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Advice from a Failed Comedian

The Do's and Don'ts of Stand Up Comedy

One of my last booked performances (unpaid)- Austin, TX

My name is Jackson Curtin, and odds are you've never heard of me. For five years I dedicated my life to honing a craft that I loved dearly. I always had a penchant for performing; from being in terrible bands in High School, to acting in terrible short films in college. For a long time I had thought I had finally found my calling with stand up. The problem being I wasn't wrong.

Stand up didn't come easy. It was something I had to work on, a lot. Many times it was frustrating, heartbreaking, and exhausting. But one thing kept me coming back no matter what: the incomparable feeling when you get the big laugh. For a brief moment time stands still. Nothing else in the world is happening as for a nanosecond you've gotten an entire room of strangers to forget any stresses, depressions, or anxieties they have and just enjoy themselves. 

I started off in Austin for a few months before moving to Oklahoma City, where the bulk of my stand up training took place. After about 6 months in OKC I started my own showcases, usually with $5-$10 ticket prices (I always paid comics, even if it was only a few dollars, charity showcases notwithstanding). After a few years and one failed suicide attempt I was invited to tour with two other OKC comics as an alternate after another comic had to drop out due to personal responsibilities. Some of the shows we did were simply amazing, the Blue Room in Springfield or the Uptown Arts Bar in Kansas City. Some were dismal like in the perpetually foul smelling Wichita or at a small Native American Casino where a person won a jackpot in the middle of my set. During that time, I was also running a multimedia comedy website called Sad Men for Lonely Women, with contributors from comics all across the country. Then I started booking solo opener and feature acts throughout the South/Midwest. I thought I was on track to actually make a living with stand up.

At the time, 2016, I was driving a 1994 Lexus ES 300. I didn't have the money to take care of it properly. I had driven down to Austin, both to visit family and to perform in a couple unpaid showcases to network and try to work my way into some paying gigs. While I was in Austin my car broke down, and I had no way of repairing it. While staying at my sister's, I worked a part-time job at a Walgreens, and got enough money to fix my car. That took 3 months. During that time I made one trip to Colorado to perform, but had to cancel on a few shows, including a planned album recording in Kansas City, I did the occasional open mic in Austin as I shifted employment to Apple, and then to a start-up where I work now. As I kept working, I noticed that I was going back less and less frequently. And when I did, even if I had a good set, found it to be less and less fulling. At the point of this writing I haven't been on stage in some months. I'm not sure if I'll ever go back.

Things could have been easier, and I could have gone further, if I had realized a few things earlier on. These things I now pass on to you.

1. Don't let personal judgements destroy connections.

You're not going to like everyone you meeting doing stand up. It's too popular and far reaching. They may not share your ideals or viewpoints. They might be well liked by other comics despite never being well received by audiences. They may be the type of person that when they talk to you, your skin crawls. There's a million different types doing stand up, and you're going to clash with some of them. The trick is to try to not be too divisive when dealing with those people. This may seem like simple advice, but you will run into this more often than you think. Practice the art of letting things go, and not stooping to how petty others can be. Older/more established comics will notice this, and appreciate your professionalism.

2. Don't get sucked into the drama, BUT be conscious of it.

To anyone that is an outsider looking in, they may imagine the stand up community in their city is just a bunch of adults that get together to drink, laugh, and crack as many jokes as possible. Overall, this is true. But as I mentioned in the last entry, all kinds do stand up. Because of this, there are many ways tensions can rise. Add the constance of alcohol available at most shows, and I guarantee every city has their well known comedy feuds. Try to not get involved (not to say that if there is a comic that is well known to be just the worst/sexual assaulter/racist to look the other way). But also try not to put comics together that may not work well on the same showcase. Physical fights are rare, but sometimes you might be forced to act as an mediator, keeping the two separate. People will also try to get you to take sides, and that can be problematic in it's on way.

3. Network, Network, Network, Network

Once you've gotten some time under your belt (after the first couple years), branch out to other cities. Go to any city within a couple hours of driving, and do some of their open mics. Get to know the comics there. Figure out who's who, and invite them to perform at a showcase in your city. Show comics in other areas that you are serious and professional and I 100% can guarantee they will vouch for you when booking shows. 

4. Work at it, constantly.

For at least two years I did stand up four to five nights a week, as that's what was available in the OKC metro. Even then it would have been a lot better if I could have done it more. You hear of comics in LA or NYC that hit 14-20 open mics a week. That's what it takes. People need to see that you are taking it seriously if you are to ever be taken seriously.

5. Be objective of your own work.

This is probably the most difficult. I once knew a comic that went to the same Sunday open mic, week after week, for over a year. He almost never got a laugh, never had constructed material, and yet would wonder why no one booked him for a showcase. More recently I've met a comic that has been doing open mics for a few years now, and he might be the unfunniest person I have ever met. I admire the dedication, as it is obvious that he loves the craft, but at the same time it's almost infuriating as more and more it's becoming more difficult for stage time in crowded cities, even at open mics. Know when to cut material. Know when things need to be changed, listen to the audience. They will tell you what works and what doesn't.

6. If you're going out of town, make sure your transportation is reliable.

Yeah, this is one that really bit me in the ass.

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