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.