually, other times it’s very prominent.

Comedy can leave some very prominent scars, but no matter how bad the wounds were at first they eventually heal. The scars are a more than gentle reminder to both those who have them and others who can see them (or at least they should be) that potential danger is around every corner.

The first year of performing standup comedy is a lot like the process of learning to walk. There are all kinds of sharp end tables around, and one quick spill could result in another trip to the doc to get the old coconut stitched up yet again. The important thing is to get back out there and keep walking. It won’t be pretty at first, but that’s not the point. Whenever you fall, get right back up.

My first year in comedy was less than stellar. It was pretty pathetic actually. There was just the one stage in Milwaukee where aspiring comedidans could get consistent stage time, and that was the jazz club Sardino’s where I went up my first time. That’s where I went every Monday – over and over and over again, often performing exclusively to other comedians, bar staff and drunks.

Sometimes I did fairly well, but far more often than not it was an all you can eat futility buffet where nothing I said or did got any reaction from anyone. Nothing. Silence. Not a laugh, giggle, titter, chuckle, chortle, peep, snort, cough – zilch. They gawked at me like I was from Uranus.

Those nights weren’t pleasant, but that’s what it takes to get any kind of real experience under the belt and is a necessary step to anyone’s growth. I didn’t enjoy standing alone in total silence, even though it was only for five minutes. Five minutes can seem like five lifetimes when nobody is laughing at what you thought was hilarious when you thought of it. It’s a humbling experience.

Note that I didn’t say it was a bad or negative experience, I just said it was humbling. And it is. But in retrospect that was exactly what I needed to have happen to learn where the parameters of what I was trying to accomplish were. It was very painful at the time, and it did leave some scars.

Fortunately, those were the kind of scars where the hair grew over them and nobody sees them today. I always laugh when somebody comes up after a show and says “You are SUCH a natural up there.” Ha. Maybe now, but that person should have seen how badly I stunk it up at Sardino’s.

This is true with any performer in any genre. We truly all do need to start somewhere, but it’s a lot better to do it with a plan or at least an understanding of what to expect. If you decide to make comedy your life’s pursuit, you’ll need to go through all these steps whether you realize it or not.

I went through all these steps myself, but I didn’t know it at the time. I just kept on showing up and going on stage whenever and wherever I could, and I had no plan. I eventually figured it out, but it took way longer than it should have because I didn’t know exactly what I was working on.

I didn’t know what the term ‘seasoning’ meant, much less that I badly needed it. We all do, and the only way to get it is to get out there and keep going through the process. When I started, there was just the one lone outlet for comedy in my town. It was held once a week on Monday nights.

I made it a point to build my life around those Monday nights, as that was the only stage time I could get for probably a solid six months. After that, I discovered there were a couple of clubs in Chicago that put up new comedians and I began making my way down there whenever I could.

That was 90 miles away at the time and I had a difficult time getting there, but I did what I had to do for a chance to get that precious stage time. I knew it was important, and I was correct. My gut instincts were dead on, even though I wasn’t sure exactly how to execute them. Making it out to the actual clubs themselves became the issue as much or more than the process of performing.

I remember my car breaking down more than once, and another time I took a bus and happened to miss the last one home and had to spend the night in the bus station. I even hitch hiked once in a while, depending on if I could find a ride or not. Whatever it took, I was willing to do it. I often wondered what if anything any of that had to do with comedy, but it had everything to do with it.

It made me focus on the goal, and it gave me singleness of purpose. The whole process of what I had to do to not only get to a club but after I got there was very important. Sometimes I went up early in the show, other times late. Sometimes I got bumped and didn’t get up at all. It gave me a wide variety of experiences and perspectives, and forced me to grow whether I wanted to or not.

I had no idea how important this was at the time, and neither do most beginners now. We’re all preoccupied with ‘making it big’ or ‘getting discovered’ – but in fact this is laying the foundation for it. Take any pressure off yourself for the first year you’re performing. You need to get used to the process of getting to the club, getting a spot, going up at different times and locations and any number of other things that have nothing to do with one’s actual act. This is what ‘seasoning’ is.

“The Dirty Dozen”

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   Every live performer who earns a living in front of an audience no matter the genre can always remember in vivid detail their very first time on stage. Good or bad, it’s a memory that will never go away and is true for anyone and everyone from actors to musicians to comedians to strippers.

That first time on stage is a life milestone, like losing one’s virginity or graduating high school. From my experience of watching hundreds if not thousands of people try standup comedy for the very first time, I’d have to say it’s a lot more meaningful to do than to watch. It is rarely exciting from an audience member’s point of view, but a very crucial step in the performance process.

Taking that first leap and getting on stage takes unbelievable courage, and those who do it have my immediate respect and admiration. I’ve been there myself, and not everyone has the intestinal fortitude to get up there and actually make it happen. Actions do speak much louder than words.

I can remember my first time on stage as a comedian like it was yesterday. It was at a jazz club in Milwaukee that has long been torn down called ‘Sardino’s’, which is where Al Jarreau started his singing career. It was a Monday night comedy showcase, and I had no intention to perform.

The host that night was a wonderful soul named C. Cardell Willis who would eventually be my comedy mentor and close friend. Cardell asked at the end of the show if anyone wanted to get up and try comedy, and my hand shot up before my sense of reason could stop it. I had no preset act whatsoever, but I had seen the other acts that night and quite frankly wasn’t impressed by them.

I remember walking on stage to a smattering of applause, and turning around and seeing a light in my face that looked like I was about to be abducted by a flying saucer. My mind was erased of any and all ability to remember anything, and time itself screeched to a jolting halt. It was scary.

I did have the presence of mind to know I needed to say something, so I fumbled and stumbled my way through about four minutes which seemed like four years of hard prison time. I couldn’t get my lips and tongue to work, and my legs felt like noodles. It was an out of body experience.

But somewhere close to the time I was about to get off stage, I noticed a couple making out at a table in the front row. It was distracting, and I found it to be extremely insulting for them to do it in the middle of my maiden voyage into comedy superstardom. I wish I could recall exactly how I worded it, but I ad libbed a line about the guy having better hands than the Green Bay Packers.

It got a solid laugh, much more than anything else I had said. That was my first hit of comedy heroin, and I have been hopelessly hooked ever since. That zap of electricity that permeated my entire body was the biggest rush I have ever felt before or since. That amazing buzz is what has kept me coming back all these years. Unless one experiences it firsthand, it’s difficult to put into mere words how intoxicating that feeling is. I hope everyone alive gets to share that experience.

I often wonder what would have happened had I not gotten that first big laugh on my first night on stage. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t nearly as big as I remember it but for a total rookie as I was it was an electrifying sensation for the ages and it changed my life forever in a positive way.

I wish I could say it went skyward from there and the rest was entertainment history. Not so by a long shot. It was more like entertainment heresy, as I kept making a mockery of what I thought comedy was supposed to be. I don’t recall many details from my next several attempts other than I didn’t come close to equaling that dramatic pop I got on my first night. It all melted into a blur.

I don’t remember a whole lot of what any of my material was back then other than two or three painfully weak premises, but I know I had no clue as to how to present any of it in an interesting or entertaining manor to the ‘audience’ at Sardino’s – which was mostly made up of comedians.

The degree of difficulty was extremely high, but I knew I wanted to continue and work past the beginner level. For all the stupid things I did – and there were many – I did have the right idea of knowing I needed to keep doing it to get better. I kept going back every week and throwing in all the wacked out ideas that would strike me. I was clueless, but I knew it so I just kept showing up.

I watched the other comedians closely, looking to learn as much as I could from both the good and the not so good. I learned that was very possible, and I didn’t judge anyone. I was there for a chance to improve, and I absolutely did over time. But those first dozen or so times were brutal.

I tried anything and everything from wearing ‘funny pants’ to acting ‘extra wacky’ on purpose, whatever that means. I was trying to figure out the magic secret that might help me get laughs in any way possible, and I thought it would just come to me if I got up there and looked for it. How naive that was, but I’ve seen countless others do it after me and I still see it today. It’s a mistake.

For the official record, there has never been and never will be any magic secret, formula, pill or bean that will replace the only real ingredient that will make anyone better – HARD WORK and lots of it. This is one of the few rules that has no exceptions, and the sooner one realizes that and accepts it the faster real progress can be made. ‘Shortcuts’ actually take much longer in the end.

The only way to get better is to keep getting on stage over and over and over again, and then it has to happen some more. Stage time to a comedian is like oxygen, but there should be a purpose and a plan in place to benefit the most from it. It’s like working out at a gym. There needs to be a  well structured workout plan in place, not just random roaming between barbells and machines.

Those first dozen times on stage are probably going to be pretty rough for everybody at least at some point. You’ll blank out and forget all your material or have to follow a hot act that lights up the stage right before you go on. Any number of things could rattle your cage, so just roll with it.

My friend Bill Gorgo wisely suggests not asking how you did those first few times, but instead asking how you felt. That’s much more important, and I completely agree. You won’t be brilliant your first dozen times. Plow through anyway, and know “The Dirty Dozen” has a useful purpose.

Are You A Comedy Pig?

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   My grandfather was by far the single biggest positive influence of my entire childhood. I freely admit that if it weren’t for him and his time tested wisdom, chances are sky high I would be dead or in federal prison by now. Even with all of his guidance, I still almost ended up both of those.

Gramps had an amazing gift of cutting through extemporaneous fluff and getting straight to the point on any topic. He had a vast storehouse of clever little sayings, rhymes and bromides socked away in the filing cabinet of his brain and he’d whip one out whenever any situation called for it.

One of many I’ll never forget is: “The difference between involvement and commitment is like the difference between bacon and eggs. The chicken was involved – but the pig was committed.”

Are you only just involved in standup comedy, or are you totally committed? If comedy were a prison sentence, would you be looking to get off on a technicality, or would you be a lifer having no chance whatsoever of parole? It doesn’t matter which one you are, but you do need to know.

If you aren’t immediately sure, chances are you’re only involved. Again, that’s not a bad thing. Very few people ever find their true calling in any field. There are precious few who make a long term lifetime commitment to anything – and even then there’s no guarantee at all of their success.

Just because someone wants something unfortunately doesn’t mean they’re going to get it. The odds of anyone reaching the tippy top of any profession are beyond astronomical, but that isn’t a reason to avoid an all out attempt at it. It’s just wise to know what one is getting one’s self into.

When I was in high school, I had the good fortune of being a ball boy for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. I got an up close opportunity to observe firsthand the behind the scenes lifestyle of the NBA in the 1970s. It was a fantastic education, even though not at all what I had expected.

The biggest revelation I had was no matter how big a superstar anyone might be, there is still a human being in the mix somewhere. Nobody is defined by what they do, even though that’s what the public may only recognize. All of us are a lot of things, and nobody is without shortcomings.

One encounter as a ball boy that will stay with me forever was getting a chance to interact one on one with Julius Erving – the biggest star of the day. “Dr. J” was the man, and I had the chance to talk to him in the locker room one night before a game. He couldn’t have been any friendlier.

He told me he loved playing basketball so much he would do it for free if he had to, but he was not about to make that information public. He said if anyone can do that in life, nothing else will matter. I never forgot that moment, and I think he’s absolutely correct. Dr. J was a basketball pig, and I mean that in a very positive way. I am a comedy pig. I’m going to do it whether or not they pay me, and once in a while they don’t. What side of this fence are you on? You’re the only one who can answer, but you really do need to know. If you’re in it for life, there’s no turning back.

Standup Comedy In The 21st Century – New Tricks For An Old Dog

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   As painful as it is to admit, I have finally become the cantankerous old curmudgeon comedian I used to make fun of and swore up and down I would never become. I don’t know how it actually happened, but it totally did. One day I just woke up and realized I was “that guy”. How sneaky.

When I was starting out, I can remember hearing a lot of the headliners I’d get to meet whining nonstop about anything and everything to anyone who would listen. Since I was hungry to eat up all the inside information and learn all I could about the craft of comedy, I listened with interest.

One after another, the veteran road dogs would piss and moan about a variety of subjects from how filthy the hotel they were staying in was to how early their flight out of town was after their week of shows was completed. To a greenhorn newbie like me, their attitudes came off as harsh.

I couldn’t believe anyone who was making a living telling jokes would have anything on Earth to possibly complain about. They were doing exactly what I aspired to, and I couldn’t understand why they weren’t all turning cartwheels of joy in the streets celebrating their triumphant victory.

How naïve and just plain stupid I was then. I hadn’t yet come to comprehend the complexity of  the human animal, nor had I had any road experience of my own. As I came up the ranks myself, I got to experience firsthand how brutal an existence road life can be. It’s not for the squeamish.

In one’s youth, the call of the open road can be intoxicating. It clamps a vise like steel trap grip around one’s soul and doesn’t let go…for a time anyway. There’s always a new place to see and new friends to meet and new stages to work. Being on the road was a calling, and I answered it.

I came up the ranks in comedy clubs during the boom years of the 1980s. That was the golden era, and old croakers like me who experienced it remember how amazing it was. None of us had a clue it wasn’t always going to be like that, but sure enough like everything else it had to end.

Or did it?  I don’t think there has ever been an end to live entertainment – only periods of hot or cold. Times have changed as they continuously do, and live entertainment had to either evolve or exit stage left. Ever since the first caveman farted and the second one lit it, live entertainment has been in a state of continuous evolution. Smart eyes will watch for trends, but also study history.

As scary as it seems, I’ve been around long enough to see quite a few significant changes take place on the comedy landscape. I’ve seen it at the very pinnacle, and also at the deepest depth of despair. I’ve seen standup comedy in America as we know it evolve, and it still is. It never stops.

The 21st Century has changed the entire playing field, not just in comedy but life itself as we’re used to it. Technology has taken over, and like it or not there’s not much we can do but climb on board and embrace it. The old schoolers like me are like blacksmiths when cars came along. We have to stop making horseshoes and start making car parts. If we don’t, we’re all out of business.

But what about someone who is starting out in the 21st Century? I can babble on about the ‘80s all I want, but that’s not going to help someone getting in the game today. I realize that, and I am well aware that we are in a completely different world in many ways. Still, there are fundamental points that haven’t changed since caveman times and never will. Let’s examine a few of those.

First, let’s look at the climate of standup comedy today. When I started, comedy was starting to get hot across America and I rode the wave as I came up the ranks. Demand was high and supply wasn’t, so I was able to bring in a livable wage as an opening act by the time I was 22 years old.

There was plenty of work everywhere, as every two bit town in America with a comma in their population total had at least a one nighter if not a full time comedy club. Some towns had two or more comedy venues, and depending on the booking situation sometimes I could work them all.

Did I get rich? No, but I was able to get out and learn my craft onstage and get seasoned on the road offstage. Constantly touring in one’s 20s is the rock star gypsy lifestyle for sure, and I loved every minute of it then. I had no idea it wasn’t always going to be that way, as nobody else did.

Nobody had to sell merchandise, because we could make enough to live on just by performing. Booking agents often had large chunks of territorial work, and with one phone call several weeks of quality work could be booked – and often twice a year. It really was an amazing era for us all.

The 21st Century is nothing like that. Every halfwit hillbilly who has ever gotten free tickets to a comedy show thinks it’s easy money and wants to get their piece of the pie. Like the gold rush, visions of the good life attract hordes from all over looking to stake their claims. It’s utter chaos.

The comedy club scene is shrinking by the hour, and clubs that have been around for years are no longer the cash cows they once were. What used to be full week gigs have dwindled down to a night or two and one nighters that ran and were successful for years have vanished altogether.

On top of that, the internet has made it possible for anyone anywhere to see any comedian that has ever stepped on a stage – for free. Why should anyone get dressed up, drive to a comedy club and pay a significant cover charge in addition to buying overpriced watered down drinks and bad snacks to see someone who may or may not be funny? They shouldn’t, and that’s the deal killer.

The paradigm used to be that attending a comedy club would be a fun experience. A customer may not have heard of any of the acts on the show, but it didn’t matter. Comedy was the product being sold, and there were enough good ones to keep the quality high enough to stay in business.

It’s not like that in the 21st Century. Comedy clubs have to compete with many other forms of entertainment, and people want to know what they’re getting. Name acts are more important than ever, even if their actual act isn’t all that strong. People who buy tickets want to see a celebrity.

But what about someone who wants to get started who isn’t a celebrity? What’s the best way to start out in the 21st Century in a severely overcrowded field? Here are some things to think about.

10 TIPS FOR STARTING OUT IN STANDUP COMEDY IN THE 21st CENTURY

1)      KNOW THE CURRENT CLIMATE

   Standup comedy is a very saturated market right now, and there are way too many fighting for way too few spots. That’s just how it is, and it’s not good or bad. If you are firm in your decision and commitment to become a comedian, it doesn’t matter what the situation is. If it’s in you, it’s in you. Go for it – but know you’ll have to work even harder than in past generations. That’s life.

2)      DON’T DEPEND ON COMEDY CLUBS ONLY

   This isn’t the ‘80s, where comedy clubs were everywhere and anyone with even half an idea of wanting to try comedy could get ample stage time. It’s not like that anymore, and stage time is an incredibly precious commodity. Much more ingenuity must be used to get in front of audiences.

3)      RUN YOUR OWN SHOWS

   More and more new comics have taken to this than ever before, but I would highly recommend consulting with someone who has done it before to avoid unnecessary pitfalls. Observe a quality show being run first rather than run out and mangle it by yourself. Be careful, but give it a shot.

4)      HAVE OTHER PROJECTS IN THE MIX

    Gone are the days when just telling jokes can make a decent living for someone starting out in standup comedy. Flex your funny muscles in other ways by writing jokes for other comedians or greeting cards or maybe start a movie script. Whatever it is, always be looking for extra income.

5)      SEEK OUT A FLEXIBLE DAY JOB

   This is an unfortunate necessity in the real world for most people in any entertainment genre. It doesn’t have to be miserable, but pick something with flexibility so if you move anywhere you’ll be able to hopefully have a source of income if needed. Pick a chain with locations everywhere.

6)      FIND A MENTOR WITH EXPERIENCE

   You simply don’t have time to make all the mistakes I made by yourself. You need to come up with a plan, and work that plan. Hanging around only other newbies won’t make you better but it will make you bitter a lot sooner than you need to be. Learn from the generation ahead of you.

7)      BE EXTREMELY WARY OF LOW RENT BOGUS ‘COMEDY CLASSES’

   I say this with sincerity, and I have taught comedy classes since 1995. Since then, I have seen a bumper crop of snakes, fakes and scam artists ooze out from between the cracks trying to ‘teach’ standup comedy when in fact they have never done it. It infuriates me, as they’re stealing money from people who don’t know they’re being stolen from. I don’t have a problem with anyone who teaches who has done it, but be very careful before you spend your money. Few are competent.

8)      KEEP YOUR ACT OFF THE INTERNET FOR AT LEAST FIVE YEARS

   This is probably the most useful piece of advice you can hear, even if it sounds completely off base at first. Comedy is difficult, and nobody starts on top. The smart way to do it is to stay away from anyone who can see you begin. Pay your dues – THEN wow everyone. But until then, it’s a big mistake to throw up all your open mic sets on You Tube for all to see. Would you show off a picture of your old dirty diapers? Of course not, but that’s what you’re doing when you do that.

I’ve seen far too many comedians on all levels throw everything they’ve ever done out there on the internet for free, and I never figured out why. Yes, I’ve got quite a few clips out there myself – but it’s not my whole act. Why should anyone want to pay you to perform when they can see you for free online at any time? Does the grocery store give away free food? They give you a little bit of a sample once in a while, but that’s it. If you want the whole frozen pizza, you have to buy it.

I know it’s a giant hit to the ego, but smart business says to keep something in reserve that isn’t available anywhere else but seeing you live. Jay Leno has always been a huge proponent of this, and he’s done more than ok with it. Have you ever seen a Jay Leno CD or cable special? Nope. If you want to see Jay’s act, you have to HIRE Jay to perform it. And he will – for a substantial fee.

9)      LEARN TO USE SOCIAL MEDIA CORRECTLY

   Just because you should leave your act off the internet for years doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be on it at all. It’s a necessary evil of the 21st Century, but there are ways to do it correctly and ways to be viewed as nothing more than a cyber pest. If you’re not good at social media, find someone who is and hire them to help you succeed. Have your internet presence grow along with your act.

There are so many changes happening so quickly, it’s impossible to give nuts and bolts ways of exactly how to do it, but some forethought should be used just like with everything else. When is a website needed? That’s hard to say and the answer changes all the time, but a total newbie does not need to have an elaborate website in my opinion. Get an ACT first, and that will take a while.

10)   DON’T BE A MERCHANDISE WHORE

   This is another offshoot of the 21st Century that’s completely different than ever before. I get it that comedians need to pay the bills, but becoming a human flea market isn’t what the comedy world should be about. Audiences have bills too, and they don’t need to be bothered on the way out of a venue by mediocre at best opening acts trying to unload cheaply made t-shirts and DVDs burned on their home computers for outrageous prices. This makes comedy look extremely bad.

If you think you’re ready to come out with a product of any kind, please make sure it’s one that you’d be proud to buy yourself. Put some time, effort and money into it and respect yourself and the business enough to make it the very best quality you can offer. That alone will shoot you way ahead of the 99% of everyone else who throw anything together in desperation trying to rustle up gas money to get home. Have some class, and pay your dues before ‘releasing’ your 12th bad CD.

What Is The Maxwell Method Of Standup Comedy?

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   I wish I had a shiny new nickel for every time somebody asked who or what Dobie Maxwell is, and why they should care. In all honesty, they really shouldn’t care – unless they want to embark upon a journey to become a consistently effective working standup comic. If so, I can be of help.

Standup comedy has been my love, passion and pursuit for most of my life. I grew to enjoy and appreciate everything about it as a teenager, and shortly thereafter I began doing it myself. There were no rules, guidelines or instruction manuals to consult before I started, so I was forced to just get out there and wing it by the seat of my pants. I wouldn’t recommend anyone ever doing that.

I sure wore through the seat of those pants quickly, and proceeded to hit bare flesh. I made one stupid mistake after another, and there were precious few I could go to for any kind of pertinent advice or practical help. I hacked my way through the jungle on my own, and it wasn’t pleasant.

Did I learn the craft and earn my stripes? YES! Without question, I sacrificed having whatever a ‘normal’ life is, and threw myself completely into chasing my dream. I slept on couches, drove rattle trap cars to all four corners of North America, ate cans of beans and whatever else I needed to do to survive – and I did. Eventually, I was able to live my dream and be a full time comedian.

That was just the beginning of my problems. The deeper I got into the business, the less I knew what to do to get to the next level. I saw the depth of what it was all about, and it was completely overwhelming and intimidating. I wanted to be among if not THE very best that ever stepped on a stage, and I thought if I could achieve that my life would be set. Nothing could be more wrong.

I learned through painful trial and error (mostly error) that the pursuit I was engaging in wasn’t only about who was the funniest person. I learned this whole thing is a BUSINESS, and that’s an unavoidable and never changing fact. The people in charge don’t really care about the process of what it takes to develop an act. They only want to sell it and take their cut. That’s just how it is.

The majority of the worst problems I’ve had to overcome for the long haul have been either off stage or business related. My onstage development has progressed quite nicely, mostly due to the fact that I became a student of the game early and have made it a priority throughout my lifetime.

One of many distractions I’ve had to overcome was getting into the radio field. I thought I’d be able to have ‘stability’, and build a ‘normal’ life. Ha! That’s a whole lot funnier than some of the material I’ve used on stage, and again I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was fired five times in all four time zones in North America, but through all of it I never stopped working on my craft.

I was never a ‘radio guy’; I was a standup comic who had a morning radio show. In my mind, I have always been and will always be a comedian first and foremost. If I happen to land an acting role, host a game show, join a band or anything else – I am always going to be a comedian first.

Standup comedy is what I do and who I am. I love it more today than I did when I started, and I am still learning and growing on a consistent basis. NOBODY can take away my years of hard earned practical hands on experience, and I am choosing to use that experience to be a mentor to those coming up the ranks who choose to tap into what I’ve learned. The smart ones will benefit.

I don’t claim to know everything about comedy, but neither should anyone else. There are new twists all the time, and exceptions to every rule. Everyone’s journey is different, but I have found there are a lot of fundamentals that are crucial to success no matter who or when is talked about.

I’m not the first person to dig into the nuts and bolts of what makes comedy work, but I’ve had a lifetime to test out my theories in the real world and whatever I say about anything comes from being out in the trenches and personally witnessing how things really are. I speak from the heart, and even though I have strong opinions I’m never pig headed enough to think my word is gospel.

What I am and always will be is a perpetual student of the game. My level of experience has an angle few others can boast, and I want to use it to serve as an instructor much like sports coaches implement their systems on players. In the baseball world, there have been a number of coaching philosophies of people like Charley Lau or Walt Hriniak on hitting or Johnny Sain on pitching.

Not everyone agreed with everything any of these people said. Some swore by them, but others swore at them. There is no single system of anything that can be touted as a guaranteed “one size fits all” success blueprint, and I don’t claim that at any time. I’ve been teaching live classes since 1995 and every once in a while there will be some genius who fights me tooth and nail. So be it.

I don’t apologize for anything I ever say when it comes to the fundamental approach of how to do standup comedy. Quite frankly, I’ve earned that right. I am open to intelligent discussion and questions, and in fact encourage exactly that. That’s the whole purpose of why I do this, it allows me to stay close to the source. Not only can I help others, I can also keep my own skill set sharp.

Did Colonel Sanders invent fried chicken? Of course not, but he did put his face on the bucket and sold the world on his particular recipe. It may or may not be the best, but it sure is known all over the world. It’s good enough for a large enough number of people to keep the business alive.

That’s what I’m doing by calling my style “The Maxwell Method of Standup Comedy”. I don’t claim to be an authority on any other topic in the entertainment field – even morning radio, which I have done more than twenty years. I am not an actor, improviser, script writer or anything other than a standup comic. I respect the craft enough to know that’s plenty to focus on. It’s a handful.

Taking on the entire task from ground zero is overwhelming to say the least, not to mention not smart. I did it because I had no other choice, but those years of blind wandering sure took a huge toll. What I’ve done is broken the process up into digestible pieces to be addressed individually.

Anyone starting out on a long journey is wise to have not only a final destination in mind, but a full load of supplies for the trip. That’s my goal in creating this course of study. There’s a plan.

HERE’S THE BREAKDOWN OF WHAT THE MAXWELL METHOD ENTAILS –

   There are so many facets involved in the entire process of being successful in standup comedy it can be quite intimidating to list them all. Every one of the individual ingredients has their own list of subtleties, and it takes decades to go through the process needed to master each of them.

You don’t have time for that now. What you and everyone starting out need to focus on are the correct steps needed to build a solid foundation on which a career can be built. There is a logical process involved just like with toddlers. First they crawl, then they walk, then they run. Here too.

I’m assuming if you’re reading this you don’t have all that much practical hands on experience onstage as a comedian. That’s not an insult, just a fact. You may THINK you know what it takes to be successful, but that isn’t always the case. Here is the logical order of what needs to be done.

First – you’ll need to have a final destination. Where do you think you want to end up?

   Not having a goal or final destination in mind is asking for all kinds of trouble – not to mention bitter disappointment. When you get on an airplane, do you have an idea where it will end up? If not, who knows where it will land? Would you agree to an arranged marriage? Those rarely have success, but then again neither do ‘normal’ ones. Still, it’s crucial to have a battle plan to follow.

I had a plan when I started, foggy and naively vague that it was. I wanted to be the funniest one in my hometown of Milwaukee, and eventually become a solid headliner in top comedy clubs all over North America. I also wanted to appear successfully on national TV and be on the radio.

I managed to do all of those things, but when I achieved them I realized I wasn’t even close to being ‘happy’ or ‘satisfied’. There was and is a lot more to it, and I’m just now working on how to figure it all out. Hopefully, my perspective will save you years of your own misguided ideas.

Next – you’ll need a solid five minutes of funny polished original material to start.

   That may not sound like a lot, but believe me it’s extremely difficult. To do this correctly takes a long time and a lot of hard work. I’m not talking about standing on a stage with your thumb up your poop shoot for that long – I’m talking about well crafted jokes with setups and punch lines.

I break everything down into five minute chunks, as that’s much easier than trying to start from zero and come up with an hour long headline act. Much more on this later, but for now let’s keep things simple and manageable. Five minutes is enough to keep you busy for the next five years.

Lastly – you’ll need a strong sense of purpose and a source of guidance along your journey.

   I’ve heard standup comedy referred to as a sickness. I can’t say that’s false, and those like me who are ‘lifers’ will never be able to stay away from it completely. I’m going to be doing this for as long as I’m able to draw breath. Those are the people I’m looking to help, as I am one of them and always have been. I am your tour guide for a thrill packed adventure. Welcome to the jungle!

Dobie’s Disclaimer

   I have had a lifelong love affair with standup comedy. I’m not ashamed to admit it, and there is nothing I can ever do to separate myself from it. It has managed to successfully capture my heart, soul and especially my mind. Try as I might to escape its clutches, I only feel the grip get tighter.

And as happens in any intensely passionate love relationship, there have been amazing ups and downs and ins and outs and off the wall events I never could have expected or predicted. If I had known I was in store for this much intensity, I’m not so sure I’d have agreed to take the journey.

Too bad for me, I took it anyway. Now here I sit, decades later, looking back over the pathway I chose. From this perspective it’s super easy to see what I could have and should have done, but I didn’t have the luxury of this viewpoint as I made my trip. I did what I did with the information I had at a given time. Each and every mistake I made helped me learn what to do the next time.

And boy, were there the opportunities to learn. I made every possible mistake there could ever be made both on stage and off, and I even invented a few that had never been made before. I was completely clueless when I started out in comedy, and I had to learn by trial and error. The good thing was I wasn’t afraid to try. The bad thing was I had no plan and that lead to needless errors.

Had I only known what to do and when to do it, I would have had a much more productive and lucrative career. Unfortunately, there weren’t many who were willing to help when I started. But those precious few who were are still held in high esteem in my eyes to this very day. They gave me hope and inspiration more than anything else, but there were some useful hints thrown in too.

The people who helped me in my early years might not be household names, but that’s not the point. They were masters of their craft, and they did standup comedy because they loved it. They passed their knowledge and experience on to me, and I have in turn done my best to pass it along to others. That process is important to me, and if I help you all I ask is that you pass it forward.

Kindhearted mentoring comedians like C. Cardell Willis, Danny Storts, Gary Kern, Kyle Nape, Tim Cavanagh, John Fox, Larry Reeb and others were very instrumental in my early years. Even those who weren’t very nice taught me a lot whether they knew it or not. I was determined to get to where I wanted to be, and I wasn’t about to let anything or anyone get in my way. I had goals.

To go along with those goals, I also had a smart mouth. I thought I knew more than I did, and I paid the price for it – and what a high price it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but I sure screwed myself out of a lot of opportunities with just a few mistakes. It was painful, but I sure did learn.

One very important thing I’ve learned is that the learning process itself never stops for anyone at any level. Nobody ever ‘gets there’, and that’s both maddening and comforting. There are new things to learn on every level, but that’s part of what keeps things fresh and interesting for us all.

My reasons for serving as a mentor figure for aspiring comedians on all levels are many. First, I just think it’s the right thing to do. It’s simple human kindness, and there is far too little of that in any field in my opinion. I know exactly how difficult and intimidating the process of standup comedy is, especially in the beginning. I also know how great it feels to receive encouragement.

Second, I feel it helps comedy as a whole and I’m all for that. Better comedians make for better shows in the long run, and hopefully it will attract more fans for future generations. This isn’t the same world it was when I started, and there are more sources of entertainment than ever before. I have always been a fan of live performing, and doing that well is a craft that takes years to hone.

Thirdly, it keeps me close to the fundamentals of the craft. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of the daily grind of the business part of being an entertainer, but being around those starting out on their journey gives me a constant source of fresh positive energy. Plus, responsibility of setting a good example helps me to do just that. It keeps me on my toes, and helps maintain good habits.

Like I said, I am in love with standup comedy. I loved it before I ever did it, and when I did it I loved it even more. I dedicated my entire adult life to it, and even though I didn’t always receive exactly what I wanted how and when I wanted it I’ve found the good has far outweighed the bad.

If comedy were prison, I’d be a ‘lifer’. As long as my heart keeps beating, I’ll be looking to get on a stage somewhere to entertain a live audience. It’s who I am and what I do, and I would do it whether or not anyone ever paid me again. At this point it’s more than a craft – it’s an obsession.

I think for anyone to have a chance to be truly all they can be, there has to be that kind of solid dedication to the point of insanity. There has to be a NEED to be on that stage, and all the major stars in any performance genre share it. They want to be the best, and they give their all to do so.

I have definitely given my all, and continue to improve constantly as a comedian. The on stage part has not been a problem. My biggest mistakes were off stage, but that’s not the focus of what I intend to cover with my forthcoming series of articles. I might discuss off stage things at some point, but the majority of my focus will be on the nuts and bolts of improving one’s stage show.

There are more than enough angles to cover with that alone, and I will start out slowly and put my thoughts into bite size nuggets someone starting out can easily digest. Whatever I say comes from decades of firsthand experience, but I am always open to discussion and input on any topic.

All of that being said, I still need to make the following disclaimer: I CANNOT AND DO NOT CLAIM TO BE ABLE TO ‘MAKE YOU FUNNY’. It’s just not possible. Anyone who says they can is a flat out liar. Period. Nobody can ‘make’ anyone funny. My intent is to focus on the craft.

I use my years of hands on practical experience to dissect details of what I feel it takes to make the most out of an individual’s natural abilities. What I say comes with a lot of thought behind it, but there are exceptions to every rule. It all takes hard work, and for that there are no exceptions. Unfortunately, hard work alone is not the only requirement. There needs to be a plan of action.