There are a million things you learn during your first year of comedy. Some things are slow creepers you don’t notice yourself acquiring, like learning when to pause, and when to keep going, and to talk slower, and to take the mic out of the stand and own the stage. Some things hit you all at once while you’re watching others, like that your energy can change the mood of the entire show, and that you shouldn’t berate the audience for being small, or quiet, or for showing up, for fuck’s sake, and that without truly connecting with the audience, it’s impossible to have a great show. Some things will make you feel astoundingly stupid and awkward, like when you’re trying to give someone the light at the Belly Room at the Comedy Store, and instead of pulling on the string that turns on the long red halogen tube light you pull on the light itself, which shatters in your hand and forces you to host while drinking tequila and slowly bleeding into your Forever 21 blazer and lighting people with your shitty LG phone. But those things come with experience and practice, and if I could only hold on to two things I learned my first year of standup, I would choose the following: eyes on your own paper, and be a kamikaze.
When you start doing standup, especially in a huge and competitive entertainment city like Los Angeles, you meet literally hundreds of other people who are trying to succeed in the exact same way that you are. At first, it can be intoxicating and exciting, but quickly, the high can be replaced by a defeatist attitude, of viewing yourself as a tiny fish in a huge pond. Then the bitching and the anxiety starts, “I can’t believe he’s done Tiger Lily, I’ve been doing comedy like 4 months longer!! I totally killed in front of Booker Judgerson the other night, but he booked Guffaw McLaughey instead of me, that guy’s a total douche and not funny at all, ugh! Oh, well of course Ass Titsovitch got booked, she totally tongued him in the mouth at the Memorial Day BBQ!” STOP. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. You’re being a judgmental ass whose comedy will suffer because you’re paying attention to the “business” side before you’ve taken care of the creative side. The fundamental truth is, if you work hard, perform whenever you can, make things that make you laugh, you will keep getting better (assuming you’re funny to begin with). And as tempting as it is to keep comparing yourself to other comics, you aren’t helping yourself when you do it. If you’re good, you’ll get booked. It’s that simple. There are no misunderstood geniuses in laughter — either you make people laugh, or you don’t. Get good, post your projects, perform. Good things will begin to happen, I promise. And also — you don’t work at a law firm, or in finance. There’s no ladder in comedy anymore. If you do a set on Letterman, you’re not famous immediately. There are no steps, no map. You can work incredibly hard on your sketches, and have your dumb Katy Perry parody kill on YouTube instead. You could try so hard to write late night monologue jokes, but have your short story about a penis family get attention instead. But guess what isn’t going to happen? Someone handing you your own show because you’ve compared yourself to everyone in your comedy scene for 5 years straight. So, eyes on your own paper!
Secondly, stop worrying about being terrible. You will be terrible, off and on for a long time, and occasionally even after you’re good consistently. You cannot allow yourself to be affected by a bad open mic, or show. This is something I repeat to myself daily because I’m a perfectionist and a worrier and a Jew. You also cannot compromise the kind of comedy you want to do because you’re too scared to do it. My favorite joke of mine is one where I just act like a particular type of a person, the waitress Marlene. The joke is about 3 minutes. It requires people to buy into this person and to care about her. It’s a lot to ask, and a long joke to commit to. It thrives on awkward pauses, and relies on the silent moments between the laughs where the audience is holding their breath to see if the long journey I’m taking them is worth it.
It requires unbelievable trust. When I first started doing the joke, the journey was not worth it. I would get spooked by the awkward silences so much I would rush through Marlene’s monologue. I was afraid to riff, to come up with better beats, because I didn’t want to take up too much of the audience’s time. I looked and sounded uncomfortable. I still do, when I don’t fully commit to the character, and that’s when the joke doesn’t work. The audience can smell my fear. But when it kills, I feel like it’s the only truly worthy joke I tell. I have a fisting audience participation-involving joke that’s even more high-risk. When it dies, it dies in a horrifying manner that makes my face heat up on stage like a skillet — but when it lives, my God, it soars. One time it made our incredibly sweet Clark Kent of a realtor friend who says “Gosh!” cry with laughter. But when I first asked an audience at a Sunset Grill open mic, “How many of you have had one finger inside you, or put one finger inside someone?” I can assure you the response was not even close to laughter.
If you want big laughs, you have to go for what you truly think is funny, despite current “trends” and “movements” in comedy, or the kind of jokes your friends make, or what some executive tells you is selling right now. Be fearless, go for broke on stage every time, and don’t worry about sucking. Be a kamikaze.
Also, carry gum: we comedians often get bad breath. It’s just polite.
For more “Important Thinkings,” follow Sofiya on tumblr. Be sure to check out our Giggle Goddess interview with her, too!